Motherhood: A Journey into Stupidity

One thing nobody ever tells you is that motherhood makes you stupid. It’s true. Becoming a mother – literally the nanosecond an infant exits, by whatever means, your womb – reduces even the most intellectually evolved woman to her most primal, cavewoman self.

You immediately go from someone intelligent, curious and informed – about everything from geopolitics to avant-garde theatre – to a portable milk-machine whose sole purpose is to keep the human being that emerged from your stomach alive. And you do so without fanfare or bitterness. You at once embrace your newfound stupid self.

Or at least I did. Fifteen some years ago, the first February night home with my then newborn son, in the morning, I peered into his bassinet and marveled that he was still breathing. I felt a surge of not only relief, but pride, that I had kept this beautiful creature alive . . . for an entire night! You would have thought I won some humanitarian award I was so thrilled with my accomplishment. And for the next five plus years, that’s pretty much all I did. Keep him, and later his little brother, alive.

First Born was only a few weeks old when one day my own mother intervened to break me out of a rigid cycle of breast-feeding and videotaping a sleeping infant. At the time, I erroneously equated First Born with Baby Jesus, and indeed collected hours of footage of him drooling peaceably that I sent to various relatives, until one of them begged me to stop. 

Mom wanted me to go with her to browse the funky shops of Takoma Park. I was reluctant at first to leave the house; what if First Born needs to nurse?! But my mother assured me it would be fine. So I put First Born in his little bucket carrier/car seat and off we went. We were in a shop that sold jewelry, scarves, some artwork and shoes . . . and I veered toward some thigh-high boots, a symbol of my former self. I put First Born’s bucket on a display table so I could bend over to lace them up. All of a sudden, from behind me, I heard THWUUUMP!

I spun around and to my horror, First Born’s bucket was overturned, and he was facedown, on the floor. He had fallen about three feet, and albeit in the somewhat secure capsule of his carrier, I could not be sure his head had not hit the concrete. 

This was the first of several “worst moments of my life” – when at 13 months, he fell down an entire flight of steep wooden stairs; when some two weeks later, he had an allergic reaction that momentarily blocked his airwaves and caused his whole little body to break out in hives; when in kindergarten, I forgot that he was staying after school one day and he didn’t get off the bus! – that would occur over the next several years.

When First Born’s bucket overturned, I scurried to retrieve him, and scanned his scrunched up face for vital signs. Somehow he was still sucking on his pacifier, and didn’t seem even the least bit put out by having tumbled off a table. While First Born was fine, I was not. I told my mom we had to go, immediately. In the car, I broke down in tears; I could not believe I had let my attention lapse and my newborn infant fall. Clearly I was unfit to be a mother. My own mother assured that everything was fine. First Born would be okay. I would be a wonderful mother. Anyway, she couldn’t even count the number of times she’d accidentally dropped my older brother, who went on to graduate near the top of his class at MIT, on his head.

Still, it was a stark reminder that I had better not become distracted – by anything, an intellectual diversion, let alone mere shoe-shopping, that would divert my attention away from my new main purpose in life – keeping this kid alive.

When Little Brother was born, he had a respiratory condition that made it difficult for him to breathe. The pediatrician said she didn’t want to alarm me, but these situations could be quite serious in newborns; several times a day, I was to turn the bathroom into a steam room with the door closed and the shower on full hot, and sit in there with Little Brother. I remember those days with such clarity, perched on the side of the tub staring through the steam into the face of my second son, and thinking about nothing other than the critical need to loosen his congestion.

My kids’ infancy and toddlerdom was sort of an intellectual dark ages. Sure some women can read Proust when they breastfeed. But not I. And it would be false to claim that my brain did not succumb to inevitable atrophy. I went from devouring The New Yorker every week to letting the issues stack up to the height of a coffee table while I searched up things like BPA-free baby bottles, and the safest bassinet bed wedge to prevent infant reflux. I went from being a prolific writer to a prolific pumper, and high math for me was tallying the bottles I kept in the freezer. Hurricane Katrina hit when First Born was six months old, and at one point I entertained the thought of donating what had become an impressive arsenal of unadulterated breast milk to the Superdome.

When the once-infants start to toddle around, the reductive state of mobile milk-maid evolves into the equally as unintellectual pursuit of personal security detail. You’re just constantly saving their lives – on beaches, on mountains, near roads; train platforms are the worst.

Even as kids gain some measure of independence, and enough smarts not to wander off cliffs and shove plastic chokeables in their mouths, a lot of motherhood – a whole helluva lot of it – is centered around mundane tasks: food shopping; packing snacks and sippy cups; doing laundry; visiting the drive-thru. The most intellectual stimulation you might be afforded any given day is picking up on an allusion to marine biology in an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. (They do occur.)

And the dizzying array of mundane tasks that you’re meant to keep atop of induces a kind of adult ADD. Expected to focus on so many frankly stupid things, you can’t even focus on one. It’s a condition called Mom Brain, and can lead to mishaps like pouring orange juice over cereal; putting a hunk of butter in your kid’s lunch; or a can of Blue Moon instead of a Sprite; and misplacing a package of Jimmy Dean link sausages in a filing cabinet between the 2016 and 2017 Tax Returns. (All true.)

And by the time your kids are teenagers – as First Born and Little Brother are now – and their intellectual curiosity and passions are just beginning to awaken and flourish, you realize that you simply can’t keep up. The neurons and glial cells in your brains have been resting on their laurels way too long, and there’s just no way they’re going to snap back into action. I imagine my brain after fifteen years of Motherhood looks something like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.

But here’s the thing: as I was explaining to First Born the other day – he was reading Homage to Catalonia while waiting for the lemon poppyseed scones he’d prepared to bake in the oven (activities I too might have pursued at his age) – that I used to be very sharp, and that – while no fault of his or Little Brother’s – Motherhood had rendered me a Dumbass . . . he interrupted me to say, “Yeah but you know Mom, being smart isn’t everything.”

“This is true,” I acquiesced. 

“If I really think about it,” he went on, “I am not sure intelligence has much of a correlation with happiness.”

“Also true,” I acquiesced.

And I took a moment to reflect upon those episodes in life when we are reduced to our most primal cavewoman selves. Many, if not most, for me have occurred while Mothering. The reptilian part of our brain that motherhood taps into can spark worry, fear, bionic protectiveness, but it also evokes an extraordinary and unprecedented sense of contentment. 

It is the simplest of moments – a first smile, a first word, a tiny hand gripping your finger – that evolve into other simple moments – a love note to a girl found crumpled in a jean pocket, giggling between brothers deep in the night, a batch of lemon poppyseed scones prepared without your help, a teenage son who says he’s looking forward to being a parent someday (but not someday soon, thank God!) –  that make me realize that while my traditional intellect may have dwindled, a far richer wisdom has emerged. 

My synapses have slowed, yes, but so has my search. I know what makes me happy, and it’s the simplest of sensations and sentiments. 

And there is nothing stupid about that.

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