I am a 33-year-old woman, eight months pregnant with my first child. Like every other person I have ever met -- man, woman or child -- I have occasional moments of forgetfulness. Every so often I enter a room and forget what I've come in to look for, or I trail off in mid-sentence, forgetting the point I was trying to make. These things have certainly happened in the last eight months, just as they happened in the preceding 384 months. So why is it that now that I am visibly incubating a human, people feel free to point out these occasional moments of absentmindedness and exclaim in delight, "Pregnancy brain!" or "Baby brain!"? Had I known that this was a commonly accepted tag for forgetfulness, I would have used these labels enthusiastically during the many hours of meetings I have had with brilliant but absentminded colleagues who can barely remember my name, never mind the details of our previous discussions. But "pregnancy brain" is not the term we use when non-pregnant people exhibit normal lapses in memory. Rather, these terms are reserved for a class of individual already viewed as weak and helpless by our society.
I've read article after article disseminating the idea that so-called "pregnancy brain" is a real effect, yet virtually no hard data exist to support this claim. A few studies purported to find evidence that pregnant women are more prone to memory lapses than non-pregnant women, but such findings have been debunked by larger, better-controlled studies. So why is the notion that pregnant women suffer from cognitive deficits so pervasive in our society? There are plenty of reasons that this might be the case, but in my view the most plausible reason that women so readily blame their bouts of forgetfulness on "pregnancy brain" is that we have been taught to expect it. Individuals in our society have internalized a stereotype of pregnant women as forgetful, so when normal instances of forgetfulness happen, they are readily noticed and tagged.
So why is this a problem? I do not mean to criticize women for enjoying and poking fun at what is commonly viewed as a normal (and amusing) symptom of pregnancy. However, I think this stereotype feeds into the much bigger and more damaging stereotypes that women face, namely stereotypes that portray women as incompetent relative to their male counterparts, particularly in occupational roles. It is news to no one that women face disadvantages in the workplace -- both in terms of opportunities and pay -- and there is a strong case to be made that these disadvantages are at least in part due to these negative stereotypes. Moreover, when working women have children, they take a sizeable hit on the competence scale, an effect absent in working men with children. By helping promote the idea that becoming a mother brings along with it associated cognitive decline, we are helping perpetuate a notion that women -- especially women with children -- face deficits that affect their performance and thus make them less desirable bosses, colleagues and employees.
In addition to these broader implications of "pregnancy brain," allowing ourselves and others to focus on occasional blips in cognitive function sets up a baseless expectation that pregnancy is a time when women are operating under par. I know many women who were never more productive than during their pregnancies and experienced constant feelings of energy, motivation and alertness. Imagine if these experiences -- also part of every day life -- were tagged with "pregnancy brain." Imagine if, following a brilliant presentation or incisive remarks in a meeting, co-workers high-fived their pregnant colleague and exclaimed, "Pregnancy brain!" These cases would be just as legitimate as calling a woman out for accidentally locking her keys in the car.
Of course, I am not advocating for a full reversal of the colloquial use of the term "pregnancy brain." Rather, I suggest that we forget it altogether. Let pregnant women get on with their normal lives, which, like all other lives, consist of moments of mental acuity and moments of mental ineptness. In doing so we can start to chip away at the notion that women are suddenly rendered slightly less competent by virtue of the fact that their reproductive status has changed.