Staying Smart with a Baby

For fellow faltering new mothers, especially those of us who (used to) read and write for living

There is a new soundscape. I’m reading a poetry book out loud and my ears follow the strange gurgles the baby is making in her grandpa’s arms. It’s a new development. She shoves her fist into her mouth and vocalizes as she tries to fight or get in tune with coming sleepiness.

I digressed.

I meant to talk about how difficult it is to focus on work with a four-month-old. It was to be about the stupefying sensation that makes a new mother feel so small and plain dumb, sitting the day away picking through a bunch of YouTube videos (“Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares,” “Lone Fox,” “Pregnancy and Postpartum TV”—some of them are quite enjoyable, in a meaningful way). I’m bound to the teal nursing chair (used to be an ideal reading chair) because the baby likes to sleep, both arms stretched out, on her favorite pink microfiber nursing pillow on my lap.

For four months since the baby came, I couldn’t read. My head was the foggiest it had ever been. The wheels were just not spinning, as if they came to a complete halt and rusted like an abandoned merry-go-round.

흰 것은 종이요, 검은 것은 글씨로다. White is the paper, black is the letters. Words on paper. I follow letters forming line after line, and that’s it. By the third page, I want to rip my chest in pieces, screaming. Pathetically, what manage to come out are fits of hiccupy cries. Even cries are no longer rigorous. The baby is still sleeping.

I am used to being a smart person. Smarter than others. To stay that way, there must be a competition or a test of some sort going on, whether official or unofficial. It’s not that competition is particularly enjoyable or adrenaline-pumping. The thought actually shakes me with anxieties—anxieties of losing, losing what I thought was me (“the smart one”). It is a fragile identity to keep, which could shatter at any time unless you live in physical and mental isolation. Naturally, chronic nervousness and mood swings are parts of every day. And I have blamed them on my flawed “personality,” which I wasn’t proud of, but didn’t think was utterly destructive either. Until childbirth.

When the baby came, all the competitions stopped. Because I stopped reading and writing, there was nothing to affirm my intelligence against. My mind perversely managed to conjure up illusional competitions with my peers (and to make it most toxic, with my husband who is also my cohort). But there is no way you can win this delusional race. Thus came more insecurities, the fear of permanently becoming stupid, shame for feeling such, and the misery of the general mental fiasco.

There are robust narratives on how amazing and wonderous what your pregnant body does. It is wonderous. Your body just knows to roll a cell into a heartbeat, repress immunity to protect a new alien inside the mother host, and pass only the right things through the placenta (nutrients yes, blood no). It is a physiological wonder, which feels almost hypnotic if happening in your own body.  

The weekly newsletters from a pregnancy and childbirth website (recommended by my therapist) said practically the same thing. “Your body is doing something so incredible and marvelous. You’re creating a life.” For some reason, however, their words sounded phony. It was puzzling—wasn’t this my thought, too?   

Maybe this is where that old insight comes in. That inherent paucity of language, always falling short of profound bodily experiences like the twitching of thin muscles and emotional fluctuations in sex or childbirth.

Or, maybe it’s because you find the letter’s words too well-meaning that they sound weirdly patronizing, as if they’re patting your shoulders as a courteous but annoying gesture of sympathy when you’re not in a very glorious state and you know it.

Staying content with my solo being without a winner badge was a bigger transition than expected. The change felt less like an attitude and more like a muscle that breaks and grows stronger through training. I had none of that training. My fragile mind would hover blankly, drifting back and forth between untouched work and baby care, without paying full attention to either. I zoned out in the middle of feedings, staring nowhere. “You look absolutely miserable. It’s…it’s pretty intense,” said my husband, not daring to get close to the table I was sitting.

Depriving someone of sleep was a favored method of control by slaveowners to zombify their slaves. It is one of the most widely exploited modes of torture. Waking up every two hours to squeeze out food for another human is technically close to slave labor, and the strain it causes on the body, torture. There is no tangible reward, only the mantra that I am indeed doing something incredible. My mind doesn’t believe it, because it sounds too close to one of those self-help / self-care tips that I scoff at.

She smells like the new wool shampoo that we got and a kind of fresh, doughy mushroom. She has a particularly sweet scent around the back of her ears that connects to the lower rim of the head, where her hair is the fullest (relatively). She stares and tracks me as I go around the crib back to my laptop with a red water glass. She is not asking for anything now, but her gaze slows down my steps. She likes to turn her head toward the late morning sunlight flooding through the living room window. It draws out the bluish-gray tint in her eyes.

A sort of primitive love and protective impulse are so strong, they are scary. They are also the ultimate distraction from work. They momentarily colonize your mind, syncing the flow of your thoughts to the baby’s needs at the moment, circling you around the fact that she is here. A pocket where the practical time stops. And time-freeze is not good for thinking something through in steps as in reading.

This particular fogginess of the head (and also forgetfulness for many people) has a name: “Mommy brain.” This annoyingly cute sounding name barely captures its serious impacts on those first months. As if it’s something that new mommies complain about in lighthearted solidarity. On whether mommy brain is real or not, people have different opinions. Some researchers say that giving birth and caring for a baby change where the mother’s brain is most activated. New cerebral wiring supposedly favors more intimate, detailed, and present-focused processing than longer-term analysis. Mothers become attuned to their babies’ different cries and can understand what each one means. Basically, the mother’s brain restructures to maximize the baby’s chance of survival, exchanging hyper-sensitivity to the baby’s needs with pre-pregnancy clarity. Not everyone believes this, though. There are skeptical researchers who don’t think mommy brain exists, saying that in their study pregnant women and new mothers didn’t show any signs of difficulty handling analytical tasks compared to non-pregnant women.


To escape the thought that I’ve become a dumb sag of flesh, I held on to the idea of mommy brain. It’s a hormone-induced, funky brain condition that won’t last. Clarity will come back and so will competence.

What if they don’t?

What if my loyal brain has permanently rewired itself for the baby like that brown, vertical scar on my belly?

Her gurgles continue. I feel stupid for feeling stupid.

I try to convince myself that the anxiety about my intelligence matters to me as a person. And the utter consciousness of this incantation invites more shame. I don’t like how it sounds, either. Too many “I”s and “my”s with that lofty notion of personhood which I don’t think I completely grasp. How puerile.

I still can’t blame the baby.

Already arming up for postpartum depression in my 15 weeks, I thought I would. When she came, I found that I couldn’t. Reassuring and unbearable.

“It’s gonna come back. You just need some time to recover.” Said my husband multiple times, who resumed nine to five. His perfectly sincere, kind encouragements are infuriating, which triggers the chain of guilt again.

Sacrificial or all-giving can’t be the only way to articulate your relationship with the baby. Surely, there must be a way that you don’t feel gnawed off? The problem is that the troubling feeling that you’re just giving seems to come from the preference for a democratic (or transactional, whatever you’d like to call it) relationship, where each party equally gives and takes. And with a baby, a truly democratic relationship is impossible. She just got this close to smothering herself with a rag before I rushed to lift it off of her face. She doesn’t compensate me for interrupting my sleep, multiple times (“Nap when the baby naps” advice turned out totally useless, since I found that I couldn’t override my thirty two years of no napping). “Compensate” may even be grandiose when she can barely make eye contact with me. How idiosyncratically unreciprocal this relationship is. If the same dynamic happened in other human relationships, we would say that’s either toxic or extractive. Well, the same give-and-take dynamics sound perverse with a baby. “I want some reward for breastfeeding her at 3AM.” I can already hear kind words on how “natural” such feeling is during baby blues and postpartum depression.

“You’ve done something great. You’ve gone through this difficult thing and look what you’ve created.”

Maybe I never needed those kind words.

That I’ve achieved something incredible, despite difficulties. An incredible achievement compared to what?

The language echoes race and prize and excelling. But postpartum and baby care is a losing race. In exchange for sleep deprivation and numbness, you get you-did-enoughs, which means you lost.

Could we just say, “I gave birth and now watch the baby”? No amazing- accomplishment-through-hardship, no be-kind-to-your-recovering-self, but you-do-what-you-do? That there is no desirable state (like pre-pregnancy clarity) that you can / must recover yourself to, because from the beginning, there was no race that you fell behind? You were one thing and now another.

Not very dramatic.

But, do I really need another drama?

Cover image credit: photo by Kin Shing Lai on Unsplash

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