“Gahh!,” I texted my friend. “I’m so sorry I forgot to reply – mum brain in full effect over here!”
On another occasion, after selling a portable speaker on Facebook Marketplace, I received a message from the buyer telling me that I had forgotten to include the charger in the box.
“Oh man, so sorry!,” I replied. “That’s mum brain for you! Will get the charger to you asap!”
Can’t remember the name of someone I’ve met once? Mum brain. Wore my underpants inside out? Mum brain. Forgot which day the cleaners were coming? Mum brain to the max.
Why are so we so quick to slap a label on it whenever we are forgetful, vague, flaky or distracted? And, more to the point, why does being a mother need to be mentioned within that label?
Now, it’s a common fact that having children does change a mother’s brain. There have been plenty of studies conducted that show the way a woman’s grey matter shifts to accommodate her newfound responsibilities and when she has a baby. This is in order to help her zoom in on what is most important and filter out what is less pressing. Add to that the very obvious issues of stress and sleep deprivation and it’s not hard to see why we mums may forget a few things here and there.
But, here’s the thing: I was prone to absentmindness long before I had my son. My brain has always been – there really is no nice way to say this – an utter shit show. I am easily distracted, get bored way too quickly and I often trail off mid-conversation having completely forgotten what my point was. I also frequently find myself picking up my phone to Google something that has sparked my interest…only to get sidetracked and spend an hour researching something else entirely.
I would argue that, since having my son I have become more focused and organised, quite simply because I have to be. Don’t get me wrong – my mind still runs at a million miles an hour, sometimes down the most illogical and fantastical paths but, overall, I feel as though having a child has made my brain more agile and dependable.
And yet, I still default to blaming my “mum brain” whenever I feel I’ve dropped the ball on something these days – no matter how inconsequential. It’s almost a relief to finally have a “valid” excuse for the way my brain works. On some level it feels more relatable; more likable to be forgetful if you’ve brought a tiny human into the world. We’ve assigned a level of acceptability to being forgetful as a parent that simply being flaky by nature is not afforded.
Completely forgot to text your friend to congratulate them on their new job, simply because your mind was elsewhere? You’re self-absorbed and insensitive.
Forgot because you gave birth within the last 5 or so years? That’s endearing and understandable!
We celebrate mothers and condemn the childless for the same infractions and while, on the surface, this seems innocuous; it speaks to something deeper.
Mothers are often placed upon pedestals. We might be seen as soft – even sometimes fragile – creatures who are engineered to nurture and who offer lessons in unconditional love. We are something to aspire to, a benchmark of a life fulfilled and a universally acknowledged icon for all that is good. We are safe spaces, we make sacrifices, we bring life into this world and, therefore, we “must” be adored. It’s part of the reason our forgetfulness is so easily excused when framed in the sense of “mum brain” – because being a mother is a noble cause and one that warrants an unreturned text or ten.
And yet, the term is anything but affectionate. It’s usually uttered in a negative way, as a response to something a mother feels she has “failed” at. It’s reductive and suggests that bearing children somehow makes us stupid, when the reality is – we simply have more shit to do than we once did and sometimes it’s hard to remember it all.
That’s the paradox of motherhood though. We feel we have to explain our mistakes in a self-deprecating way because when mums are seen to do anything that tarnishes the crowns they never asked for, the lambasting is swift and unrelenting. The praise is lavish, but the criticism is merciless – unless we present our missteps as something cute and digestible.
Equally, women who do not have children are made to feel as though they need to apologise or find another excuse for why they may be occasionally (or frequently) distracted. A simple “I forgot” when uttered by the childless can be seen as a hallmark of incompetence or selfishness – and forgiveness can be withheld almost as a punishment for having not yet having procreated.
By the way – research has also proven the existence of “dad brain”, but somehow this is never used to excuse a man’s forgetfulness.
Perhaps it’s time to simply drop the term “mum brain” from our vernacular altogether because not only is the term intrinsically negative, it’s also misleading and divisive. Forgetful is not a true reflection of the brain of a mother, and we shouldn’t have to be a mother to be forgiven if we sometimes forget.