How I'm Taking Control Of My New Mum 'Baby Brain'

Photographed by Eylul Aslan
It’s Monday morning and I’m standing in the street, frantically texting my husband.
"I think our car’s been stolen," I type.
"Are you sure?" he replies.
After walking up and down a few times in agitation, I decide I am sure. I contact the police and file a report. An hour later I get a call.
"Is that Ms Cookney? Your car hasn’t been stolen, it’s in the car pound. Your parking permit expired two weeks ago."
I feel thoroughly idiotic but I have to admit I’m not surprised. I have a 14-month-old baby and I’m juggling a freelance writing career on top of being his primary carer. We have a childminder two days a week and my husband has one weekday off a fortnight to look after him. But even when I’m not actively on mum duty, I still do the bulk of the admin. When I’m not at my desk, I’m preparing food, cleaning up food, washing his clothes, wiping his grubby hands, restocking nappies and wipes, planning activities for him. After he goes to bed I just about have time to eat my own dinner, answer a few emails and possibly squeeze in an episode of Killing Eve before I crash into bed myself. Renewing the permit was the last thing on my mind.
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The mere act of agreeing to do something used to be enough to log it in my memory. These days it takes a to-do list, a calendar entry, several alerts and a further reminder, and even then I’m not making any promises.
"Don’t worry," my cousin says when I tell her the story. "You’re a mum now so you can just blame it on baby brain!"
I used to hate it when people talked about "baby brain". How extremely condescending to imply that women with children are less capable, to hold up every mistake they make as evidence of their inferior mental aptitude. How sexist, I thought. Men don't have to put up with this shit. But I’m starting to think that maybe "baby brain" isn’t such a ridiculous concept after all.
Latest research suggests that pregnancy changes the structure of the brain and that these changes can last up to two years after the birth. Reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks MD assures me this isn’t as alarming as it sounds.
"There’s a misogynistic history of jokes that pregnancy makes you stupid. There is no evidence to suggest you’d be any less capable at your job or any less strong intellectually or cognitively," she says.
The memory lapses and feelings of disorganisation, however, are a genuine phenomenon. Studies have shown increased activity in areas of the brain related to emotional skills during pregnancy and diminished ability to recall words. Meanwhile research published earlier this year showed that pregnant women struggle more than non-pregnant women with tasks related to attention, decision-making, planning and memory, and that this lasts into early parenthood.
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One theory is that memory is the trade-off for the augmented emotional skills.
But the truth right now, as I stand ankle-deep in toys, trying to put an earring on and realising after five minutes of jamming it into my earlobe that the reason it won’t go on is because I’m already wearing earrings, is that I don’t much care why it’s happening, only that it is.
On busy days, I find myself clock-watching, dying to put my son down for his nap so I can crack on with my tasks, only to suffer a complete blank the moment he goes to sleep.
I throw out spare electric cables in a desperate bid to declutter, convinced this will be the silver bullet that solves my organisational crisis, and weeks later realise they served specific and necessary purposes. On sweltering summer evenings I turn bottles of white wine into accidental Slush Puppies when I pop them in the freezer to chill and promptly forget about them. I stop to give my little boy a snack on a park bench and it’s 20 minutes before I realise I’ve left my handbag there.

Only women are expected to be able to 'do it all' and instead of grappling with that, I’m saying no. I opt out. Honestly? I’ve got more important things to worry about.

Nobody wants to be the first to admit they’re struggling but it isn’t serving me or anyone else to keep up the pretence. My baby and his ongoing and constantly shifting needs have expanded into my life the way gas fills a room, my career, relationship, social life and everything else I once took for granted left gasping in the corner. This is what Dr Sacks refers to as the "divided mind".
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"I think of it like a lane in a motorway," she says. "Before you had a baby, you had one or two lanes. Your own needs are in one lane and in another lane there’s your partner or your friends and family. Now there’s a new lane and you can never turn it off, even when you’re at work. That’s a new demand in terms of your cognitive load."
In other words, new mums have a lot on our plates. But rather than try to hide that, I choose to own it, name it, and shout about it if need be. Yes, I have baby brain! I have a child whose needs are on my mind every single moment of the day and frankly, I now have less space in there for other things. Far from admitting defeat, that feels like rather a feminist move.
Does my husband grovel and self-flagellate when he misses a dentist appointment?
Does he walk into a meeting apology-first, admonishing himself for spending a single moment of his working day thinking about the tiny human at home who’s coming down with a cold again and who’s going to need a new winter coat soon and have we run out of Calpol and oh god what am I supposed to be discussing this morning?
No. Because busy people forget things. That’s not failure, that’s just part of being human. Only women are expected to be able to "do it all" and instead of grappling with that, I’m saying no. I opt out. Honestly? I’ve got more important things to worry about.
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And actually, I’ve discovered, most people recognise this. I spent the first few months back at work after maternity leave upbraiding myself for what felt to me like unprecedented levels of ineptitude and disorganisation. But then a strange thing happened. I noticed that people didn’t mind, or if they did, they didn’t chastise me.
"Don’t worry at all," a colleague responded when I apologised for my late reply. "I know you’re busy."
Most of the time, nobody even noticed. I’d slip into press conferences 10 minutes late and no one would bat an eyelid. I’d have to rearrange appointments and people would simply open up their calendars and ask me when suited.
I used to despair but now I lean into it. "Sorry, I forgot," I say now with a shrug instead of a grimace. Because the truth is I can’t do it all, have it all, remember it all. Recognising that doesn't make me feel like a failure, it makes me feel free.
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