slow brain, bursting heart

IMG_2225I 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.IMG_2205(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.

11 thoughts on “slow brain, bursting heart

  1. I jumped straight from college graduation to new motherhood. (Like he was due less than a week after I walked across the stage.) I really really tried to focus on motherhood and have that be my thing for almost a year. It was terrible. I have learned that reading and thinking about ideas is not just a section of my life – it’s a food for my life. It seems to just be how I’m wired.

    Those times when I’m having a hard time completing a train of thought are pretty much always because I’m trying to do too many things at this one moment. When I do that, everything suffers.

    Starting an Endow group was one of the best choices I made. It was a time set aside for talking about big Catholic stuff with other women for two hours every week. And there was no homework! No stressing about getting the reading in and then forgetting the details when meeting time came! It was my reintroduction to being a mom and a nerd in same season of life.

    1. Love the Endow group idea. It reminds me of a funny experience I had a few years back. I started a bible study in our Mothers with Young Children group, and interest was basically nada. On a whim, I changed the name to a “faith-sharing group” and emphasized that there was nothing to prepare ahead of time and no need to worry about not contributing to any deep biblical analysis. All of a sudden there was interest. I found it so interesting, because it was the exact same group and format, but I realized that lots of women felt like I did- mentally tapped out and feeling sort of bad about it. We wound up having lots of lovely, intelligent discussions, but only once we took the pressure off ourselves and each other. It think that is key! Anyway, I’m going to look into Endow, because it sounds fantastic!

  2. I feel like we live such parallel lives. It would be so lovely to spend time with you and your kids if I didn’t live 15+ hours away. I do so enjoy reading your blog and hearing about your little corner of the world, especially since my little corner of the world feels so similar. Here’s to three four and under, surprising c-sections followed by healing vbacs, growing little hearts and minds, homeschooling, and mushy brains but full hearts! Be well, friend, and blessings in your final week(s) of pregnancy.

    1. I know it! Well, you never know, maybe some day we’ll find ourselves in the same area! In the meantime, its so fun to be able to follow along with your sweet family on FB- my heart totally melted when I saw pics of your sweet little one last week. What a beautiful family you have! Let’s chat homeschooling some time soon- I’d love to hear about your plans!

  3. It’s like reading my own story 🙂
    I remember, after couple of months having my first, we had my brother-in-law for dinner. After meal he suggested to play the memory game “cities” (that’s a Russian game: one says Rome for example and other player must follow up as quick as it gets and think of a city, which starts with E, last letter in Rome). Horrors! I could not follow up, I just couldn’t remember any cities that quick. I bursted into tears and my husband could hardly calm me down, I felt so stupid.
    I used to be the best at that game and Geography in general.

    Now that I am holding my two months old (third baby already) and two others run around like hurricanes, I sure feel frazzled, but as you say beautifully, we’re not only brains but souls too. Thanks for reminding this, I needed to read your post really to overcome my post-intelligence pride 😀
    Be well and healthy. Hope it all goes smooth and easy! Third time usually is really quick and good 🙂

    1. “Post-intelligence pride”! You nailed it! I have a bad case of it myself some days. And I’ve totally started crying because I just CAN’T remember something I know I should. Between a foggy brain and hormones, it’s a recipe for meltdowns!

  4. I feel this, too. I try to notice the ways my mind has become more flexible, doing things I always admired the older mothers around me for: picking up things to put away as I leave the room, constructing a meal out of a mostly bare pantry, rearranging our whole schedule on a dime when naps take an unexpected turn. It’s not memorizing chunks of Paradise Lost, but it’s not nothing. (And I’m really good at reading while nursing!)

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