Lately I've been catching up on some of the documentaries and feature films about the 2008 economic crash, most notably Inside Job and Too Big to Fail. It's interesting to watch them and remember how little I really understood back then. Partly, I think this is because it has taken us all a while to process the events, to unravel them, but partly I think it's because I was extremely pregnant at the time.
Is it possible that my maternal brain somehow sheltered me from the stress of these events?
Now that I'm no longer pregnant or caring for a newborn, all the recent bleak news sends me into end-of-days tailspins. I'm viscerally afraid of economic collapse, of actually being smashed in the head by a falling chunk of the debt ceiling. But back then, news of societal ruin slipped by almost unnoticed, just low voices on the kitchen radio muttering about Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae while I cooed and cuddled with my newborn in the other room. I was aware, of course, that bad things were afoot. But the impact stayed at surface level. It didn't hit home, so to speak.
Now let's jump back a few years, to 2004.
I was also a new mother during Hurricane Katrina. Unlike the bank failures and the rest, this crisis shot straight to my heart. I was deeply moved and completely wrecked. I remember breastfeeding in front of the news day after horrifying day, literally wondering if there was some way I could be transported down to the Superdome to nurse the starving, dehydrated babies who had no clean water or formula. I know that sounds like a perverse fantasy, but please understand it was a startling and powerful gut response. I was totally open to the horror of Katrina. No buffer. Nothing.
So how are these events different? And how did my pregnant and maternal brain chemistry play a part in my reactions? Maybe not at all, but having studied several theories on the pregnant and "mommy" brain, I do have some thoughts.
Women tend to become spacey or forgetful at the end of pregnancy and postpartum. But not about everything. In fact, they hone in on certain areas extremely well, and are arguably "smarter" in some ways. The focus for these women is vigilance and a sharpened awareness of immediate dangers. They also have a heightened ability to empathize.
A new mother's job is to keep the organism alive. Yes, there is the big picture to consider -- the future of the family, etc -- but the overwhelming physical role of a new mother tends to make these concerns abstract in comparison. What's visceral to us is survival. A kind of brute, fundamental, biological reality. Feeding and sleeping. Nourishing and keeping warm. Exactly what was happening after Hurricane Katrina. It's akin to how motherhood and war overlap -- there's a stripping down to the basics of life and death. Not to suggest babies aren't hearty and robust little creatures, just that they are dependent on you for immediate survival. It's very profound in that way. Not always easy, but sometimes quite incredible. And key to this experience, perhaps, is the fact that pregnancy hormones actually suppress stress hormones. We need to deal with our maternal situation. Freddy Mac and Fannie Mae fade into background noise.
A mother of older children, on the other hand, is constantly thinking about securing a future for the kid. The idea of financial collapse is much more stressful to this person than someone in the zone of basic survival.
Sometimes I miss that zone. Your job is crazed and exhausting, but at least you know the steps, however steep they may be, to your desired goal. Now if only a good feeding, burping and a nap would create jobs and spur an economic recovery.