Last month, I showed up for my daughter’s Monday afternoon parent-teacher conference right on time – actually I was 10 minutes early and quite satisfied with myself for having successfully executed the logistical gymnastics required to get me out of work, through the 45 minute commute, and there on time. My sense of accomplishment quickly vanished, however, when I discovered that I was not 10 minutes early, but one week early. The conference wasn’t until the following Monday. Oops. As I sheepishly checked my phone and saw it staring right back at me on my calendar for next Monday, the teacher tilted her head, gave me a sympathetic look and calmly suggested, “Why don’t you use this extra time to go get yourself a cup of coffee and relax?”
My amazing logistical feat would be lost on her and everyone else, because although well-executed, it had fallen short – by an entire week. Instead, my daughters’ preschool teacher “outed” me and the affliction I had been trying hard not to acknowledge. Now I was forced to accept that I was experiencing “back to work brain.” Like “baby brain”- the period post-baby when new parents struggle to recall simple details or articulate the way they did pre-baby – but for people who have returned to the paid workforce after a hiatus. Could such a concept really exist? Or was it just me? As an ardent believer in successful work-life integration, I am reticent to admit there could be such a thing. To acknowledge it would mean I am struggling to achieve what I fervently believe is possible. Does it mean I can’t successfully juggle parenting and full time work? Are employers who discriminate against mothers returning to the workforce justified in thinking they can’t give 100% and be fully dedicated and capable employees?
Recognizing this to be as ridiculous as it is untrue (the economy is more or less run by working parents), I decide to consider the more “plausible” explanation that maybe it has nothing to do with the transition back to work and it’s actually memory loss. I’ve obviously been mixing up dates and having trouble recalling names and details lately. But, fortunately, after a quick internet search for the signs and symptoms of dementia, I rule that out with moderate confidence and once again consider the “back to work brain” explanation. So is it a thing? Well, “yes” and “no.”
I’ve decided “back-to-work brain” is a thing. Only it’s not about going back to work at all. It could just as easily be called “parent-brain,” “modern-woman-brain” or “too-much-on-my-plate brain.” It has less to do with the fact that I went back to work while raising two preschoolers, and much more to do with how much I am trying to juggle in a fast-paced, competitive, urban culture while still finding my groove as a modern, working, woman and mother. I think it’s safe to say that as parents in the year 2015, we take on way too much. Our lives are exceedingly busy. I challenge you to name any friends or peers of yours who are working and/or raising kids and not living at a hectic pace.
I am grateful for my full life and have always liked being busy. But as my children continue to grow and my parents age, things will get busier and there will be even more details to stay on top of. This year’s parent-teacher conference will not be the last appointment I mix up, and the logistical maneuvering will grow more intense. But as so many working parents before me have already figured out, part of my job is to be mindful of what I will now refer to as “back to basics” brain, so that these occasional flubs may serve as reminders to slow down and take a breath. This is key to being a capable employee and mother. The suggestion is nothing new. In fact, we hear it over and over again, but in the frenzy of daily life it is so often overruled or forgotten. And in the go, go, go since having children, I admit I have forgotten how to relax. But I clearly need to – for my family, my career, and myself. I never did grab that cup of coffee. Let me add it to my “to-do” list.