I’m turning 34 today, which at least in my life is the moment when seemingly everyone around me has young children, is pregnant, or both. That in itself is great—I love other people’s children. Yet, I can’t help but feel anger and disgust in the face of the patronizing treatment to which my childbearing and childrearing female friends are being subjected. In many cases, my friends have internalized their own abuse and perpetuate it by uttering the following self-deprecating remarks like mantras:
“I have baby brain syndrome.”
“Oh, it’s my pregnancy brain again.”
“That’s just my momnesia.”
“This is the power of my mommy brain!”
I thought I had to write a paper on the history of these ideas to help my friends understand that these stereotype-laden insults are not objective truths but contingent historical constructs crafted to keep them down. To my surprise and amazement, I came across the following mind-blowing selection of existing scholarship.
The discursive construction of “baby brain” functions to legitimize gender stereotypes and deflect attention from a host of material conditions that influence how women experience pregnancy and motherhood. This essay focuses on how the baby brain myth gains public legitimacy by tracing and analyzing its recent emergence in both scientific and mass mediated discourse. I argue that the myth gained legitimacy through a rhetoric of significance—one that conflates statistical significance and functional significance—that operates in both science and media discourse. In the conclusion, I offer an alternative interpretation of baby brain’s cause, one that highlights the social structures that make pregnancy and motherhood difficult.
In this essay, I argue that the baby brain stereotype serves to police women’s understanding of their own competence throughout their pregnancy. It positions intelligence, logic, and competence as diametrically opposed to hallmarks of femininity, and thus is inherently misogynistic and problematic. Baby brain as a cultural ideology is rooted in benevolent sexism and protective paternalism, further contributing to the pressures that women face in performing their femininity correctly throughout the transition to motherhood.
Dieser Artikel beleuchtet die tragende Rolle, die Umweltdenken und Umgebungswissen für die Legitimation traditioneller Geschlechterrollen im 20. Jahrhundert spielten. Gezeigt wird, auf welche Weise einflussreiche psychologische und psychoanalytische Konzepte der Kindes- und Persönlichkeitsentwicklung Frauen dazu anhielten, sozio-naturale Umwelten herzustellen, ja, selbst Umwelt zu sein. Expertinnen und Experten verschiedener Denkrichtungen und Generationen propagierten ein ganz ähnliches Bild femininer „Environmentalität“, das heißt: der Disposition und Bestimmung der Frau, Umwelten zu erzeugen und zu verkörpern, die eine gesunde Kindesentwicklung ermöglichen und das Wohlbefinden und den Erfolg des Mannes, gar den Erhalt der gesellschaftlichen Ordnung begünstigen sollten. Dieses Konstrukt weiblichen Umwelt-Seins verpflichtete Frauen auf Ehe und Vollzeitmutterschaft und fixierte sie in Raum und Zeit. Sein reaktionärer Gebrauch in Auseinandersetzungen über alternative weibliche Lebensentwürfe demonstriert, dass leitende Konzeptionen von Entwicklung, Wohlergehen und Identität nicht nur androzentrisch, sondern antifeministisch waren.
Today, many pregnancy guides mention a nesting instinct. According to this, pregnant women would be seized by an urge to create the right environment for their child, for example to buy baby equipment or clean the apartment. The concept of the nesting instinct forms a specific configuration of knowledge: While it is widespread in the popular field, it occupies a marginal position in the scientific field. In this paper, I will investigate the historical epistemology of this form of knowledge. In so doing, the following questions are addressed: How did the knowledge about a nesting instinct during pregnancy form? How was the nest as a specific natural-anthropogenic environment constructed? And to what extent do notions of gender and environment interact here? To answer these questions, the study takes the perspective of a history of knowledge in transit, in the longue durée from the nineteenth century to the present. The investigation reveals a gradual feminization of the concept of environment in the knowledge of the nesting instinct. Whereas in the nineteenth century it was often considered a male behavioral pattern and the nest was an analogy to the house, in the first decades of the twentieth century, the instinct transformed into a primarily female characteristic, with the nest representing the interior of the home. A decisive condition for this circulation of knowledge was that the nest became a ‘metaphorical thing’. As such, the nest did not simply lead to naturalization, but denoted a natural-social in-between space that increasingly became the goal of female care work.
(The remainder of the article is in German.)
Neuroscience rhetoric frames motherhood as the ultimate opportunity to re-create the self through individual choice. Engaging public conversations about brain health that celebrate maternal neuroplasticity’s potential for brain enhancement, I trace a postfeminist figure I call “mommy economicus” (after Foucault’s “homo economicus”) as an emerging motherhood ideal that situates maternity as a privileged yet risky path to individual empowerment. I argue that the mommy brain story both illustrates the resilience of motherhood ideologies and illuminates the relationships between gender, postfeminism, and neoliberalism. This analysis confirms the centrality of choice rhetoric in contemporary motherhood discourses and shows how social and economic changes blurring the boundaries between home and work intensify rather than dilute emphasis on maternal choice.
Although neuroscientifically informed mothering advice manuals published in the past 15 years speak in the languages of liberation, empowerment, and self-realization, I argue that they ultimately imbricate women in ever-more-dense networks of authority, expertise, and government, and contribute to the proliferation of entrepreneurial models of self-conduct that comprises the defining feature of American neoliberalism. This rhetoric situates motherhood as a practice of freedom, both drawing from and contributing to affective forces that suture freedom to economic models of conduct. Through these discourses, emotion-centric, self-interested mothering practices become a key site for the production and reproduction of entrepreneurial selves.
There’s not much left for me to say, but I’ll still add something.
First of all, it’s about time humanity (incl. science and medicine) stopped finding new ways to put down women. It’s getting old (references available upon request—too many to list here).
Second, it’s about time we accepted the fact that not all human behavior is caused by changes in the brain that follow an evolutionary blueprint.
Third, much of the science on hormonally-induced changes in human brains is loaded with stereotypes and will never get a Gold Star for methodical rigor (see, e.g., here, here, here, here, here, and here). Even scientists doubt some of these findings (see here and here).
Finally, considering that:
- men are paid almost 25% more than women for the same work,
- men only suffer a quarter of sexual harassment in the workplace as compared to women,
- women were 1.8 times more likely than men to lose their jobs during the pandemic,
- women are still “disproportionately responsible for raising their children and managing the household,”
- many women s u f f e r every day, and particularly during pregnancy, childbirth, and after. Yet, medical attention is mostly devoted to the health of the child, not the mother (race and class drastically shape this reality, as seen here and here, not even to mention individuals who live outside the norms of binary/cis gender identities and monogamous heteronormative relationships),
is it really surprising that pregnant people and non-male parents sometimes do not live up to the unfair expectations placed on them?
To all pregnant individuals as well as female, non-binary, and gender-non-conforming parents: This world sucks, and not because of anything that’s supposedly happening to your brain. Unless, of course, the patriarchy has gotten into your head.