‘Baby brain’: I mess up train bookings, confuse dates and forget bin day
I don’t make people laugh, unless they’ve just registered my skirt tucked into my tights
Tanya Sweeney: ‘Now, conversations feel like I’m underwater.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
Like “hormones” and “nagging”, “baby brain” is one of those pejorative, dismissive terms aimed almost exclusively at women. Putting fuzziness and forgetfulness down to becoming a mother? It’s a term that feels reductive and designed to belittle.
And yet, here I am. On a permanent five-second delay.
I have a vague recollection of being witty and sharp once. I could pull a joke out of the air and hold my own in a conversational joust. I loved being able to make a group of people laugh.
But now, conversations feel like I’m underwater.
I come away from many encounters with adults feeling like I could have said more, and said it better. I mess up train bookings, confuse dates and forget bin day. I haven’t made people laugh, unless they’ve just registered my skirt tucked into my tights.
Last week, I met an old friend who knows me better in my previous incarnation as a music journalist. We enjoyed poring over new bands with the zeal of Talmudic scholars, or at the very least, two jumped-up junior writers at the NME. I could tell he was looking forward to getting down to a bit of sparring. He is still in the loop. I am very much not.
“So what do you make of Idles?” he said, readying himself for a good meaty deep dive. As it were.
“Meh. They’re all right, I s’pose.” He blinked at me. Usually, it was “I’d chain myself to the hem of the drummer just to hear them” or “I’d rather nail my head to a fire than listen to a single second of them”. We did not do “all right”.
“What about Fontaines DC?”
“Um, well yeah. Grand like.”
He started to pall a bit. “Fine. Just Mustard, then.”
I shrugged. I’m that out of the loop, I’d not heard them. “Like, yeah.”
It’s official. I’m not the person I used to be. I don’t have a thirst for the things I used to love. When it comes to adult conversation, I’m just... clean out of bandwidth. I drop signal on the regular (I once did it on national radio. Derp). Being an adult is a bit… blurry around the edges these days.
I checked in with a couple of other new mums, mainly for reassurance that I wasn’t entirely losing my mind. “I’m meant to go back to work soon, and I can’t even add,” said one friend, panicked. She teaches Leaving Cert Maths, so she probably has every right to be a bit panicked.
Another recently returned to work, and underwent a transition from spending all day with a baby to spending the day with grown-ups. “Keeping up a conversation is hard,” she admitted. Co-workers probably don’t like cuddles and Peppa Pig as much, either.
Much of it probably has to do with sleep deprivation. Research says that even missing out on a couple of hours’ sleep a night has a similar effect to drinking a pint of beer. A cumulative effect takes place over time, which probably explains how I wake most mornings feeling both mildly drunk and hungover.
But it’s a big question. Is baby brain a real thing?
As it happens, yes. Research from a 2018 study conducted at Deakin University in Australia concluded that the cognitive function of pregnant women versus non-pregnant women was significantly compromised.
Much of it has to do with the neurological changes that occur so that new mothers can bond sufficiently with their babies – a hangover from 100,000 years ago when mothers need to protect their babies from wild animals. As the emotional regulation and empathy parts of the brain get a shake-up, something’s gotta give.
In a way, this makes sense. As a new mum you spend so much time worrying about whether something awful will happen to your baby. You’re stressed to the eyeballs worrying about the right kind of washing powder, getting tummy time done, googling weird rashes and generally keeping a helpless little thing alive. Pre-children, “doing your best” meant things like getting to work on time, paying your TV licence and not letting your bedclothes get too dirty. Now, doing your best requires a whole other level of effort. What’s left of your brain is consumed with the sort of love that’s so intense it’s almost scary to fully feel it and let it in. It’s amazing, but it’s also absolutely bloody exhausting. Is it any wonder we’re out of bandwidth?
While I may not be able to entertain my nearest and dearest with perfect comic timing, or even keep up with what my accountant is saying to me, at least the emotional side of my brain is being kept on its toes. Research also claims that this “mum brain” phenomenon lasts about two years. Normal service should resume soon enough, according to the scientists.
So come back to me then and we’ll talk about Just Mustard. If I get round to them.