The other day I sat in a meeting with colleagues from around the globe. The subject matter at hand is something I work with daily… and as I went through possible questions in my head that I might be asked, I simply froze. I could not remember answers to some very basic questions. I tried to relax so I could think more clearly, but as the meeting settled in, I still couldn’t remember. If been asked at that moment what 2 + 2 equaled, I might have reached for a calculator. I placed my computer on the empty chair next to me, slid it a little under the table, and prayed I had the volume off when I booted it up to find the answer. I felt like an impostor who was about to be made.
Mommy brain… that’s what I had been diagnosed with since my first child appeared. Then the second one showed up, and sometimes I felt like I needed a map to find my own house. By the time the third child came into our lives, I would find myself half way to work without my blackberry or computer. Just today I received a call from the cafe at work – I left my wallet there this morning. I haven’t left a kid anywhere yet, but it’s a bit sad that this is a point of pride in my life and it’s probably just a matter of time.
If you’re still reading, I am glad you’re still with me and a ‘squirrel’ hasn’t passed by. If you understood that then you should keep reading…
While Mommy Brain is a common term we hear among our own; the actual cause for the disturbance of short term memory is cortisol. Studies have shown that working mothers have XX more cortisol spikes daily vs. their male counterparts, yes I actually wrote XX because I can’t remember the number or the study! Think of the typical day of a working mother: you might wake up early and get yourself ready so you can then get the kids off to school… and then someone can’t find their shoes, refuse to eat breakfast, forgot to do homework, shows you a form that was due two days ago and will take you 10 minutes to fill out….. You name it, but something will happen, and it will happen most mornings. All sorts of brain functions will happen (see Chapter 5, Working with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman for gory details) that result in a flood of cortisol.
An hour later, the normal fire drill appears at work and hijacks your day. More cortisol… which would be OK if it was the first dose, but your body has not yet flushed the morning serving yet. Then the e-mail comes from the room mom who assigns you to bring cupcakes to school for a class party, followed by the ten other “reply to all” e-mails… maybe just a little more cortisol… then you get the note from your sons teacher that he was just searching ‘girl’s butts’ on the computer five feet in front of her… big dose of cortisol (and true story).
So while we and our male counter parts receive the same doses of cortisol from work, I have not yet met a male counterpart who receives the full amount of domestic doses as well. And this goes for women whose husbands stay at home too. For various reasons, many of us still shoulder most of the domestic duties. And since I have already acknowledged, letting go is not the over achievers strong point… we simply have to work differently to compensate for the memory loss. And we must try to enter our work place without the first cortisol cocktail downed. So while my counterpart can walk into a meeting with only a pen and empty binder in his hands, I walk in with my notes from the last meeting and my computer, I have to connect the dots first. I don’t even attempt math in my head, I keep a calculator – I find I can get an answer pretty quickly and have yet to be criticized for not being Einstein. I compete differently now.
A few weeks ago, I was able to spend a little time with a young woman whom I used to baby-sit for. She is an attorney and a new mother. She recently returned to work and has found that the morning determines her whole day – she said that she is doing so much in the morning that by the time she gets to the office she can’t think straight. This young lady is organized, calm and focused. She has been since I met her as a young child. The love of her life, her little bundle of joy, however is throwing it all off and I suspect by the time she arrives at the office her brain is full of icky cortisol.
I have resorted to having our Au pair take over the kid’s mornings completely. I used to get dressed and out the door before anyone woke up just to avoid any cortisol spikes – although back then I had not known it was actual science. But I missed seeing them in the mornings, so while I don’t leave until they leave, I only participate in the morning hugs and kisses. Our sweet, sweet, wonderful Au pair, Julia has a few hours after they leave to let her cortisol return to normal so I leave it to her. She has all sorts of games to get them to drink their milk and get them out the door.
My memory loss last week was only temporary, and at the time it was happening I knew it, and I knew the cause. While I couldn’t change it at that moment, I was prepared for it. That morning, instead of beating myself up for being forgetful by 7 a.m. as my husband laughed at me for something ridiculous I said or did – I simply told him it was a high cortisol day. I knew walking into that meeting I was already past my limit – that’s why I was quizzing myself.
So what’s causes your spikes? If you can identify the regular ones, be prepared and address them head on. For you, the stress point might be from not seeing your kids off to school. It’s different for all of us. While you might think it’s just an issue for a couple of minutes a day, these little pressure points can add u and affect you all day long. High cortisol levels have so many more negative impacts on our bodies than just short term memory – just search it. A Google search for ‘cortisol effects on the body’ produced ~19 million links, while ‘cocaine effects on the body’ produced only 13 million.
Wait, now where was I?