Did I return to work? I can't remember

Friday, Sep 7, 2012, 12:54 AM | Source: The Conversation

Olivia Carter

Screen shot at AM
With every new day baby Max learns new things and his mum forgets old things. Olivia Carter

I have now been back at work for three weeks … or is it four?

On my first day back I was late getting home because it took me 20 minutes to remember where I parked my car. On my second day I left both my office keys and my wallet at home, so when I finally managed to borrow a spare set of keys to get into my office, I had to scrounge through my desk to find enough money to buy a chocolate bar - the cheapest calorie-rich food I could think of.

Every time I meet with one of my students I need them to remind me where we are up to with experiments and other jobs.

I have a to-do list, but it makes no sense because the brief notes were written to jog my memory cannot completely resuscitate it.

I wonder if my increased absent-mindedness could be grounds for early promotion to Professor.

I never felt like I suffered from “baby brain” while I was pregnant and working full-time, so I am not sure if my serious decline in mental capacity is due to the current hormonally-altered state of my brain, sleep deprivation, or the sheer fact that I am working reduced hours and am spending most of my days focused on keeping my baby and toddler alive and entertained.


I always hear other mothers talk about their complete inability to remember things. My mother-in-law famously once received a phone call at home from the greengrocer informing her she had left one of her children at the register.

A recently published review of the scientific literature suggests that while 50-80% of women believe they have experienced deficits in their memory functioning during and after pregnancy, objective measures find only subtle impairments.

Not only is it hard to find evidence of cognitive impairments, some of the research looking at memory in rats actually shows some memory improvements. However, it’s a little hard to know how these measures relate to the sort of daily tasks I am faced with, such as writing papers and organising the weekly department colloquia series. I certainly can’t see any evidence of improvement in my cognitive function.

Indeed, my newfound state of confusion reminds me of a comment made by a reader in response to one of my earlier pieces suggesting that tax payers’ money could be better spent paying people capable of doing jobs properly rather than holding jobs for parents on leave or struggling to concentrate at work.

I agree this point is worthy of discussion. I certainly acknowledge I am not attacking my work with the relentless energy I had during my PhD and post-doctoral years before kids.

The reality is that, while I feel confident I’ll be able to achieve my primary responsibilities at work, I know my overall productivity will be down and my ability to do the little extras required to advance a career will be reduced.

At this point I can only hope my career and contribution to teaching and research will be judged through a wide-angle lens. Some women (or men) may have a dip in their careers if they choose to take some time out to focus on family.

But if everyone was sent out to pasture with decades of working life remaining, that would surely be an even greater waste of accumulated knowledge, skills and tax-payer dollars.

The Conversation