If I wasn’t a person with unusually high self-control who tends toward over-thinking and extreme caution, I’m quite sure I would have left my husband or at least be cheating on him by now, and my only excuse would be “baby brain.”
What is “baby brain?” Before having children, I would often hear new moms referring to “baby brain,” mostly when they were forgetful. I read that mothers actually lose brain cells in the more logical, memory –oriented parts of the brain and gain them in areas related to emotion and instinct during pregnancy. But it wasn’t until after my babies were born and I was well into severe sleep disruption that I had my first full-scale encounter with “baby brain.” For me it was an awkward sense of being unable to think. The only comparison I can make is with feeling like you can’t breathe. It is only when we feel short of breath for some reason that you are suddenly aware of trying to breath. I would have the distinct sensation of having to actually try to think, usually with poor results.
It was particularly apparent in the area of memory. I could only hold onto a thought for a few seconds, and then it would just be gone. I would be aware of some mental empty space, but I just couldn’t get it back. I would think, ‘I need to clean the bottles.’ I would lose it. Then I would go through the same mental process I had just gone through in the first place. The babies are crying, it’s feeding time, they must be hungry, there are no clean bottles, I need to clean the bottles. Then I would lose it again and start all over.
For months I blamed this on the cognitive deficits that have been well documented in the sleep deprived. Adequate periods of REM sleep are required for the brain to function optimally, and I was sleeping 2-3 hours at a time.
At the end of that sleep deprivation period, I felt my first urge to make a grave error in judgment. All of a sudden it came over me – the powerful, undeniable urge to buy a house in the town where I grew up (a place I would normally NEVER want to live). I took it so far, we were under contract before my husband sat me down and got it through my head that we couldn’t afford it. A few months later the whole incident felt utterly surreal. I could no longer understand those powerful feelings that left me driving around in tears looking at houses I couldn’t buy while my babies napped in the back seat.
It is now just about a year later, and aside from some temporary bouts of insomnia, my sleep is normal, but my brain is most certainly not. There was the sex-crazed phase in the fall when I became super-horny. I then decided I could no longer stand being in the closet, and needed to out myself as a pansexual. Urges to make grave errors in judgment also continued, including the very strong desire to respond to my husband’s and my marital stress by having an affair with a woman. In my defense, I did become pregnant again four months ago and miscarried, so my brain has been hit by a double whammy.
So what the heck is going on up there anyway? Sometimes I think they should make public service commercials to warn women. “This is your brain… This is your brain on hormones.” For me the hormones were like some kind of trippy drug that exaggerates everything. That combined with having been cooped up for so long, first going through a nightmare infertility situation, then pregnancy with twins, bed rest, and childbirth. All those parts of me that had been hiding out, de-prioritized while all my energy was focused on trying to make my kids, and then trying to keep them alive, were suddenly screaming, ‘Hey, I’m still here!’ Take that cooped up brain and bath it in a cocktail of sexually-charged, impulsivity-driven hormones! By the time my babies were born I was like a caged animal ready to claw her way toward a martini and a hot piece of ass.
These are the things they don’t tell you. And it looks different for every mom. Some have no sex drive at all but experience a burning desire to become a scuba instructor. Some decide it’s time to follow their lifelong dream of riding motorcycles, or obtaining multiple tattoos. I’m not saying these urges aren’t real, (I certainly take seriously my desire to be out of the closet), but they are, at the very least, heightened. How can I be sure whether a given hormone surge is a good trip or a bad one! I feel all I can do is use caution and wait until I’m certain my brain is back to “normal” before making any sudden moves.
For most moms though, from what I have witnessed, the most dramatic aspects of baby brain, those that might entice us to cheat on our husbands, embezzle money, becomes strippers, etc., go deep underground. I don’t believe new moms lose their identities simply because they are so wrapped up in their babies. I think giving up our identities is a reaction to the frightening degree to which our selves are screaming for attention, louder than ever. Already feeling neglected by the time our babies are born, and driven like motors by brains bathed in hormones, sleep deprived, and perhaps having shifted around some key neurons from the logical to the emotional arena, our brains are screaming for us to be wild. The screaming is just as loud as the screaming for us to pro-create (screaming that for many of us became deafening somewhere after age 30 to the point where we would have flushed our doctoral degrees down the toilet and eaten our left arms to get pregnant). The same brains that made us crazy with the desire to parent are now making us crazy with the desire to be everything else we are!
Armed with being an extremely anal, over-controlled person, I found myself able to dabble in real estate transactions and hang out at gay bars fantasizing about lesbian affairs with relative confidence that I wouldn’t do anything I really can’t reverse. My guess is a lot of other women, who perhaps allow themselves healthier levels of personal freedom, fear these impulses so much that they drown themselves out all together becoming ultra focused on the their babies. This prevents any problematic mischief from occurring, and has the added benefit of helping us fit the societal image of the devoted mother who is in a state of complete bliss in early motherhood. Thus, we can squelch temptation at a time when society is telling us we should be desperate to rock our babies to sleep, not desperate to run out of the house dressed like a hooker with a flask hidden in our bang-me boots.
There is one aspect of baby brain I have not yet touched upon. Dissociation is a clinical term related to trauma. When human beings experience trauma, in order to protect ourselves, we split ourselves emotionally into different parts. The most extreme example would be someone who actually develops alternate personalities that do not remember the trauma. More simply, anytime you realize you’ve arrived at your destination without having been conscious of the drive there you are dissociating. In essence one part of the brain does not know what other parts are doing.
Let’s be real people, motherhood is traumatizing. Yes, it’s natural, the most natural thing in the world. And yes, it’s traumatizing. Ask women to tell the stories of their attempts to get pregnant, their pregnancies, their birth experiences, and the first year with newborns. Find me the woman who doesn’t relay a single traumatic event. Then there are the intense feelings and images from our own childhoods that come flooding back in ways we may or may not be aware of. Finally, simply becoming a mother is a traumatic assault on the self. Having our lives go from all about us, to all about another being is a massive, jarring alteration of consciousness that even the healthiest among us will be utterly thrown by.
Further, we are offered no cultural context or preparation for this assault on the self. As we look around, we see other mothers denying, whether consciously or unconsciously, that they are experiencing trauma. For some, the denial is blatant. They are experiencing postpartum depression, their marriage is falling apart, they have urges to hit their children, they scream and lose patience, but they show up at play-dates appearing totally fine and together.
For others, the denial is hidden, even to themselves. They no longer experience a self, thus shielding themselves from the trauma of losing it. That part of them has been split off, dissociated, and all that is left is the devoted mother part. These are the mothers who offer the biggest mind-fuck to those poor fools among us who are actually painfully aware of how fucked up we really are right now! But these women’s selves will re-emerge, and they will do so with a vengeance. We can only go underground for so long, and imagine the trauma of realizing one has been keeping herself in captivity for one, five, ten, or even twenty years!
So what’s a girl to do? I used to joke that I wished there was a pill to turn off that insanely powerful part of my brain that suddenly, at 32, informed me that having children, something I’d never wanted, was the most important thing to do in my life. But there is no pill. Our brains are sophisticated and complex, but ultimately ruled by instinct. It is that same survival instinct which makes our neglected selves run wild after the brain finally gets that baby it so desperately desires. After all, we need that self to be strong and healthy in order to help our babies thrive.
The best we can do is be real with each other. Let’s be real so that those women whose brains can’t think about anything but baby understand what they are signing on for. Let’s normalize that “baby brain” is more than just a little forgetfulness. It is feelings of depression, or wanting to flee, or almost making, or sometimes actually making grave errors in judgment. Let’s normalize thinking 30 times “I need to make the bottles” but never actually doing it. Dissociation means literally one part of the brain can’t communicate with another. Let’s tell each other the truth about messing up with our kids and having to go back and weed out what part of our own baggage made us do it. Because facing our demons, admitting we are flawed and trying again and again to do better… that is parenting.
If there was space in our cultural and in our collective consciousness for selves that are traumatized, battered, confused, bewildered, and also perhaps more passionate and creative than ever, perhaps we could free those women who have gone underground. Perhaps we could all find a little more balance.
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