Do you ever walk into a room and forget why you’re there? Do you ever find yourself staring blankly at the fridge, wondering why you opened it? Are you constantly calling your kids the wrong names? Is it low iron? Lack of sleep? Early-onset dementia? Well, if you’re a young mother, you can easily blame your ditzy moments on the widely popular condition known as “mommy brain.”
“I used to have functioning brain cells, but I traded them in for children.” Jokingly dubbed “mommy brain” or “momnesia,” many women experience increased forgetfulness, lack of focus and dulled cognitive abilities that begin during pregnancy and continue throughout the years of mothering young children. What’s really going on here? Is there any scientific basis for mommy brain, or is it just a social construct perpetuated by over-worked, sleep-deprived mamas who buckle a bit from the many directions in which they are being pulled?
Get Some Zzzzzzzs
It’s no surprise that most fingers point to sleep as the leading culprit of mommy brain. Studies link sleep issues with decreased intellectual ability, citing that women who slept less than five hours a day scored lower on cognitive tests than women who slept seven hours a day. A decrease in sleep over an extended period can have a detrimental effect on complex brain functions that control abilities like organizing information, multi-tasking, and planning. However, these studies were not specific to post-partum or pregnant women; sleep is important to everyone’s health, at all ages and stages of life.
Is There More to Mommy Brain Than Just Being Tired?
Perhaps hormones are the root cause for mommy mishaps? During pregnancy, and throughout the post partum period, women experience a boost in the steroid hormones like cortisol and estradiol, which are vital for the fetus to develop and for the new mother to endure the rigors of childbirth as well as meet the demands of her new baby. However, these same hormones have been proven to dull cognitive ability. Jens Pruessner, director of the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging, explains that “Cortisol is our major stress hormone, so it provides you with energy to cope with any increase in demand or any threat at hand, which is a good thing […] But at the same time, it shuts down the areas in your brain that would allow you to think more clearly.”
Additionally, cortisol is intertwined with sleep patterns; the hormone shoots up every time you wake up, which can be quite often for a new mother. If disrupted sleep causes a spike in cortisol levels, which in turn weakens brain functioning, it seems like we’re back to where we started. Does it all just boil down to sleep? “To stave off the potentially damaging effects of too much cortisol, make sleep a priority […] Try and get back to a normal sleep-wake pattern with a sufficient amount of sleep that would allow your system to recover from the stresses that occur during the day,” says Pruessner.
Still, blaming mommy brain on sleep deprivation seems like somewhat of a cop-out. There are doctors and first responders on call who are frequently woken up in the middle of the night to handle emergency situations, but there is thankfully no such phenomenon as “doctor brain” or “medic brain”. Lehavdil, we’ve all heard stories about gedolei Yisroel who sleep very little and their minds remain sharp and quick. And, to be fair, let’s consider all of the fathers who are pitching in during the wee hours of the night to care for a baby. No other group that experiences shortened or disrupted sleep is singled out in the same way that mothers are. What is it that makes mommy brain unique?
Slightly Cloudy With a Chance of Brain Fog
If we were to look in a different direction for the roots of mommy brain, an obvious avenue would be nursing. In Louanne Brizendine MD’s book The Female Brain, she addresses the connection between nursing and mental agility:
“…one down side of [nursing] can be a lack of mental focus. Although a fuzzy brained state is pretty common after giving birth, [nursing] can heighten and prolong this mellow… unfocused state…the parts of the brain responsible for focus and concentration are preoccupied with protecting and tracking the newborn.”
The main hormone at play during nursing is oxytocin, otherwise known as “the love hormone”. Released in large doses at birth and throughout the nursing relationship, oxytocin is the hormone that bonds a mother to her baby. Nursing triggers a surge of oxytocin combined with dopamine which transitions the brain into pleasure mode, fostering feelings of peacefulness and relaxation. Yet, the flipside of oxytocin is that the brain moves away from critical, judgmental thinking and goes to a more positive, emotional place. (Interestingly, this hormone is also present in large numbers in the brain when falling in love.) However, this blissful oxytocin high can create the brain fog that many nursing mothers complain about.
What are people saying about #MommyBrain?
- When you go to the grocery store and get everything but what you went for.
- When you open the dishwasher to get your kids’ food out after hearing the microwave beep.
- I cut up a watermelon and put it in Tupperware. Later I looked to find it in the fridge, no luck. Just found it in the Tupperware cupboard.
- Is it just me or do all mommas say dipes and wipers sometimes?
- Wait, what? I just found my KEYS in the fridge here at work. I wasn’t even looking for them! Figures.
- Accidentally licked a tiny glob of soap off my finger thinking it was yogurt.
- Cleaned out the fridge and tossed all of the food that expired Feb 25. Felt productive then realized it’s not March.
- I just told my son “sit down and come here.”
- I went to create a reminder for myself on my phone, and literally could not remember what I wanted to remind myself of.
- I once put a baby bottle nipple back on the milk jug and put it all in a kitchen cabinet.
- I just shushed my baby and told him he was going to wake up the baby!
It’s All in Your Head
Although we can’t dismiss the scientific link between motherhood and brain changes, let us consider for a moment the possibility that mommy brain has become a big fat societal excuse for any lack of performance on the part of a woman with children. Has “momnesia” morphed into a self-imposed expectation, in which women perceive their own lack based on the ubiquitous stereotype?
A 2010 study compared cognitive test results of two separate groups of pregnant women. One group was fed negative expectations about mommy brain and the other wasn’t. Unsurprisingly, the first group performed worse than their counterparts. Social psychology describes this tendency as “stereotype threat” in which a group underperforms because of a negative stereotype — this has been the case with black students scoring low on the SAT’s and young girls acting as if they are poor math students.
It’s interesting to note that the concept of mommy brain is relatively new. Though the connection between pregnancy and cognitive impairment had been discussed and researched beforehand, the term mommy brain only emerged in the 1960’s. Katherine Tombeau Cost, a psychology post-doc student at University of Toronto, notes that mommy brain surfaced at “the very moment white middle-class mothers entered the workplace in large numbers.” Cost’s 2011 research corroborated the hypothesis that mommy brain is no more than a social construct. In a series of memory tests taken by both pregnant and non-pregnant women, the results showed no difference. However, there was one big caveat: if the woman took the test at home, instead of in the lab, her results were significantly worse. In fact, one woman was eventually excluded from the study because she brought her child with her to the lab and was unable to complete the memory tasks, though the results of what she did finish were poor. Could mommy brain just be a euphemism for distraction?
A more cynical view points to mommy brain as an enabler to female workplace discrimination. In a 2016 article entitled “Is ‘Mommy Brain’ Real?” Britt Peterson rants about the unfair portrayal of mothers:
Would you tell a man who complained of severe memory loss that he was “just a young father,” or explain that a certain condition would make him “feel like a ditz”? Pregnant women and mothers are routinely discriminated against in the workplace, in direct contrast with fathers, who are awarded the “fatherhood bonus” (…): [They are]hired more often and paid better after they have children. The notion that mothers’ brains somehow get squishier, that they’re “airheads” who can’t find their keys on the way out the door, clearly isn’t helping.
Mommy Brain = Better Brain
The most fascinating thread in the conversation about mommy brain turns the phrase on its head. Newer research suggests that pregnancy and motherhood improve brain function. Groundbreaking research by Craig Kinsely, PhD in 2010 shows that the brain actually grows post partum:
“Exploratory research… found that the brains of new mothers bulked up in areas linked to motivation and behavior… A comparison of images taken two to four weeks and three to four months after [new mothers] gave birth showed that gray matter volume increased by a small but significant amount in various parts of the brain. In adults, gray matter volume doesn’t ordinarily change over a few months without significant learning, brain injury or illness, or major environmental change.”
Maternal brain researcher Pilyoung Kim notes the specific brain changes that occur to mothers: “Growth in brain regions involved in emotion regulation, empathy-related regions, but also what we call maternal motivation […] there’s an enormous desire to take care of their own child.” Brain researcher at Bar Ilan University, Ruth Feldman, echoes that, “At the brain level, the networks that become especially sensitized are those that involve vigilance and social salience — the amygdala — as well as dopamine networks that incentivize prioritizing the infant. The amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for memory and emotions, is where new moms experience post partum brain growth.”
Adrianne LaFrance explains:
“[A]n enhanced amygdala makes her hypersensitive to her baby’s needs — while a cocktail of hormones, which find more receptors in a larger amygdala, help create a positive feedback loop to motivate mothering behaviors. Just by staring at her baby, the reward centers of a mother’s brain will light up, scientists have found in several studies. This maternal brain circuitry influences the syrupy way a mother speaks to her baby, how attentive she is, even the affection she feels for her baby.”
A 2011 study substantiates these claims. Comparing the brain response of a mother looking at a picture of her own baby smiling versus another baby smiling, they found bolder brain responses specifically in the amygdala and the thalamus when she gazed at her own child.” In other words, embedded within the reshaped post partum brain is a self-perpetuating incentive cycle in which a mother is motivated to care for her baby and receives positive reinforcement when she does.
Yet, as we continue to delve into the brain and hormonal changes that claim to make moms smarter, the plot thickens. Oxytocin, the very hormone blamed for producing brain fog for nursing mothers, is touted in other literature as boosting sensitivity and maternal instinct. Kim underscores the confusion, “[Nursing] mothers show a greater level of [brain] responses to baby’s cry compared with formula-feeding mothers in the first month postpartum; [i]t’s just really interesting. We don’t know if it’s the act of breastfeeding or the oxytocin or any other factor.” What we do know, as LaFrance puts it, is that “the act of simply caring for one’s baby forges new neural pathways—undiscovered rooms in the parental brain.”
Embracing Mommy Brain
In her book, Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, Katherine Ellison seeks to uproot the ditzy mom stigma, arguing that motherhood increases a woman’s perception, efficiency, resiliency, motivation and emotional intelligence. True, many mothers feel frazzled from the toll their demanding lives take on their brain. Full disclosure, I’m the proud mommy of a beautiful two-month-old baby girl, so I represent the exact demographic in question. Yet if we, as mothers, take a moment to quiet the incessant to-do list that runs through our minds, we can consider the maturity and wisdom we’ve gained from our sacred role.
The science and pop psychology of mommy brain is interesting, but if we turn to Torah sources we can see the real meaning of mommy brain. Look no further than Aishes Chayil for the embodiment of a super-multitasking mom who works outside of the home and expertly tends to the needs of her household. The responsibilities and distractions of motherhood and the tensions of the work-life balance have not dulled her intellect. “She opens her mouth with wisdom… Many daughters have amassed achievement, but you surpassed them all…a G-d fearing woman – she should be praised” (Proverbs 31:17-28). May we all merit to develop the ultimate mommy brain by becoming true N’shei Chayil!