The Unlikely Gift of Mom Brain

I was standing at a baby shower when I first heard the term “baby brain” or “mom brain.” Someone said that she kept forgetting things during her pregnancy and blamed it on her baby brain.

I was offended. I was a few months from being pregnant myself but I knew that when I became a mom, I would not lose my brain. I wouldn’t blame my forgetfulness or mental lapses on the baby or on my new role. (You probably know where this is going).

Four years later, more than my pre-baby body or pre-baby life, I miss my pre-baby brain. I feel it when I’m writing and can’t remember where I was going with an idea or when I forget a word (or even, to my husband’s infinite surprise, the end of a sentence). I feel it when I can’t remember what month it is (or find I’ve been thinking it is still March for a full week of May). I often have to ask, “Did that happen this week or last week?” And I almost always leave a conversation thinking of all the things I should have said, the questions I meant to ask, hoping I didn’t offend.

Often my mind seems incongruous with the measured world that goes on around me.

It’s sleep deprivation for sure. But it’s also the fatigue of the “always-on mind”—the fact that I’m constantly watching for danger (is that stool too high?) and planning our days (will this nap ruin bedtime?) and trying to hold a tiny world together (what IS for dinner tonight, and do I still have garlic?). My mind is constantly busy, even in the middle of the night (is it worth getting out of bed to move the clothes to the dryer?).

My mental lapses make me feel hopeless, frustrated, and out of touch. There seems to be too much to hold together, and my brain is not enough.

Typically when we are weak in one area, we are strong in another. So recently I started looking for the blessings of this mind remade.

And they are myriad.

My mom brain has allowed me to leave the rigid channels that have shaped my mind for so long and enter into the present better than I ever have before.

I may not remember where my thought was going, but suddenly I notice that the green and  purple sparkle in the bubbles we are blowing is also the sun-given sheen in my littlest’s hair. I feel startled by all that I don’t know and long (just as my baby does) to know the names of trees and flowers and birds. I notice the knowing quality of the afternoon light and wonder (with my son) where that train is going. I'm rediscovering wonder.

My mind also benefits from patches of time to think and daydream as we splash pebbles into a creek or amble to the playground. I watch my mind and where it wanders, amazed by the shape of a subconscious.

I’m more gracious and giving with others, viewing chitchat with a stranger as a gift (even if I incorrectly state how many months old my son is). Because I know the limits of my memory, I now only  make promises I can keep. Yes, I forget things (mostly what I’m doing in a room). But for some reason, I now remember birthdays all day long because those are the things that mark our rather ordinary, similar days.

Mom brain also means I’m learning to gently accept my emotions rather than pretending they don’t exist because I’m constantly helping my sons do the same. This, perhaps, takes away brain power from holding a cogent thought, but maybe cogent thoughts are not always the goal.

And I’m writing more (for how else can I remember the ideas that flit here and there). And yes, sometimes I forget where I put these scraps of paper (or what the messy handwriting means), but I find that the important ideas come back, and come back stronger and fuller.

To borrow a metaphor from Natalie Goldberg, my brain is rich compost, a constant, ongoing process. Do I sense this mom brain as a dry, barren pile of dirt (too often, the answer is "yes!"). Or do I smell the richness and see the vivid colors and the little earthworms at work?

I used to live in prose—in complete sentences and full stops, but now I’m living poetry, a word that in the Greek means, “I create.”  In many ways, I’ve traded an ordered mind for a creative one (though aren’t the two inextricably linked from the beginning of Creation anyway?).

As Mary Oliver says,

“Neither is it possible to control, or regulate, the machinery of creativity. One must work with the creative powers—for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place.”

Maybe I’m becoming a better writer as I'm becoming more present. Mother animals are fierce and sharp due to how in-tune they are with their surroundings. Perhaps I am the same way. Though I’ve lost my laser-like focus (and the solitude it required), I’ve gained a mind that is less controlled but maybe more whole.

I’m learning to lean into this soft compost heap that my mind has become. Control and rigidity is not the answer. If I long for my mind’s previous abilities, I grow resentful. I’m learning to embrace the gift of this mom brain, to see the beauty of a mind that is trying to be always present, always “on.”

Mom Brain means I have moments where I wonder whether I forgot to pay a bill (I usually didn’t) or got the time of the event right (I usually did). Sometimes it even means forgetting how to spell a word I used to know.

But it also means a newfound ability to live a more joyful and giving life. It means novel ideas and funny quotes typed hastily into my phone. It means trying new creative exercises like watercolor or clay right alongside my sons. It means learning to accept my own imperfections and forgetfulness.

More importantly, my new, always-on mind is more in tuned to prayer—to little prayers whispered here or there.

My own limitations and forgetfulness have made me notice God’s mercies more. I’m amazed that he never slumbers or sleeps as he watches over us day and night. And I see this mom brain as another of God’s mercies—giving me a gift even in the midst of my own giving.