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February 20, 2024

January 17, 2024

What Causes Mommy Brain? The Role of the Invisible Load on Forgetfulness and Brain Fog

E:
208
with
Dr. Jodi Pawluski
neuroscientist, psychotherapist and author

What You'll Learn

  • The Stereotype of “Mommy Brain” (and How to Rethink It)
  • How the Invisible Load Impacts Maternal Brain Function
  • The Science Behind Mommy Brain in Birthing and Non-Birthing Parents
  • Gender Expectations and Mommy Brain
  • The Role of Intensive Mothering Ideology
  • Reclaiming “Mommy Brain”

Moms go through a lot of changes when a baby is born. Between physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation, hormonal shifts, and the weight of new responsibilities, so many of us can relate to experiencing “mommy brain.” 

The stereotype of a forgetful mom who doesn’t seem to have it all together is present in memes and media. And there is a small grain of truth to it. Research does confirm that in some settings moms can become more forgetful. 

But why does this happen? Why do we find ourselves struggling? And why does nobody talk about “daddy brain” (despite the fact that partners go through the same brain changes after a baby is born)? 

What if mommy brain isn’t a sign that we’re just not as sharp as we once were—but a signal from our body that we’re at capacity and that we need support? 

Dr. Jodi Pawluski, neuroscientist, and author of Mommy Brain, has been conducting research and publishing papers on the maternal brain for years. She previously appeared on The Momwell Podcast to discuss what mommy brain is

This week, she joins us again to dive deeper, breaking down the factors at play behind maternal brain fog, the connection to mental health, and the role of the invisible load. 

The Stereotype of “Mommy Brain” (and How to Rethink It)

Moms often face a negative stereotype when it comes to mommy brain—as if we’re scatterbrained or dropping the ball. 

Dr. Jodi believes that the negative view of “mommy brain” doesn’t capture the picture accurately. She pointed out that the research actually shows that maternal brains are associated with beneficial behavior outcomes and better memory in the long run. 

She said that the brain does amazing things when you become a mother. So where does the stereotype come from?

The brain does amazing things when you become a mother.

Research does reflect a slight decrease in short-term memory during pregnancy or postpartum. Moms might find themselves misplacing their keys, forgetting where they parked their car, or experiencing verbal memory difficulties and a little bit of trouble finding words. But moms perform well on memory tests and other measures of brain function. 

Interestingly, in Dr. Jodi’s research, moms also scored significantly higher on paper and pencil memory tests in a lab setting than they did when those same tests were conducted in their homes. 

This points to something about the home environment triggering memory difficulties. Dr. Jodi pointed out that your brain can only function well with a certain amount of pressure or things to do. 

She believes that the mental load is likely a factor affecting brain function for moms. When you have too many things going on, your brain is likely going to choose what's most important and focus on that. 

This is likely why moms might forget little things that are less important, like our keys, rather than higher stakes items involving our children’s health and wellbeing. 

Dr. Jodi would like to see us think of parental brains in a more positive light, valuing the care work and mental load that we are navigating. We’re remembering and accomplishing so much more than we realize or give ourselves credit for. 

But we also need to think about how much we are carrying, and whether or not our expectations are reasonable. 

How the Invisible Load Impacts Maternal Brain Function

The mental load often falls to moms beginning during pregnancy, and continues to do so in the postpartum period and beyond. 

During pregnancy, we anticipate what we need for the nursery, juggle appointments, worry about what we’re eating, check in on our health, and cope with discomfort, heartburn, frequent urination, and difficulty sleeping. 

And once a baby is born, we have even more new mental tabs open. Doctor’s appointments. Milestones. Tracking food and diapers. Worrying about feeding. Anticipating baby’s health. Learning how to soothe and nurture them when they cry. Distinguishing cries and problem-solving. Navigating childcare, packing diaper bags, and remembering the sizing of clothing and diapers. 

It’s as if we’re being saddled with a new full-time job (one that only continues during the night) that we weren’t ever trained for. 

When moms bear the vast majority of this weight, on top of sleep deprivation, is it any wonder that we forget things sometimes? Perhaps the sheer load of what is expected of our brains is part of the problem. We’re at capacity, and we’re being pressured to carry even more. 

Perhaps the sheer load of what is expected of our brains is part of the problem.

There is an element of gender stereotypes and norms intertwined with these expectations, and with the very concept of mommy brain, that we need to acknowledge if we’re going to have honest conversations about it. 

Our partners often don’t receive the same pressures and expectations in parenthood. They statistically are much less likely to carry the mental load. And, if they do forget things, they aren’t stereotyped because of it. 

The Science Behind Mommy Brain in Birthing and Non-Birthing Parents

Dr. Jodi also pointed out that the research shows that non-birthing parents experience similar transitions in brain function as birthing moms. 

We often hold an ingrained belief that women are wired to be the best biological caregivers for our children. This often leads us to carry the bulk of the caregiving—after all, if we believe that we are the best-suited, we’re going to take that weight on. 

However, Dr. Jodi said that research does not reflect that concept. She said that birthing moms are somewhat biologically driven to care for children—there are changes that occur during the brain during pregnancy that help prepare us to learn how to care for our baby. But interacting with the baby is what allows the parental brain network to come online. 

In non-birthing parents, similar brain changes happen. This means that non-birthing parents need to have opportunities for nurturing and caregiving to trigger those brain changes. 

Interacting with the baby is what allows the parental brain network to come online.

So it’s not that moms are more biologically suited to soothe or be caregivers—it’s more that when other caregivers aren’t given those chances to interact with the baby, they don’t get to develop that brain circuitry. 

Dr. Jodi said that the constant interaction with a child helps you form your parental brain. It isn’t a switch that turns on when you’ve birthed a child. 

It’s important to break away from the idea that moms are the only ones suited to soothe or take care of babies, or that we carry a natural “maternal instinct” that kicks in. Not only does this make us feel like we’re failing when we, very understandably, struggle through learning feeding or soothing or distinguishing cries, but it also keeps moms trapped as the default parents. 

If it feels like we’re better at soothing the baby or feeding the baby, it’s likely more a function of experience. When we’re the ones doing it, we’re going to become more versed and practiced at it. But other caregivers develop those skills if empowered to do so.   

Gender Expectations and Mommy Brain

The concept of caregiving naturally falling to moms is something we are often taught from the time we are children. 

Young girls are often given dolls or encouraged to play house, while young boys might not be. And this pattern continues, with teenage girls babysitting or caring for other children, building caregiving skills their male peers might not have opportunities to build. 

This might mean in the postpartum period a mom knows how to change a diaper more efficiently, or how to prepare a bottle. But those are learned skills. 

Dr. Jodi said that some females are raised to be mothers—to believe that it is what they are suited for and that is the most important thing they will achieve. And while being a mother is important, it doesn’t mean you have to be the sole and only parent. 

Parenting isn’t an innate ability. It’s making mistakes, struggling, learning, and changing. 

Parenting isn’t an innate ability. It’s making mistakes, struggling, learning, and changing. 

It’s important that all partners be empowered in the home—not just so moms aren’t carrying an unreasonable proportion of the weight, but also so that our partners can build their own skills, competence, and confidence. 

The Role of Intensive Mothering Ideology

We are parenting in an unusual time of intensive mothering ideology—the belief that moms should be the primary caregivers, sacrificing themselves and devoting all of their energy and resources to their children at all times. 

This ideology leaves us always feeling like we need to be and do more. And it creates a vicious cycle that is difficult to break out of, often making us feel like we as moms should be the one available to our children—and feeling guilty if other caregivers step in.  

But Dr. Jodi pointed out that intensive mothering ideology isn’t biological. Traditionally there were a number of different adults that our children interacted with, in large communities. But we’ve moved into a nuclear family perspective—one that is often unhealthy. 

Now, we often feel conflicted or guilty if we allow other caregivers to step in, whether we’re sending our children to daycare or calling in grandparents to give us a break. However, research shows that positive relationships with multiple caregivers is actually highly beneficial to our children. 

If we can step outside of intensive mothering and what we’ve been told mothers “should” do, we can start to question the institution of motherhood. Dr. Jodi said that being a mother can be many different things. It should be a diverse role, with each of us finding a way that works for us and our family. 

Intensive mothering has been associated with maternal mental illness. Dr. Jodi pointed out that the rate of mental illness in mothers is quite shocking. And while there are many factors involved, from genetics to social factors, she believes that intensive mothering plays a role.

Perhaps perinatal mental illness is your brain telling you that you need something that you aren’t getting.

She said that perhaps perinatal mental illness is your brain telling you that you need something that you aren’t getting. Intensive mothering has us overloading our brains and not giving them sufficient time to recuperate and re-energize so they can function healthily. 

Reclaiming “Mommy Brain” 

When we take a look at the deeper issues running in the background behind our mommy brain, we can start to see that the stereotype of moms just not being “sharp” is unfair and inaccurate. 

Understanding this can help us reframe our relationship with mommy brain. If we find ourselves struggling, forgetting things, or coping with brain fog, we can ask ourselves, “Am I being unreasonably critical of myself? Are my expectations reasonable? Am I carrying too much?”

We often feel like we’re the only ones experiencing struggles in motherhood—that everyone around us is functioning fine and that we are the problem. 

But in reality, the problem is much more widespread than we realize. Dr. Jodi said that it’s not a “me issue,” it’s a society issue. 

Our brains are telling us they need something. They need more support. They need someone to take part of the load. They need some space to actually function.

So perhaps instead of pushing ourselves to “do better” or telling ourselves we should be able to remember everything, we can pause and acknowledge our needs. We can value the amazing work that we are doing. And we can give ourselves permission to share the load, ask for support, care for our mental health, and listen to what our mommy brains are trying to tell us. 

If you find yourself struggling with the weight of the mental load, working with a mom therapist can help! Book a FREE 15 minute consultation with one of our virtual therapists today.

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Tags:

Intensive mothering, Invisible load

Stage:

Postpartum, Motherhood

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OUR GUEST

Dr. Jodi Pawluski
neuroscientist, psychotherapist and author

Dr Jodi Pawluski (she/her) is a neuroscientist, psychotherapist and author. For over fifteen years Jodi has studied the neuroscience of motherhood and the effects of perinatal mental illness and antidepressant medications on the mother and developing offspring. She regularly speaks nationally and internationally about her research findings as well as the fascinating effects of parenting on the brain. In 2020 Dr. Pawluski started a podcast called Mommy Brain Revisited which focuses on bringing current research on the parental brain to the general public. She also recently published a book titled Mommy Brain: Discover the amazing power of the maternal brain.

Erica Djossa
Erica Djossa
PMH-C | Founder of Momwell
Erica is the founder of Momwell, providing educational resources and virtual therapy for moms. She is a mom of three boys and a registered psychotherapist. Erica’s work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Breakfast Television, Scary Mommy, Medium, Pop Sugar, and Romper. how they want it.
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