I used to hear the term “mommy brain” and cringe. It seemed to me a polite way of someone suggesting that women can’t have it all; you either have to be a strong, intellectual career woman without children, or a flighty, insipid stay-at-home mom who’s not capable of holding a conversation with anyone over the age of 5. I told myself that as a smart, intelligent woman, I would not let motherhood get in the way of my intellectual needs or satisfaction.
What I didn’t anticipate is how my intellect would change. Or, as I have come to realize, how very real “mommy brain” can be. While I still grimace at the phrase, I now understand the realities behind it. So much of motherhood feels like being emptied out in service of others so that we can be filled up with something greater. That “something greater” just doesn’t happen to be well-articulated thoughts or the ability to form an opinion on anything other than the most simplistic current events.
I’ve always love to think. To read. To discuss. In college, I studied English Literature and Sociology, two subjects that are basically all about reading things and then thinking and talking about them to death. I loved it. Exploring new ideas, being challenged in my assumptions, recognizing the many cultural and sociological facets in not only what we read and talk about but in the way we go about our daily lives- I found it all fascinating. And I loved to think on these things and write them down. Man, I could write. I could write and write and write and I was pretty certain it was all very good and intelligent, but at the very least, I know I was putting coherent thoughts on paper. I’m not a genius by any means, but I put a lot of value on the fact that I was smart and willing to explore new ideas, I was well-read, and I worked hard. This was as much part of who I was as anything.
When I graduated college and got on with life, this stayed with me. I found opportunities to write, I continued to be a voracious reader, I was proud that I could be quick on my toes and a problem-solver at work.
Then I had my son. I had a hard recovery from a c-section I hadn’t planned, he was a poor sleeper, not a great nurser, and motherhood was hard. I was so tired. I started back working from home and wondered why it was so gosh darn difficult. Not only was I tired, but turns out working while also caring for a newborn is basically impossible. (Can I get a “duh?”) However, after I stopped working, I felt this huge void in my life. After the initial exhaustion of the newborn phase passed, I missed having the intellectual stimulation of work. I still read a bunch of books, but had no one to talk to about them. I would sit down to write and the baby would wake up from his nap. At night, when I might talk about adult things with my husband, I was so exhausted I would just pass out on the couch. The monotony of diapers and nursing and baby talk was mind-numbing, despite how much I loved my child and loved being with him. I had to really question my commitment to staying home with him many, many times. Then another baby, another newborn phase (this time accompanied by a toddler phase!), and I could feel more of my intellectual prowess slipping away. I’d sometimes find myself talking to someone about my kids’ sleep habits or how much laundry I do, and I’d stop and think, “No! It’s a grown-up! Ask them their opinion on what’s happening in the MiddleEast! Tell them about that article you just read! ” But it all seemed so exhausting that it didn’t often happen.(This is basically what my brain feels like all the time.)
So here I am, pregnant with number three, with two small kids at home, and barely two brain cells to rub together. I find myself often staring at a page in a book wondering what I just read. Or worse, trying to think of a word that’s on the tip of my tongue and not being able to get it out. Memorably, I tried to recall a line of poetry the other day and the theme song for SuperWhy came out of my mouth. I wish I could say that I bear these indignities with grace and patience and the understanding that some day I will no longer be a sleep-deprived, hormone-addled mess, but that’s not always the case. Some days I long to have a conversation with someone about literature in which I can actually contribute something rational and intelligent. It makes it harder knowing that some people manage it, but I just can’t.
But there’s a silver lining in all this. I’ve had to come to the tough realization that I can’t be everything at all times. My brain is still my brain, despite the fact that it’s tired and geared almost entirely to my family’s needs right now. Instead of being resentful, I have to look on this as a gift. When it takes me 20 minutes to write a thank you note, where I used to spend the same amount of time to write an entire paper on some literary analysis, I can use that opportunity to accept with humility my limitations and my stage of life.
It also has shown me that while I value my intelligence, it’s not the full story of who I am. I’m not just a brain, I’m a soul. And allowing my brain a rest while I pour myself into my vocation is nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t make me any less of a strong, successful woman. Rather, it’s allowed me to make room for other aspects of myself that were always overshadowed by my analytical side. It’s allowed me to see the beauty and graces present in my everyday life more than ever before. It’s made me slow down and enjoy beautiful sunsets, sweet moments with my children, and the simple pleasures of doing a small task with love. It’s caused me to be more in tune with God’s will for me, allowing me to spend moments in quiet, when my brain is all emptied out and I can just sit and be. It’s made me small and humble and open to Christ in a way that I don’t think I would have been able to understand before. And in turn, my intellectual understanding of who I am in God’s eyes has been vastly expanded and deepened. I couldn’t have done that one my own, when I was so caught up in my own intelligence and maintaining my intellect.
I do know that, God willing, some day my mind will sharpen again and I’ll be able to laugh at the haze of early motherhood with fondness. My hope is that when I emerge from this phase I will do so with a humility and gentleness and depth of spiritual peace that reflects my experiences now. I can see this mark of motherhood on so many smart, kind, vivid women who are well past this stage of life; I can see how they’ve embraced the each season of their life with their eyes on something bigger and more important than the frustration of that word that won’t make it’s way past the tip of their tongue. So for my fellow women who are in the midst of these humbling, frustrating, maddening years with me, let’s have hope and be gentle with ourselves. Good things are happening in our hearts, even as we think we’re losing our minds.