Is “pregnancy brain” or “baby brain” a real thing? Was I ever really that good at my job? And can a new working mom be as “sharp” at work as she was before? These common questions can wreak havoc on a working mama’s sense of confidence. We must get these thoughts out into the open, so we can reassure one another – with real facts to back up our assertions – that there is truly nothing wrong with us. We do, in fact, belong in our roles.
This question came in last week from a working mama:
Question from a New Mama: I was a student in your Mindful Return course last year. I was wondering if you have any suggestions for how to keep up with practicing in a really challenging (billable hour) field while battling pregnancy brain or baby brain. Or perhaps my lowered mental abilities are just my own incompetence showing and not truly pregnancy brain.
Either way, I have only been in my first post-graduate school role for a year and a half. So I haven’t had much non-pregnancy time to prove myself to my firm (or to myself). I started in this role with a 3-month old and am due with my second baby in late February. During first trimester, it seemed to take me forever to get assignments done. But now in the third trimester, I can’t seem to pick up on details as well as (I thought) I normally could. And the smaller number of hours I’m able to bill is distressing.
Let me know if you have any suggestions. I feel very defeated.
Mindful Return: First and foremost, mama, I am sending virtual hugs. To you and to your babies. Your e-mail brought tears to my eyes. And the single biggest recommendation I can offer here is self-compassion.
I looked you up online and read your public bio on your firm’s website. Here are my initial reflections:
- Someone who is “incompetent” doesn’t land a job at an excellent firm and manage to work there with a 3-month old in tow.
- Someone who is “incompetent” doesn’t graduate magna cum laude from her law school.
- I’m sure you’ve heard of imposter syndrome (turns out we all have it, my dear mama), and if not, please please read up on it. It can be defined as a “collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” Check out this Harvard Business Review article on overcoming it here.
- There are studies on the realities of “baby brain” (see this, for example). And I strongly suspect pregnancy hormones are affecting how you’re thinking about your own abilities.
For me, what was perhaps worse than how I felt during pregnancy was the sleep deprivation I experienced after I returned to work. Neither of my boys slept well until each was approximately 13 months old, and man was that a long haul. Every morning was truly about getting myself out the door, spending time each morning prioritizing, and not paying much attention to what anyone else thought.
I wrote this piece on some strategies I’ve used to combat the sleep-deprivation brain fog: 5 Hacks for Getting Through a Work Day on Little to No Sleep. (You may have to sign into Fairygodboss to read it, but it’s free).
I’d also encourage you to block time each day – even in small increments – for focused, undistracted work. Probably the most effective tool I’ve used to regain productivity has been the Pomodoro technique (more here). Also, Daniel Pink’s MIT concept has been a life-saver – his great 2- minute video on it is here.
You do what you can, mama, put one foot in front of the other, and let that be enough.
Remember to practice micro-self care, daily, and know that the system (and by that I mean the billable hour world) is not designed in our favor. What woman would create a world where success is defined by an insane number of billable hours during peak childbearing years? It’s a bit depressing to think about it that way, but I find it can help make it less personal. No, there’s nothing wrong with you; yes, there are lots of things wrong with the systems we live in.
Remember, also, that while you truly may be slower at certain things right now (and that’s okay!), motherhood is growing – not shrinking – your leadership muscles. You know all those traits we admire most in those leaders who inspire and challenge us? It turns out parenthood is the perfect training ground for working on them. You are growing working mama ninja skills every day.
And now I leave you with two final pieces of advice. (1) Particularly in these months of transition into and out of maternity leave, don’t focus on your number of billable hours. Perhaps your physician has told you not to stress yourself out by getting on the scale every day? Same thing with billables. Don’t look every hour, or even every day. Do the work you can do. Take care of yourself. Take care of your baby. And don’t obsess about those numbers. (2) Come back to the Mindful Return program again if you need to after baby #2 arrives. Anyone who takes the course has free, indefinite access to any future sessions, so just say the word. A community of mamas who has your back is always here to cheer you on.
You are competent. You are strong. And you are brave, mama. Good luck with baby #2!
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave