Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She writes regularly for Blessed is She and on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I have made same the excuse again and again since I had my first baby, and I have heard other mothers do the same. I have mom brain. Maybe when I my kids are grown up I will read again. I just can’t think anymore. And sure there is evidence that mom brain is real, but it is no excuse to fail to form our minds and be fully flourishing human persons.
I was married shortly after college, which was a whirlwind of studying and falling in love. I read and studied for my classes hours every day, and the summer after I was finished, I threw aside all serious studies and dove into my beloved (classic) novel reading. I was pregnant with my first, and it seemed to my husband that I went from someone who was interested in his graduate studies and who came up with interesting ideas to someone who just did not care.
I blame this occurrence on my lack of trying more than the hormonal changes of pregnancy. Before I was reading theology and philosophy daily. I was studying, writing, conversing about these ideas. And then I was not. Intellectual work requires regular practice. It is like being in shape physically. One cannot just go out and run a marathon without training; it requires practice and gradually building up to get to that point. Similarly, it takes practice to be able to read more complicated texts, and even then it is not easy. But when we exert ourselves mentally or physically for the sake of good, we become better.
The process of growing another human being makes a mother very tired; even the thought of exerting mental effort is often exhausting. Then the baby is born and we are not any less tired. We are just trying to get the basic things of life taken care of. But I have learned that taking care of my mind is just as important as taking care of my body. In some ways it is more important. God made us to subject our passions and will to our reason. We have a duty to form our reason in truth so that we can guide our lower parts in right action. If I challenge myself to regular exercise and healthy eating, why should I not challenge myself to regular prayer and continual study?
Right before my third was born I became friends with a mother who had her PhD in philosophy; she and her husband both taught philosophy at the same institution as my husband. We began to have weekly play dates—the type where we fed each other and the increasing number of kids, let the kids run wild, and entered into long, intense conversations. She really challenged me to use my mind again. Week after week we would have these conversations. I found myself wanting to read more in order to keep up, to write more, and to explore ideas. Here was a stay at home mom like myself living a full, intentional intellectual life that was not separate from her motherhood but a crucial part of it. I want to do that as well, and I know I am not the only one.
A few months ago I was talking to some other moms while we waited for our preschoolers in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. They mentioned that they had “intellectual” play dates. Another friend mentioned that she had started doing something similar with some of her young mom friends. These are not PhD moms, but simply Catholic moms wanting to learn more about their faith and to keep using their minds during the mundane tasks of motherhood and their other work. They do something as simple as discussing an encyclical while their kids played. They have not let being busy, tired moms keep them from forming their minds in truth, but are growing as whole persons.
I hear of book clubs and Bible studies that other moms are apart of, such as those a part of Well-Read Mom groups, Blessed is She small groups, WINE discussion groups, or other parish based groups. These are all things that help us form our minds. We do not have to stop thinking about the things we have loved to study just because we have to think about diapers, potty training, and why that one is such a picky eater. These are important for being a parent, but our whole person needs more than that to really thrive. We need to read and discuss with other so that we know how to be more fully human—a united body and soul.
It is time for us moms to stop selling ourselves short. We are capable of reading good books and having intelligent discussions. If I could read the Federalist Papers, Shakespeare, and papal encyclicals as a high school student, there is no reason I can’t read them and understand them even more now with four kids running around. If I could read Homer, Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and the works of Blessed John Henry Newman in college, I should get more out of it with all of the life experience I have had since then. If you are afraid to pick up a difficult text again, let go of your fear. Just give it a try.
It takes time to warm up the mind to thinking again. Maybe we have to start small, such as with books we read in high school or delve into whatever we studied in college. Yet, for working moms, perhaps you are still doing what you learned in college, and that is awesome. You can think about other things you might like to read. I recently reread The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne on audiobook while I ran on the treadmill. Stretching our minds is not going to always be easy, but WE CAN DO IT. That is my challenge for moms. Let’s use that mom brain. I have found that when I read a challenging book or delve into one of my husband’s philosophy papers for an hour in the afternoon, I come out of it more awake and refreshed than when I spend that time perusing social media. I am more content in my vocation when my whole person is nourished.
We are more than tired moms; we are capable, more capable than we were in college. We have nurtured and are raising human persons in the home and at work; they deserve, we deserve, more than we give ourselves credit for, for us to be thinking, happy moms. And further then that, God wants us to know and study truth. He wants us to be living flourishing, unified human lives.