When Can We Stop Pretending That Having Kids Doesn’t Change Women?

If 'baby brain' is real, why aren’t we doing more to accommodate pregnant women’s needs, particularly in the workplace, asks Jacqueline Maley
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Add it to the ways in which our biology betrays us: researchers confirmed this week that the phenomenon of “baby brain”, where pregnant women vague out easily and become very forgetful, is scientifically real.

A study of 1200 pregnant women by Deakin University researchers and published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found the women performed much worse on tasks measuring memory and executive function – a set of brain processes including planning, decision-making and impulse control.

The pregnant ones’ mental decline was most pronounced in the third trimester. If you’ve ever been pregnant, the study results will not surprise you. Apparently four in five pregnant women report feeling mentally foggy, and I was certainly one of them – towards my due date I had the short-term memory of a long-term stoner.

But despite “baby brain” being very much part of the lived experience of so many women, there was a rush to downplay or explain away reports of the study.

Broadcaster Wendy Harmer spoke for many when she tweeted that she despaired of the “take out headline that infers pregnant women lose the plot”.

It’s easy to see why women might be reluctant to embrace a scientific explanation for their cognitive impairment – it involves having to admit to a cognitive impairment.

And we have worked too hard, for too long, to be taken seriously in the workplace, only to admit weakness now.

Women’s battle for respect, not to mention equal pay, in workplaces is ongoing, and the last thing we need is a fully peer-reviewed, scientific justification to be paid less, or listened to less seriously than our non-pregnant and/or male colleagues.

But to me the baby brain denials carried a touch of defensiveness. It’s silly to pretend that child-bearing, and the (incredible but often egregious) physical changes of pregnancy have no effect on the way we function at work and at home. Pregnancy is a hormonal, neurological and emotional surge-tide. It changes women, and many of us are never the same again afterwards, either physically or in other, more ineffable ways.

More is understood now about the neurological changes that occur during pregnancy and post-partum, during breast-feeding and bonding. One study has even found pregnant women’s grey matter shrinks, possibly because the brain is becoming more specialised in readiness for the giant task of keeping the world’s neediest mammal alive.

It is scientific fact that pregnancy produces high levels of estrogen and progesterone in women’s bodies. So what?

Men walk around with constantly surging testosterone and no one ever accuses them of being “hormonal”. This, despite the fact we all know testosterone can make men do very stupid things.

The problem is not with women’s brains, or the fact that pregnant women struggle to remember where they parked their car.

The researchers made a point of saying that pregnant women’s reduced cognitive function was only likely to be noticed by those close to them, and would not affect their performance at work.

I forgot the word for “banana” at one point during my pregnancy but still functioned as a professional writer.

No, the problem is not with pregnant women. The problem is with a society that demands women be exactly the same as men if they are to be treated as equal to them.

The problem is with workplaces engineered for men, into which women are supposed to fit seamlessly, despite their different life trajectories, choices and biology.

It’s okay to admit that pregnancy changes women, and to expect – even demand – that society, and particularly workplaces, evolve to accommodate those changes. Our children will thank us for it.

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