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Pamper Your Brain

My world shrank to just about the size of a receiving blanket after my son, Henry, was born. His digestive system, his wardrobe, his colic, the delicious smell of his head  -- and my own quest for sleep  -- were all my shell-shocked postpartum brain had room for. And it represented a pretty abrupt mental shift for someone used to reading the daily newspaper that day, seeing every first-run movie, and spending her days engaged in stimulating conversation with people who could actually talk back. I loved being a mom, but I never expected that my mind would soon feel as mushy as my midriff.

More than your manicure and midsection tend to be neglected after you have kids. Many a mom mourns the days when she could focus on the new best-seller, a favorite hobby, or local politics. "The smarter my kids get, the dumber I feel," a mother of three once told me. One can sing only so many lullabies before beginning to hum, "Where have all my brain cells gone?"

"We give up on what's important to us when we become parents because it's so hard to find the time and energy, and it's easier to sacrifice ourselves than take a stand for what we enjoy," says Jennifer Louden, author of The Woman's Comfort Guide.

The solution? Keeping your head nourished with these 12 steps:

1. Make the commitment. At first, you may not feel like doing much of anything beyond baby tasks, and there's good reason for that. Mastering strange new skills like breastfeeding, diapering, and gently wrestling tiny floppy arms into kimono shirts takes all the concentration you can muster in the early weeks, especially when it's exacerbated by sleep deprivation and the physical demands of recovery from the act of childbirth itself.

But it's worth making a pact with yourself to eventually start stimulating your intellect. Nourishing your mind can give you a sense of accomplishment that adds to well-being, and it ultimately helps make you a better mom. In contrast, research has demonstrated, stress and feeling disconnected from the world can contribute to postpartum depression, and even make the normal "baby blues" more severe.

Paula Spencer, a mom of four, is a contributing editor to Parenting.

Take care of the rest of you

2. Care for your body. What do sleep and good nutrition have to do with feeling like you're a smart, functioning member of society? Plenty. "Moms routinely underestimate what those first six to eight postpartum weeks will be like  -- they're survival, and that's it," says psychologist Andrea Bergman, Ph.D., who teaches at St. John's University, in Jamaica, New York. "I see moms who are used to all-nighters and deadlines and who think they'll be fine, but they forget that when they used to do that, they were making up for it by sleeping for ten hours on weekends."
After her own daughter's birth, Bergman says she lived on chocolate-chip cookies  -- and was routinely wiped out. So before her second child was born 20 months later, she planned ahead by stocking up on ingredients for easy-to-fix nutritious snacks like yogurt shakes.
"By paying more attention to my physical needs, I was able to do more for my mental needs," she says.

3. Focus on favorites. "Don't overwhelm yourself by trying to do all your old activities  -- that can make you even more stressed," says Stephanie Ross, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago. "Just pick something really important that you still want to do."
When her daughter Julia, now 3, was born, Ross missed having lunch with colleagues and feeling in the loop about work life. So she made a standing weekly date to have lunch with two work friends throughout her four-month maternity leave. What fuels your brain? Meditating? Painting? Tracking your favorite collectible on eBay?

4. Cut out the fat in your life. Like foods that have a lot of calories but don't give your body much nutrition in return, "fatty" activities can consume a lot of time without giving much back to your mind. Examples: old committee posts, compulsive cleaning, watching TV just out of habit. Another mental drain: viewing maternity leave as "vacation." If you plan to clean closets and tackle other long-postponed drudgery, you may only wind up feeling frustrated and more overwhelmed.
"Ask yourself what you do out of habit that you can eliminate so you're not wasting time on activities that don't have meaning or give back to you in some manner," says Christine D'Amico, a life coach, coauthor of The Pregnant Woman's Companion, and mother of three, ages 7, 5, and 2, in San Diego.

5. Start small and stick with it. For D'Amico, writing had always been a pleasurable outlet. "I had gotten away from it when I married. But so many changes in pregnancy and then early parenthood were taking me by surprise," she says. By putting a few thoughts on paper every day, she eventually found she had enough material for a book. "I saw early on that as a mother, you don't have time to make great strides in intellectual or mental development. Instead, you need to trust that the two or six hours you spend on your pursuit each week will actually add up. This is true whether your area of interest is learning a new language, building an artistic talent, or taking classes one at a time toward a degree."

6. Talk about something other than kids. Traditional support groups for moms are a godsend. But their conversation tends to center on (no surprise here) children. Bina Carr sought out adult talk by joining a book club in her Toledo neighborhood and now meets at members' homes to discuss a book someone has chosen. "It's given me a kick in the pants to start reading again," says Carr, whose three sons are 7, 5, and 2. "I really missed that part of my brain."
Because the members are mostly moms, no one blinks when she doesn't make every session. But she likes it so much that she's joined a second book club.

Expanding your interests beyond motherhood

7. Turn mother interests into other interests. When she began trying to conceive, Renée Guven, a website designer in Victoria, British Columbia, searched the Web for the stories of other expectant mothers. "The ones I found most satisfying were the personal blogs that traced a woman's story through conception, pregnancy, and birth," she says. So when she became pregnant, she created her own, complete with pictures and a message board for reader comments. Now daughter Chloe  -- a.k.a. "The Bean" in Guven's digital diary  -- is 3. She kept up the blog until around Chloe's second birthday."It gave me an outlet in which to reach out to other moms and share my everyday experiences while still allowing me to feel like I was using my words and my wit," Guven says. "It's good therapy!"
The idea is to take something you're already focused on  -- your baby  -- and make a creative enterprise of it. Some moms find their bliss in photography, for example, or becoming a lactation consultant. For Marianne Alvarez of Lodi, California, her daughter Maggie Kate's birth seven years ago produced a bounty of baby pictures  -- and a new interest in arranging them in elaborate scrapbooks. Alvarez, a former wedding coordinator, got so into her hobby that she and another mom, Michele Gomez, also of Lodi, later created Gotta Crop, a company that plans scrapbooking getaway trips.

8. Downsize intellectual pleasures. Just can't handle 1,000-page historical novels anymore? Try a collection of short stories. You can enjoy the satisfaction of finishing an entire tale in one feeding session or in the few minutes before you pass out when you get into bed. Or listen to audio-books around the house or in the car.
Instead of plowing through the newspaper, scan just the front section. If anything catches your eye, tear it out and stick it in a basket. Once every couple of days, you can read these more in-depth reports. Ross switched from her daily paper to scanning the headlines on Yahoo news and other online summaries whenever she checked her e-mail.

9. Combine mental pursuits with everyday needs. Indulge in some creative multitasking. Find a book club that walks fast while discussing books. Or for a date night with your partner, see a foreign film and then play Scrabble. D'Amico tuned in to news and talk shows on public radio while feeding or playing with her kids.
Two years ago, Knoxville, Tennessee, mom Diana Seaver felt that between newborn Ryan and older siblings Matthew and Hannah, then 10 and 8, she didn't have time to do "frivolous things." But one particularly hectic day, she picked up a cookbook to find something to do with some fruit in the refrigerator. "I found a quick, easy recipe for a dessert that turned out so nice, I thought, 'Gee, I'll make a great dinner to go with it.' It was so much fun to tinker with those recipes. When my husband came home, he said, 'Why are you so happy?'"

10. Pursue activities with your baby in tow. A change of scenery alone can be stimulating. Movie matinees, for example, are a wonderful fringe benefit of maternity leave. If your local theater allows babies, and you're lucky enough to have a low-fuss tot, you can get a cheap midday ticket and your baby (who gets in free) will probably doze right through to the closing credits. Go right after you've fed your baby (and if you're nursing, wear a top with breastfeeding access, just in case). Other easy outings: museums, the library, the zoo (plenty of stroller company), or even just walking to a newsstand or bookstore to scan the covers (whether or not you actually end up buying anything to read).

11. Give yourself a break. What moms often think of as "selfish time" is actually healthy, says Laura Ellick, a Huntington, New York, psychologist  -- and therefore worth paying a sitter for or asking for help to achieve. Ellick asks her husband or other relatives to watch Trevor, 3, and Owen, 1, while she hits the gym for workouts. "It's an interest I had before the baby, and it was a stress reliever," she says. Most people will be willing to help you out if you're straight with them, she adds. "Whether it's dinner with friends once a month or whatever, it's important to keep your own identity. Sure, you're a mom now, but that doesn't mean you can't wear your other hats, too."

12. Take a class. Sign up for free or cheap lessons at a music store, pottery-painting shop, language school, garden nursery, or community college.
"It doesn't have to be a big deal  -- just two hours on a Saturday morning for a few weeks can be enough to get the wheels turning in your head for months," says D'Amico.
While buying a replacement window one day, Teresa Brittain chanced on a sign advertising a weekend course: "Learn to Make Glass Beads." "It sounded like fun  -- to have jewelry that didn't look like anyone else's while escaping the demands of mommyhood, my job, and our house renovations," says the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, mother of two boys. Her oldest, Christopher, was 18 months at the time. Within a year Brittain left a career in retail-store development to become a glass-making artisan; ten years later, the glass jewelry she makes sells in galleries across the South. "And my favorite part is that I get to work at home," she adds.

Many moms, in fact, find their minds enriched beyond their expectations by motherhood. It's a just matter of thinking about it  -- and giving your brain a little TLC.