Momnesia Is Real, Says Science

momnesiaMemory has never been my strong suit. It’s not like I can’t remember my past, I’ve just always been absentminded about the more mundane situations that pop up in life. It probably explains why math is my arch nemesis. It requires a lot of memorizing processes and numbers and my brain dislikes those things. But ever since I became a mother my memory has taken more of a beating than my boobs and that, my friends, is saying something.

Ever since having my third child, who is now ten months, I’ve acquired an especially bad case of Teflon brain. Nothing sticks. You know that feeling of walking into a room and forgetting what you went there for? That’s me all the time. Lost keys, lost wallet, forgetting half the stuff I need at the grocery store, spacing on deadlines, not even remembering I’m supposed to be at work, friends constantly reminding me of conversations we’ve had that I can’t remember, etc.

I’m not alone in this thing, this “Momnesia.” An article on The Atlantic details what neurologically occurs in a new mother’s brain, validating my chronic forgetfulness. Basically, even before a woman gives birth, pregnancy hormones get to work messing with the brain. The regions of the brain that control empathy, anxiety, and social interaction get busier, helping a new mom bond with her baby — as well as feel anxious and worry about every little thing that might go wrong. “This is what we call an aspect of almost the obsessive compulsive behaviors during the very first few months after the baby’s arrival,” maternal brain researcher Pilyoung Kim tells The Atlantic. “Mothers actually report very high levels of patterns of thinking about things that they cannot control. They’re constantly thinking about baby. Is baby healthy? Sick? Full?”

That’s because a set of neurons known as the amygdala help process memory and drive emotional reactions like fear, anxiety, and aggression. After a woman gives birth, activity in the amygdala grows and makes her hypersensitive to her baby’s needs. Not only that, but pregnancy hormones do their thing too. All of that combines to basically take over mom’s brain with EVERYTHING BABY. Scientists have said that becoming a parent — at least in the brain — looks a lot like falling in love. Affection for baby, anxiety about baby’s well-being — all of this new brain action shoves less important stuff out your ears. “You only have so many shelves in your brain, so the top three are filled with baby stuff,” Louann Brizendine, MD, director of the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco,  tells WebMD.

A British study also shows hormones may also affect spatial memory — which includes remembering where things are — in pregnant women and new moms. Some doctors even speculate there’s an evolutionary angle. Women’s health expert Donnica Moore, MD, tells WebMD, “It has been postulated that, from an evolutionary standpoint, this memory impairment may be helpful so that women will forget about other stuff and focus on caring for the child.”

So will my brain get better?

As The Atlantic notes, “The greatest brain changes occur with a mother’s first child, though it’s not clear whether a mother’s brain ever goes back to what it was like before childbirth.” Wait. What? They don’t know if my brain will ever get better? Add to that the usual sleep deprivation your bouncing baby inflicts on your life and your brain is pretty fried. Brizendine continues, “Women accumulate up to 700 hours of sleep debt in the first year after having a baby, and that causes the brain not to be at its best for things other than caring for the baby.”

So it gets better when the pregnancy hormones go away, I safely usher my child through the first year of his life, and can catch more than four consecutive hours of sleep? That’s when I can start putting things other than KEEP BABY ALIVE in my brain? Great.

Image source: Monica Bielanko

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