Countering the Mommy Brain Stigma

The Benefits of Maternal Neuroplasticity at Work

Magazine Issue
July/August 2024
Countering the Mommy Brain Stigma

I walked through those big, glass doors, and the lobby was empty. It took me a second to realize I was so early that none of my coworkers had arrived yet. Since I was still on baby time, I’d been up since dawn.

Seeing I was alone, I felt momentarily disappointed, but then a surge of relief filled my body. I could put all my pumping gear in my office, check the daycare app to see if the baby was doing okay, take a breath, and get reacquainted with the view from my office window.

As I was walking down the hall, I started thinking, All these months without this sense of quiet and order, without the buzz of the city and the promise of friendly adult faces, without the freedom to lose myself in my own work . . . honestly, going back to work feels amazing.

My client Greta had been so worried about returning to work after the birth of her child that she’d considered resigning from her job at a well-known marketing firm. But now that she’s two weeks in, she feels unequivocally that returning was the right decision. The only hitch, she tells me, is she’s worried she might be working at a deficit: sorting through emails and problem-solving on the fly isn’t as easy as it used to be when she regularly got a full night’s sleep. “My mom calls it mommy brain,” she informed me.

My advice for her: “You’ve got this.”

Although I don’t want to diminish how many mothers legitimately feel foggy and forgetful from time to time, research shows that some brain powers of new mothers have actually been boosted—even supercharged. Given the number of new mothers I’ve worked with who’ve never considered the possibility that their new mom-brains are an asset rather than a deficit, I think mental health providers are in a great position to shine a light on this little-known truth.

Transitions are tough for all clients, but for the new moms I see in my practice, the joyous, wrenching, and guilt-laden return to work after parental leave can be tricky. The guilt can be particularly tricky because it’s often paradoxical.

New moms returning to work feel guilty for leaving their children; it’s often viscerally painful for them to know they won’t be there to soothe their baby, feed them, or help them nap during the day. But they also feel guilty for wanting to go back to work, for their need to feel like a functioning adult in an adult world—in essence, to feel like they did before they had children. Then, once they do get back to work, many feel an added layer of guilt for feeling decidedly unlike they did before kids. Have they been so changed by pregnancy, birth, and caretaking that their brain and social capacities are hopelessly addled?

Clients like Greta are wracked with thoughts like, Will I be as quick with an insight at a meeting when I haven’t wrestled with an adult problem in months? Can I still follow the complex steps of a new project despite not having slept for more than four hours a day in all that time? And ultimately, Will I reveal myself to be so cognitively altered by all the changes that have come with motherhood as to become an object of concern or even pity?

Greta is coming off a typical American maternity leave, which isn’t much leave at all. She’s had only six weeks at home, the standard recovery time allotted to new mothers who’ve had a vaginal birth. A C-section mighthave bought her another two weeks of recovery time. (In Europe, new mothers get a full year to be with their babies, during which time their job must be held for them.) Six weeks, or even eight, is barely enough time to heal physically from childbirth, let alone adjust to the seismic emotional and developmental changes motherhood brings.

The myth that a mother’s intellect and decision-making abilities have been dulled by motherhood demoralizes women in and out of the workplace. The key to debunking this myth is helping new moms understand that they have a shiny new engine in their car. Their brain has been evolving spectacularly. Thanks to maternal plasticity, “mommy brains” work differently, and are equipped to handle more responsibilities, and to do so in new ways.

Specifically, as researchers at Yale have found, becoming a mother is a neurocognitive developmental phase. During this transition, the brain is priming itself for new learning and shedding useless neural networks—a process known as synaptic pruning. Even though the activities required of new moms—making sure the baby sleeps, eats, stays safe, and feels connected and entertained—may not seem brain enhancing, the challenges of managing and creating these activities contribute to major enhancements in mental flexibility, planning, problem solving, visual memory, and emotion regulation.

That’s not to say that the common experiences of fogginess, forgetfulness, and preoccupation with the baby can’t be worrisome to moms going back to work, but research offers little evidence that significant differences in memory function exist in mothers compared to nonmothers.

“Baby-related tasks keep popping into my mind, even when I’m trying to focus. I used to be able to make spontaneous contributions in a meeting, and now I feel slower on the uptake,” Greta told me. “Judging myself for this shift slows me down even more.”

While her coworkers never mentioned any differences in her performance—in fact, she was commended for handling new accounts efficiently—Greta’s experience of herself at work still felt different.

“Different isn’t bad,” I told her. “Your brain is handling more psychological responsibility at home with your child. And that’s not just a liability: it’ll help you at work, too. For now, try jotting down thoughts related to your baby on a notepad so you can stay engaged in work meetings and tend to baby-related tasks later. Also, it might help to spend time alone after a meeting to muse on what you heard. Doing this will give your brain space for creative problem solving. You can always offer your insights to the group later, in follow-up emails.”

“But will I ever go back to being my old, pre-baby working self?” she asked.

Nearly everyone asks me some version of this question during our work together. “That’s such a great question, and my answer is yes and no,” I tell her. “You’re going to adjust to these changes, but you’re a different person since you became a mother, and your identity has expanded. You can’t go back to being who you were before having a baby. If you’d like, we can try saying a warm and gracious goodbye to that prebaby person and embrace new ways of being flexible and open to what’s changed for you in your professional life.”

My client Jess was a month into a return at an interior design firm after a three-month maternity leave when she expressed her concerned that she was too tired and distracted to do good work. Since taking extra leave wasn’t an option for her, we focused on how becoming a mom was an identity shift with the potential to make her an even better employee.

For Jess, planning outings with her baby meant that organizing her thoughts and anticipating another person’s needs was becoming second nature to her. This helped her on the job. “It takes real leadership skills to get kids out the door and make sure you have everything they’ll need: bottles, diapers, wipes, food, hats, sunblock, things to chew on, to play with,” I pointed out. “Then, when you inevitably realize you’ve forgotten something, you have to engage in creative problem solving. This kind of mental planning can benefit you in the workplace when you plan projects and anticipate the needs of team members and clients.”

With the situation framed in this way, Jess began to see how motherhood is a kind of natural employee-development program, and her confidence increased, along with her willingness to take on challenging tasks.

Unlike Jess, my client Saoirse immediately noticed positive changes in herself when she returned to work. She found she was remaining exceedingly calm, even when a challenging client at her law firm threatened to post disparaging comments about what he viewed as their gross neglect of him and his case. She’d become an expert at staying calm in the midst of her baby’s persistent screaming and had developed the capacity to self-soothe and control her own negative emotions on the spot, even when she felt overwhelmed.

“You know what I realized?” Saoirse said. “It’s okay to confront this difficult client about his attitude and point out different ways to look at problems we face. I can be both firm and flexible, curious and knowledgeable. I’ve learned to walk these lines with my kid, and I can do it with adults, too. Being assertive has become easier since becoming a mother.”

Saoirse noticed she’d developed an appreciation for the power of prioritizing what she views as truly important. She finds it much easier than before to say no to tasks that aren’t part of her role. Early on in her mothering, when her resources for taking on noncritical tasks had been drained to nil, this power had surfaced within her, almost as though a switch had been flipped. I know she’ll continue reaping the rewards of applying this essential boundary-setting skill to all kinds of situations, even after the initial adjustment of returning to work has passed.

It’s often helpful for new moms returning to work to assess and honor their energy fluctuations. Many who once considered themselves night owls now find they’re most efficient earlier in the day. You can suggest they use that time to accomplish tasks that require high energy and reserve the afternoon for answering emails or doing simple administrative tasks. This is called activity planning and pacing. Put simply, we can encourage moms to observe how their own energy ebbs and flows, and to align their workload accordingly. If they find themselves feeling shame or frustration about workday interruptions like daycare calls, baby illnesses, and pumping requirements, they can remind themselves of just how much in early motherhood lies beyond their control; for everything else, there’s problem solving.

Despite the amazing work Saoirse, Jess, and Greta have done to be successful at work and home, they still have an uphill battle to fight. A recent OnePoll survey commissioned by SurePayroll highlights how commonly the maternal brain is portrayed as a collection of shortcomings, memory lapses, and attention problems, leading many moms to experience a lack of self-confidence about their level of work commitment—which in turn can translate into missed opportunities for promotion and a dearth of support from employers and colleagues.

Mothers who return to a professional path can empower themselves by understanding the flexibility and expansiveness of the maternal brain. Not only is it a private asset that benefits families, but it’s also one of the great unrecognized assets of workplaces everywhere. New mothers experience incredible neuroplasticity in a brief period. Their brains can fine-tune to meet myriad challenges, both in the home and beyond it. Rather than losing sight of these gifts in a cultural fog of negative judgements, mothers can leverage their new superpowers.


Nicole Pensak

Nicole Pensak, PhD, is a Harvard- and Yale-trained clinical psychologist, author, and researcher specializing in postpartum mental health, anxiety, OCD, and depression. She’s a member of the expert review board for Parents Magazine. Contact: