You’ve seen it, you’ve heard of it, you’ve dealt with it: Momnesia—that period of memory lapses and fuzzy thinking that follow giving birth.
A bunch of neurologists who study postpartum moms have discovered what anyone who’s ever pushed out a baby can tell you: babies cause you to lose your mind and everything that goes with it—your car keys, your wallet, your shoes and even your other kid.
When my first was 3-months-old, I loaded her into her car seat and drove to the nearest drugstore. I got out of the car, locked it and walked into the store. About 30 seconds later, I realized three things: I’d left the baby in the car, the car was locked, and I didn’t have the car keys. In fact, as I ran back to the car, I realized the engine was still running. The only thing I did right was putting the car in park.
Can you say mommy freak-out? The baby was asleep, thank God, and it was November (i.e., she wasn’t going to die of heat exhaustion within minutes). This was in the days before ubiquitous cell phones. So calling my spouse to tell him I was an idiot who’d just locked his firstborn in a running car, and could he please come bail me out, wasn’t my first option.
I ran back into the store. I told the clerk what happened, trying not to hyperventilate while watching out the window for potential baby snatchers. The clerk reached under the counter and pulled out a rigged coat hanger.
“Happens all the time,” he said. “Well, not with the baby and the engine running, but …”
My circa 1986 Honda Accord was amenable to being jimmied with a coat hanger, so my baby was only in the car by herself for a few minutes. Those minutes were not as excruciatingly long as the ones when we lost our 4-year-old son in the Atlanta airport (another column one day), but they were none-the-less longer, by far, than your typical 60 seconds.
While Momnesia can be dangerous (see above), scientists say there’s actually a biological benefit to losing one’s mind. Basically, new moms use every ounce of available brain power making sure their offspring survive. Your brain can handle only so much at a time. When you’re learning (or relearning) how to take care of a newborn, it’s difficult to focus on other complex learning, or remember where you left your car keys. All your energy, like it or not, has been taken over by the biological imperative of protecting the next generation. Many pediatricians will tell you that they trust a mother’s instincts about whether or not there is something wrong with her baby, regardless of that baby’s symptoms.
Enviro-spouse was always amazed that, even though I couldn’t tell him what I’d had for lunch on a given day, I could recite the baby’s exact eating, sleeping and pooping schedule going back several days. I could describe the consistency, weight and number of wet diapers. I knew exactly how many times she nursed, how many minutes she slept and how often she made eye contact with the cat. I couldn’t remember my husband’s birthday, but I knew exactly when our baby next needed to eat.
The good news is that, as the baby grows older and stops needing around-the-clock care, and the birthing hormones stabilize, Momnesia fades. A pediatric cardiologist once told me it takes about four years after giving birth for the brain’s connections to return to normal. Although I suspect that, like my hip joints, my brain won’t ever quite be the same.
But that’s OK. Now I have two kids who often remember what I don’t. Like not to leave them locked in the car with the engine running.