Thursday, January 24, 2013

Calling BS on Mommy Brain

The other day one of my friends mentioned to our book club that she forgets things.  A lot.  Simple things, mostly. She meant the kinds of episodes where one marches into a room and promptly forgets what she was about to do there.

"Mommy brain!" One of our girlfriends declared, and heads around the table nodded.

I've heard of the Mommy Brain phenomenon before, of course. Some evidence exists that pregnancy can affect a woman's reaction time, memory, and critical thinking. The theory goes that hormonal changes may make a pregnant woman less reactive to certain kinds of stress, and therefore calmer and better equipped to deal with the demands of infant care.

But I haven't seen any evidence that the diversion of resources is in any way permanent beyond the immediate post-partum period. Lack of mental acuity after hormone re-equalization can, I think, be chalked up to plain old sleep deprivation and/or lack of use of critical thinking skills.

Neither of which is unique to moms.

What I think is unique to moms, or indeed women, is our willingness to admit to, and laugh publicly at, our brain freezes.

Think about it. Don't you know plenty of men who make dumb mistakes at work? Forget what they are looking for, mid-search? Fail to see items in front of their very noses? Cause minor vehicular accidents? Fail to estimate the time demands of a given task? Arrive at the check out counter with no wallet? Arrive home with no carton of milk despite being reminded thrice?

When confronted with such brain freezes, men, in my vast but unscientifically annotated observations, are far more likely than women to become angry.

In my workplace experience, when a man takes responsibility for an error, he is unlikely to blame hormones or parental status. We women, who still make 77 cents for every dollar earned by our male counterparts, should borrow this page from the male colleagues' playbook: Never offer your employer a biological, unalterable reason to think you're less capable because you have kids.

If you screw up, it's because of some logical reason or omission, not because you assume hormones have liquefied your brain. The very fact that you are working, i.e. juggling mental demands outside of child care, serves to jolt your brain into higher gear.


Because scientists are finding that the human brain is, in many ways, a use it or lose it organ. Hence,  the overwhelming evidence that those who regularly exercise the mind can often delay the onset of conditions such as Alzheimer's.

Perhaps we women need to stop saying, even in jest, that Mommy Brain is real. Harmless joking among friends stops feeling so harmless when children overhear, and, over months and years, internalize the message that Mommy isn't quite as sharp as the male adults.

It's a negative message that can stick with kids for life. Remember the well-deserved flack then-Harvard University President Lawrence Summers received when he said that women aren't as equipped as men to succeed in the sciences?

He didn't say that in a vacuum. That type of thinking, that women can't handle highly technical disciplines such as science and engineering, starts well before the university level. Ever hear that boys are good at math, girls are good at language? Of course you have.

That type of categorical thinking has caused generations of parents and teachers to steer male students one way, females another. Those children whose interests don't conform are often made to feel like outsiders.

Maybe young boys' and girls' brains do develop differently, but by the time the sexes catch up to each other across the various academic disciplines, the stereotypes are set.

Mommy Brain is just one more articulation of the not as smart, not as quick, not as capable stereotype. Let's stop indulging it.


  1. Very good points! I don't hear "Mommy Brain" ever, but friends talk easily about "pregnancy brain." Same idea!

    1. The science seems to suggest that pregnancy brain *might* be real, in the sense that all resources go to the fetus and big hormonal changes occur. To suggest though, as I've heard many women do, that motherhood inherently makes a woman dippy seems both unlikely and self-destructive.