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‘Mommy Brain’ Is Real

I’ve been playing a not-so-fun guessing game lately: Is my inability to form a coherent thought a result of pandemic fogginess or “mommy brain”?

Like many other vaccinated adults, I’ve been dipping my toe back into being social again. But on top of having spent a year-plus largely at home, I’m also adapting to motherhood after having my first child in October.

As I gather once more with friends and relatives, I often find myself pausing in the middle of a story because a word has completely escaped me. The other day, I was trying to describe a mask I saw someone wearing but couldn’t remember the word for “fabric.” I frantically waved my hands across my face and finally landed on “pattern covering” as a close-enough substitute.

I’m not alone: I’ve heard from new moms who forgot words for the washing machine (“dishwasher for clothes”), subtraction (“reverse math”), and thirsty (“water hungry”). These slip-ups are, admittedly, funny. But they can be concerning, too. What happened to our minds?

I decided to reach out to some experts for answers, starting with Abigail Tucker, the author of “Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct.” Ms. Tucker, a science writer and mother of four, has found that “mommy brain” isn’t just a figment of our imaginations.

“The hormones of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding prompt a host of genetic changes that ultimately shift our brain architecture,” Ms. Tucker said. She noted that while we give a lot of attention to the physical changes of pregnancy, “there’s also a kind of metamorphosis that invisibly happens inside of us.”

Studies have shown that pregnancy results in a loss of gray matter in mothers’ brain areas involved in social cognition. Or, as Ms. Tucker put it: “Scientists have found that moms have trouble with verbal recall and the kinds of skills that are in the fancy-pants part of the human brain.”

Two of those scientists are Liisa Galea and Cindy Barha, who work at the University of British Columbia.

Dr. Barha told me that while many women are motivated to get back to their pre-pregnancy bodies, it’s not possible to return to our pre-pregnancy brains.

“It’s a scary thing for people. We don’t know a lot about the brain and don’t want to think that it might not go back,” Dr. Barha said. “But it doesn’t need to go back. It shouldn’t go back because it’s changed. It’s evolved.”

Yes, we might have trouble recalling certain words or remembering the name of an obscure actor, but there are plenty of silver linings to the ways mothers’ brains change, Dr. Barha said. The upsides can include a heightened capacity to stay calm and focused during stressful situations, the ability to interpret what different newborn cries mean, and enhanced vigilance around potential dangers.

Ms. Tucker cited a study published in 2016 that found that mothers who showed the biggest drops in gray-matter volume also reported the warmest relationships with their babies. “We’re paying attention to this nonverbal creature and are entirely focused on that,” Ms. Tucker said.

I hadn’t considered that perspective. My baby isn’t looking for me to have a robust vocabulary at this stage. She’s relying on me for comfort, protection and care — to pick up on her myriad nonverbal cues.

Still, that doesn’t mean that mommy brain isn’t frustrating or even frightening when it happens. I sometimes worry about how these cognitive changes might impact my work performance and know other mothers who share similar concerns.

Dr. Galea and Dr. Barha, who both live in Canada, where maternity leave is much longer than the 10-week average in the United States, said those fears are valid. Still, they urge new mothers to try not to worry too much about their cognitive abilities. “I think we need to get away from that idea that these changes are bad,” Dr. Galea said. “When you look later on in life, you actually see some really positive changes that occur in terms of memory and in terms of the plasticity of the brain.”

In a study published in 2019, Dr. Galea, along with researchers Paula Duarte-Guterman and Benedetta Leuner, discovered that female rodents got better at completing mazes after they weaned their pups, which suggests that, with time, mothers’ brains improve. “This is one of the major messages: Our brains actually get better,” Dr. Galea said.

In the meantime, though, those brain blips can be maddening.

Samantha Servidio, a 26-year-old single mother in Decatur, Ga., remembers a moment on her way to work when she had gotten her fussy then-5-month-old into his car seat but couldn’t get her vehicle to start.

“I kept cranking the ignition and cranking it and cranking it, and couldn’t figure out what was happening. Is it my battery? Am I out of gas?” she remembers wondering.

Finally, after calling her partner at the time for help, Ms. Servidio discovered that she was trying to start her car with her iPhone charging cable instead of her keys. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I don’t know why I sat there and fumbled with it for as long as I did.”

Ms. Servidio chalks up that blunder to a classic case of mommy brain fueled by sleep deprivation.

Dr. Galea, a mother of two, said that lost sleep plays “a huge role” in mental cognition and that some of the forgetfulness and fogginess that new mothers experience will subside with better shut-eye.

“This time is really a flash in the pan,” added Dr. Barha, who has a 2-year-old and an 8-week-old. “Yes, there are brain changes, but you also become more efficient,” she added.

For example, a mother’s ability to keep track of multiple appointments, schedules, responsibilities and other tasks that require executive functioning is a “superpower” that comes with giving birth, she said.

Whether we’re new parents or have been at this for a while, we’re all feeling a bit of fogginess as we come out of Covid-lockdown life. Ms. Servidio, whose son will soon turn 3, said she uses her smartwatch and other technologies to help her remember what she might otherwise forget. “Honestly, I would be nowhere without my Google calendar and all of the reminders I set,” she told me.

Out of all of the advice and information I heard, there was one bit that stuck with me most. Ms. Tucker reminded me, and all new mothers, to be self-compassionate. Instead of lamenting mommy brain, she suggested trying to embrace it.

“Your body has gone through this literally mind-boggling transformation and your brain has undergone a hidden Renaissance,” she said. “You have become a different version of you.”

Katie Hawkins-Gaar writes a weekly newsletter called “My Sweet Dumb Brain.”

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