By Nicole Graev Lipson
I waited in the bookstore with my three-month-old daughter, flipping through board books to keep her from fussing. Finally, Theresa, a new mom acquaintance, arrived with her stroller, flushed and winded. She apologized profusely, explaining she’d left home without her diaper bag: “I’m forgetting everything these days! You know…mommy brain.”
I’d never heard this expression, and I loved it. It perfectly captured my experience of new motherhood—the upended routines, the sleeplessness, the skittering of my attention from one urgent task to another. Amid this frenzy, my mind, too, often felt discombobulated. Now I had a name for this feeling, and a catchy one!
“Mommy brain” quickly became part of my vocabulary. If I left out an ingredient: mommy brain! When I forgot to return a call: mommy brain! My new mom friends nodded in vigorous camaraderie, easing my aching loneliness. I might be spending most of my hours on my couch with a wordless creature, but I had company out there. We “mommies” were a tribe, and I was one of its members.
While the daily trials of life with a newborn are now a distant memory, I remember viscerally what was, for me, the central challenge of new motherhood: learning what it meant to be a mother.
Many aspects of motherhood aren’t exactly learned—they simply rise up, like water in a well. When I first held my daughter, damp and blinking, I understood that my world’s gravitational center had shifted. When I ran my palm over her fuzzy head or breathed in her bready scent, I understood that I’d forever protect her with a fierceness I hadn’t known I was capable of.
Soon, I mastered other aspects of motherhood too: the alchemy of mixing baby cereal, the presto magic of folding an umbrella stroller. Did these skills make me a real mother? Because part of me couldn’t believe this was what I was. For 33 years I was not at all a mother. Then suddenly, one Wednesday afternoon, I fully was.
Further complicating things, when my husband headed to work each morning, I now kissed him goodbye, baby on hip, in a dynamic troublingly similar to an archetypal 1950’s marriage. Where were my colleagues? Where was the driven and worldly person I used to be? I longed to feel comfortable in my new identity.
If this meant attending baby yoga classes, I was on it. If it meant joining my local mothers’ listserv, great. And if it meant bonding with new acquaintances over my “mommy brain,” with its pinball machine chaos, then bond I would.
Over time, though, my love for the term “mommy brain” began to sour. Once a delicious password, it fell flat in my mouth, like old cardboard. If I heard it, I’d get annoyed. For starters, it had lost all its freshness and wit, exposing its staleness. But more problematic, instead of an expressway to kinship, it now felt like a roadblock—a symbol of all the roadblocks we as women put up to keep our truths from each other.
Why had I missed my Strollerfit workout class? It wasn’t because of mommy brain, but because my post-baby flesh filled me with shame each time I pulled on exercise clothes. And the real reason I was late to toddler music? Because being there made me panic that my education and career had somehow landed me on a sticky mat in a windowless suburban rec center, shaking a tiny maraca.
Behind every “mommy brain” story, there’s a fuller picture. What if we freely expressed these stories instead of characterizing ourselves as a cliché? And the “mommy brain” cliché isn’t harmless. Bonding with another woman over your “mommy brains” is like bonding over how fat your asses look in jeans. Why is self-denigration women’s default way of tapping on the window of each other’s hearts?
This tendency is particularly disturbing given everything today’s mothers take on and accomplish. When I think about some of the real mommy brains I know, I’m humbled. There’s my friend Marian, an ER doctor who tucks in her three kids and heads off into the night to begin her shift. My friend Katie, a stay-at-home mother who parents her autistic daughter with deeper resolve than she ever felt practicing law. My friend Lisa, who amid periods of wrecking depression, raised a profoundly empathic son.
There are fathers out there who also perform similar feats. They might inadvertently leave a sippy cup in the car or arrive late to a birthday party. But I’ve never heard any of them described as having a “daddy brain.” In fact, I’ve never heard anyone refer to my husband as “Daddy” other than our children, whereas when I’m with my kids, I’m routinely called “Mommy” or “Mom” even by total strangers. This public identity shift is just one example of how women, but not men, are reduced and flattened when they become parents—and in the case of the term “mommy brain,” how they are also disparaged.
In the frenzy of parenting three children, I do, at times, slip up. My mind can feel like a room ransacked, littered with toys and thermoses. But I no longer chalk up these mistakes to some internal malfunction. So many, I now see, stem from something far beyond my neural pathways: the impossible demands of modern motherhood.
Nicole Graev Lipson is an essayist and journalist who writes frequently about motherhood. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with her husband and three children, who are always stretching her brain in surprising ways. Connect with her and learn more about her work at https://nicolegraevlipson.
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