When I was seventeen or so, a psychiatrist told me, among other things, that I exhibited signs of anxiety and social phobia. My GP, tasked with prescribing me my subsequent anti-anxiety drugs, suggested that I arm myself more adequately for social situations, for example, by reading the newspaper. At the time, I was so affronted by this superficial response to my deep-seated psychological problems, that I glared at him from beneath the curtain of my lank, depressive hair and tried to set fire to him with my mind. In hindsight, I think there may have been some merit to what he was saying.
Social situations have always been quite treacherous terrain for me, although the acuteness tends to be somewhat cyclical. Meeting new people, making small talk and in particular, surprise small talk (i.e. when one unexpectedly bumps into someone and is forced to give a succinct though witty rendition of the latest goings-on in their life) can make me extremely and very obviously uncomfortable. Which is a rather contradictory trait, given my loquacious and attention-seeking tendencies.
Since having a child, this issue has become all the more pronounced – yet unpredictable. Sometimes I will flounce my way through social situations with the greatest of ease and other times, I will come out in a rash and bolt for the toilet. I foolishly thought that somehow, in becoming a mother, all that neurotic self-consciousness and sense of inherent failure would diminish. After all, I’d squeezed out a baby; I’d writhed around a padded room naked in front of strangers, moaning and screaming while all manner of bodily emissions gushed forth from me. Given this experience, how could life possibly throw anything at me that I couldn’t navigate with relative dexterity?
Well, apparently, it could throw conversations.
Last week, the Doctor and I had dinner with two other couples and their children. I know the mothers from various organised play dates and this was an attempt to take the relationship to the next level. Everyone got along nicely enough, though immediate chemistry was not that apparent – no reason to think this wouldn’t occur over time. But for whatever reason, I began to feel incredibly nervous. One of the mother’s asked me about the Doctor’s work – an innocuous enough inquiry – and rather than given a straightforward response, the wall of ice went up within my brain, my face flushed, I could feel my back and palms getting sweaty and I desperately wanted her to change the subject. And as I kept trying to defer attention with self-deprecating giggles and smiles, I could see both her’s and the other mother’s eyes widen slightly, with the the thoughts why is this woman so fucking weird? streaming across their foreheads as if in neon lights.
Why was I being so fucking weird? We left the dinner and walked home, the Doctor remarking on what a pleasant evening it had been. He looked over at me and instead of seeing a nod in agreement, caught only that look of abject anguish – a look he has become all too familiar with.
Having a child does something to the brain. I have no material support for that statement, just my own conviction and perhaps that of a handful of other mothers. I was never particular talented at retaining information (except lines from films), but since having a child, there has definitely been a decline. That, coupled with lack of time that can be devoted to mental betterment, such as through reading or absorbing the news, can make it even more challenging. Intelligently articulating thoughts, or giving informed, poignant commentary on social-political matters has become something that I recognise in others – watching in an agonising combination of awe, jealously and longing.
Childbirth has, it would seem, caused an emotional, intellectual and psychological regression (not that I was ever capable of giving poignant commentary in the past, but hopefully you get the point nonetheless).
But after attempting to combat this issue by forcing myself to read more, to watch the news, to follow Twitter feeds and all the other material factors my teenage GP suggested, I am discovering that it isn’t simply a matter of being informed. Were it that simple. It is more about how the brain processes information. It is the act of critical engagement that seems elusive to me. Unable to analyse things in ways previously capable of, I now need people to spell things out for me, to have people tell me what to think. It’s as if all the little electric currents that connect the synapses in the brain have been cut, leaving only the stem. Why would nature do this? Surely biological impulse would be to sharpen the brain rather than dull it, given the she-wolf now has cubs?
Well, apparently this is simply part of the process of brain build-up – something neuroscientists have successfully observed in rats. Lack of memory and the struggle to articulate is the residual effect of sleep-deprivation which, over time, dissipates and is gradually replaced with a better, bolder, more finely tuned super brain.
It is difficult to see through the fog of ditzy, idiotic, depressive clumsiness at this point, but hope springs eternal. Trouble is, just as the brain emerges from this torpor (two years it lasts, ‘they’ say), it’s time to do it all over again. At this rate I’ll be lucky to get my super brain before the decrepitude of old age sets in.