Who moved my cheese?

Becky Leonard

Becky Leonard - Credit: Archant

NO, seriously, where is the cheese?

The actual cheese, not the metaphorical kind (Cathedral City, if you must know). I could have sworn I’d put it back in the fridge. Smell my cheese, you mother! Thanks, Alan. Actually I CAN smell the cheese – its pungent aroma leads me to its rather controversial new home betwixt the neglected George Forman Lean Mean Grilling Machine and the electric whisk. It’s not an ideal storage position for cheese, but it is where my hand deemed to put it and then my brain made me instantly forget it had ever happened. It’s a bit like the time when I put the oven-ready lasagne in the bin and the lasagne box in the oven and then couldn’t understand the flames licking the oven door 15 minutes later. Only last week I poured fabric conditioner into the cutlery drawer and not because I wanted my cutlery to have that ‘fresh sheet’ smell for a week.

I can’t directly blame the children for moving my cheese or setting fire to the lasagne box but I didn’t used to have this kind of trouble pre-kids. In fact, I was always quite proud of my brain’s capacity for stuff. I would remember everything about my clients at work, barely having to reference my notes. I could visually create my diary in my head and see everything that was in it for the month ahead. Nowadays, if things aren’t written in triplicate and then tattooed onto the children’s foreheads, there’s no chance of it happening. You may have heard the phrase “Baby brain” or “Pregnesia”, and if you’re a woman who has had children you might understand what I am talking about. Or you might have completely forgotten by the time you get to the end of this sentence. Or, perhaps you escaped with all your faculties intact (I actually think it was the second child who really sucked my brain cells dry).

I am very curious about the changes that appear to have occurred to my neural architecture since having children and the research is frustratingly mixed. For every paper proving cognitive enhancements, there’s an equal and opposite number proving impairment; particularly around memory. They’re probably all written by the same scientist who keeps forgetting which side of the fence she’s meant to be on.

In both pregnancies something terrifying happened to me. I couldn’t access all of my vocabulary. The simplest words would escape me. This is a real issue for someone who loves to chew the fat. I would spend an inconveniently large amount of time describing ‘things’ to help people understand me. For instance, instead of saying, “ I bought a new duvet cover”, I might say something like: “ I bought a new ........erm......thingy.....the other day..............you know......one of those...........things.....not a square.....a rectangle............material thing.........that you put over the top of that other thing that keeps you warm at night...............er you know?” Yes, I know, how thrilling - a conversation about a duvet cover.

Improvements in brain function, according to some research, are more focussed around activities that support your family’s wellbeing, your evolutionary investment as it were. This includes mind-blowing actions such as washing, ironing (yes I KNOW I’m the only idiot still ironing), paying the milkman, organising the kids’ social life, hiding in wardrobes, hoovering up appliance chargers etc.

I have heard women reporting increased creativity and efficiency since having a family, but sadly I don’t seem to be one of them. Unless you count being able to start a conversation with absolutely anyone, anytime, anywhere as an improvement. This skill (which has been added to my CV right next to: being able to produce wee at any time) arose from the early baby years where I was so desperate for any kind of communication I would have talked to a lamppost. However, it doesn’t always feel like a skill when you’re trying to get away from a smelly man outside Waitrose stroking the fur on your coat (not a euphemism).

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If I were to be given a Native American name to reflect the past seven years it would be: She With Brain That Flit Like Grasshopper (trying saying that after a few Sambuca’s). Obviously a woman undergoes many hormonal changes during pregnancy and then again post-natally. Add into the mix a ton of oxytocin (the chemical that makes us all loved-up with our babies), plus neural pathway changes, a snifter of sleep deprivation and you have a pretty potent brew. It’s not really that surprising that if our body changes beyond all recognition that our brains can too. My husband reckons it’s just system overload, a side effect of trying to do too many things at once. Juggling too much Lego, or something.

I think I do still have it all in there, it’s just not quite in the same order it once was. So I am still capable of remembering things, just not necessarily in the right place or the right time.

This week I learnt that is not appropriate, or in fact sexy, to comment on whether you may have left the washing out in the rain in the midst of an intimate moment with your husband. This is no way reflects on my husband’s skills in that department, more the way that my brain now seems to function. Things pop into my head at the most inconvenient moments. There are three people whose noble achievements I wish to sponsor, but I only ever remember about doing it when I am out, driving. By the time I get home to the computer or safe use of my phone, I have forgotten again. Each run I’ve been on lately I remember I need to set up a direct debit on second child’s trust fund or I have an inspired idea for one of my clients, which is again instantly forgotten the minute I set foot back inside my house.

The seismic shift that occurs when you have a family can indeed feel like the cheese has been moved a very, very long way away but humans are an amazingly adaptive species. Fortunately for the world at large, I can develop new neural pathways that help me to remember to take my sleeping out with me to pick up my daughter from school. The brain is actually like a big grey lump of plasticene which can be moulded and shaped, it’s just that mine is currently stuck on rolling out lots of little sausage shapes.