Suffolk: Does a woman lose her brain when she has children?
10:30 23 March 2014
Georgie Russell says she has developed ‘brain fog’ since having children, we ask other mums how they overcome baby brain.
My singing teacher at school told me that my voice was a muscle: use it, or lose it. And during my 20s, I proved her right. Without the obligatory school assemblies, choir practises and Take That impersonations, I hardly sang a note. On the rare occasions I did find myself in church for a wedding, the high notes may as well have been mountain summits. Since having my two children however, I now sing more than I breathe. Not a car journey passes by without a rendition of Two Little Speckled Frogs. I sing lullabies, nursery rhymes, children’s TV theme tunes and do a mean Mary Poppins and I now believe (perhaps misguidedly) that X-Factor glory is a mere audition tape away.
As one body part has made a comeback however, another has fallen into decline: my brain. Realisation only hit at Christmas when I was sitting back to survey presents and there were... no books.
I love reading. I did a degree in English literature. I am a journalist. Curling up on Boxing Day with a good read is as important a part of Christmas for me as turkey and stockings. Yet this year all I got was an assortment of scented candles, soap and hand cream. Lovely gifts, but it was alarming to think I was no longer perceived as someone who wants to (or has time to) read.
Most mothers expect an element of brain fog during the early years of having children. The sleep deprivation alone is enough to corrupt even the most capable of us.
At my most tired, following the birth of my daughter, my husband caught me walking down the stairs cradling an imaginary baby, while she slept soundly in her cot.
One of my friends bravely hosted a family lunch party as a new mum and as her guests tucked into her white chocolate and raspberry Swiss roll, she discovered, to her horror, that it was smothered with garlic mayonnaise instead of whipped cream.
As much as we laugh about such “nappy brain” incidents, we assume that as our children enter toddlerhood, and the broken nights become fewer, the fog will lift. Yet, only yesterday, I searched fruitlessly for my handbag, only to discover I had left it at my husband’s grandmother’s house the day before. It had remained undetected on the gravel of her driveway overnight.
I still rely heavily on caffeine and calories for any form of brain function: talking, listening, concentrating. Without it, my brain remains mothballed.
I find it hard to make decisions, almost impossible to hold on to a clear line of thought and my mental arithmetic is embarrassingly poor. I used to be able to divide a restaurant bill or work out how long to cook a joint by doing a quick sum in my head. Now my brain clunks its way through the process like a rusty old engine.
My singing teacher was right: I am not using my brain and I am losing it. The problem is, I can get away with it. To be a good mother I need patience, love, energy, efficiency – all things I can tap into without an inquiring mind. In fact, when faced yet again with a mountain of ironing or a dirty bathroom, an active brain can be a hindrance. Just put me into autopilot and let me get on with it.
The psychologist, Dr Laura Glynn, says one of the benefits of a “pregnancy brain” is it blots out distractions, keeps you focused on the job at hand, and results in a more sensitive and effective mother.
When you are the primary carer of children it is your job to play second fiddle. You are the stage-hand, dressed in black, running around putting the scenery in place for the cast before the lights go up. It is a crucial part and one I am proud to play. But surely I am not ready to give up the spotlight altogether?
I have noticed that when mothers with older children begin to find themselves with more time on their hands, they start turning up at the school gates in lycra. They bounce up and down in new trainers, visibly excited that for the first time in years they’re doing something for themselves. It makes the rest of us feel lousy but they’re on to something. A work-out is in order; not just a physical one but a mental one too. I have a lovely black Labrador and there is no doubt that striding across the fields behind my cottage in south west Suffolk clears my head. However, the effects are short term before the fog descends again. I can see now that I need to exercise my grey matter beyond Peppa Pig. I need to read a newspaper again, formulate opinions and have conversations about something other than my cherubs. I could easily fill my days twice over with chores but it is up to me to make time for brain-ercise. Use it, or lose it.
It seems my chances of success rely heavily upon more sleep. Research linking sleep deprivation and diminishing brain function can be found at the click of a mouse. Interrupted sleep over long periods of time causes cognitive difficulties…fact. My husband used to be in the Army and during one of his sleep-deprivation exercises, a fellow recruit started running around chasing imaginary pheasants. Sleep deprivation is mentioned in the Geneva Convention as a form of torture. It is not good for you. Yet, night after night I deny myself the recommended eight hours by faffing around, enjoying what I see as well-earned grown-up time. I rarely have to tend to the children in the night any more so there really is no excuse. I need to put the Pinot Grigio back in the fridge, turn off the telly, abandon the ironing board and go to bed.
And on the subject of wine, there is going to be a little bit less of that in future too. Woodbridge nutritionist, Nicola Seabrook, tells me the key to clear thinking is good blood sugar control. “Everything in moderation”. So I’m to steer clear of the caffeine binges and super-size sugary snacks that powered me through the baby years too. From now on it is going to be lower highs and higher lows: a more balanced nutrient-dense approach, topped off with what Nicola calls a “good quality” fish oil supplement, and lots of water. There needs to be a little less autopilot and a lot more moments of calm in my day: breaking my usual mental-multi-tasking hell and allowing myself to breathe.
I know it is perfectly possible to be both queen of one’s castle and the beholder of an able mind. I see it every week when I visit the grandmother-in-law whose driveway so kindly minded my bag.
At 92, she remains as sharp as a pin. She has raised four children, continues to run her house and garden, reads the newspaper every day, completes the crossword with ease and takes no prisoners from her memory when challenging it to recollect a place, name or fact. Without her discipline and determination, I can see how easy it would be to shrug and accept one’s brain isn’t what it used to be.
But I won’t. I’m going to dust mine off and send it back into bat. I am not expecting to win Mastermind. But I would like to see at least one book-shaped present under the Christmas tree this year, with my name on it.
Jessica Benbow - mother-of-three from Boxted
“It certainly took me some time to get used to the new role of being a mother but I don’t feel my brain lies dormant, it’s just being used in a different way.
I challenge it daily to organise three children, three ponies, two dogs and a little cottage industry making cards.
I don’t resent not being able to stimulate my mind as I know that this time will be over so quickly and that my chicklets will fly the nest only too soon.Then, if I’m lucky, I will have time to indulge myself if I feel their absence has left a hole. Motherhood is the most challenging job I’ve ever had but also the most rewarding. When I’m feeling exhausted from the bickering, negotiating and dividing my time equally among them I fall into bed and remember a time when I needed to read half a book to fall asleep. Now, I can barely get to the end of the page.”
Henrietta Charteris – mother-of-two from Bentley
“Since having my two daughters, now aged one and three, I struggle with decision-making, or holding any lengthy conversation without my mind wandering off into its own abyss. I battle with finishing a sentence, let alone a whole page of a book, and my concentration is so poor, I regularly forget why I went into a room.
When trying to tidy the kitchen table, I often stare dumbly at the objects in front of me for several minutes before my brain clicks into action and I remember that the dirty plates are destined for the dishwasher and not the fridge. My husband regularly tells me I don’t listen and is naturally frustrated with having to repeat the same thing again a week later.
Since comparing notes with other mothers in a similar state of long-term sleep deprivation, I now realise that it’s not that I am not listening to him, but that I am not hearing him, so thick is the fog that my brain is wading through each day. Now I have surfaced from the broken nights, I notice that something in me has changed since having children, and while my nights are less broken, I just don’t sleep as deeply as I used to, whether due to a subconscious maternal instinct or more likely, my mind is so cluttered with to do lists, and domestic chores.
Yet despite the fog and the sentence of permanent exhaustion, I feel blessed and wouldn’t change my role as mother for anything in the world. Although a lie-in wouldn’t go amiss!”
Rusty Asplin Hearsey - mother-of-three from Ardleigh
“I think mothers ‘purposefully’ switch off from the ‘intelligent’ side of life in the quest to nurture a happy and loving family and home, feeling that using the intellectual side is not a necessary requirement. Having said that, when Tatty is asking questions such as what colour is bird sick, I do have start looking things up or digging in the depth of my brain!
I have to say that I realised at the playgroup quiz night that I really knew nothing (whether current affairs or random questions) but prior to children I would have been involved. I used to do a good City job for nearly ten years and now I could not even help with quiz answers. That side of my memory has disappeared. It is really worrying. But I am consoling myself that it is a time in my life. Once all the children are at school I should start to do something that involves using my brain again.”