Friday, July 16, 2010

Brain Drain

I want my pre-baby brain back. The brain that could remember a list of things that had more than two items on it. The brain that could remember the names of people I met for longer than ten seconds. The brain that wouldn’t force me to stop mid-sentence because I had completely lost my train of thought. I want the brain that allowed me to explore theories, understand the intricacies of language and behavior, and vigorously debate my passions with facts and figures that I had stored in my head. Instead, I struggle to remember my children’s names. I look one of them in the face and call them by the other’s name. I’ve started doing it with colleagues as well. Last week, I called a woman I was working with by the wrong name, not once, not twice, but three times in the same conversation. She probably thought there was something in my coffee until I told her that I did the same thing to my kids. She said, “Yeah, my mother did that, too.”

So it is parenting that has sucked my brain dry. I don’t know if there is any scientific research to support that conclusion. I don’t really care if there is. Anecdotally, everyone who has a parent and then became a parent knows that it is true. I used to HATE it when my mother and father called me by any name but my own. My father would call me Shirley (my mother), Karen (my cousin), Brian (my brother), before finally getting to me. I used to think that they should just rename me Shirkarian and make it easier on themselves. My mother was no better and I could see the frustration in her face as she looked at me, wanted to call me by name, but couldn’t find the name in her brain even though I was her own daughter. I vowed I would never, ever do that to my children. And then I did. When it first happened, I laughed, thinking it was just an occasional lapse in memory or that my mind was moving so quickly in an effort to get a thought out that I didn’t see it as an ongoing problem. But it was. I did it more and more. My husband does it, too. Not only were we becoming our parents, we were developing their feeble brains as well. David and I tried to turn it into a joke. Now, when we call a child by the wrong name, we follow it up with the name of someone who isn’t in our family. So if we call Natalie by Nicole’s name, we say, “Natalie…Stuart Murray, whatever your name is…” It’s become a running family joke which always makes our kids giggle and hopefully they won’t hate us for not being able to remember their names until one day they grow up and find that they are doing it themselves.

I like to think that the brain drain happens because parenting is the last straw before your body decides that you have taken on too much in life and something has to give - that something being your razor sharp memory and clear thinking. Once you become a parent, the number of things you have to think about, big and small, multiply exponentially, and your brain just decides, “I’m done.” I began to suspect that was the case when the naming issue developed into the inability to say the appropriate word in the heat of the moment. It first happened one morning while rushing to get the kids dressed and off to school. I had been up since 4am, on a conference call back east at 5, wrote a few notes until 6 and then starting the wakingthemupgettingthemdressedpackinglunchesfeedingthembreakfast routine. In the middle of trying to get a shirt that was obviously too small for her over Natalie’s head -because she insisted that at age 7 she could get one last wearing out of a size 4 shirt - Nicole ran into the room, frantically trying to tell me about something that was anything but urgent. Finally, I blew up at her and instead of yelling, “Go in the other room and brush your teeth,” I said, struggling to complete my thought, “Go in the other room and BREATHE!” Later, after both girls had recovered from laughing at me for misspeaking, Natalie came up beside me, patted me on the shoulder and said, “Poor mommy, she’s losing her mind one piece at a time.”

Maybe Natalie was right about me losing my mind. Sometimes, particularly when names and words escape me, I wonder if I didn’t have a nervous breakdown but somehow I was too busy to notice. I hoped it was something dramatic like that, rather than just admitting that parenting had in some ways left my brain depleted. The breaking point came when I felt embarrassed recently because someone asked me what the last book was that I read which wasn’t something I had to read for work. I struggled to remember and couldn’t, finally blaming it on my drained brain.

So a few months ago I started a concerted effort to exercise my brain by going back to doing the intellectual things I loved to do but put aside in favor of the more immediate needs of parenting, work and family. I have a 94 year old cousin whose mind is sharper than most twentysomethings, who swears by the crossword puzzles she’s been playing daily since she retired over thirty years ago. The women on my block with older children are devoted to their book club and read things that don’t have to do with parenting or self help. Several couples we know make it a habit to go to concerts and lectures once a month. My friend whose daughter is about to go to college has returned to reading the newspaper from front to back every day. I remember doing all of those things, but it seems like a lifetime ago. And in many ways it was.

In the past few months I’ve been to three plays – Cousin Bette, King Lear and In the Heights. I had only been to the theater periodically in the last nine years of raising children and going again felt like I was exercising my brain. Trying to remember how to listen to Shakespearean language alone was a real brain twister. I actually felt more alive and more stimulated by seeing the plays than I have by anything in ages. After one of the shows, I drove my friend home and we sat in the car and discussed the themes in the drama and how they related to our own, infinitely more simple lives. I confessed to her how I was finally feeling like I was coming out from under the fog which I feel has been clouding my brain since the day I left Cedars with a newborn in a car seat. Maybe I will be able to look my children in the face and call them by the correct names one day soon! I hugged my friend and as she started to get out of the car, I said goodnight, unfortunately, calling her Nicole.

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