GUEST BLOG POST: This is Your Brain on Parenting by Katrina Alcorn, author, Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink

 Excerpted from Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013. 

Do you ever feel as if being a parent has turned you into an expert multitasker? It probably has. Studies show that in mammals, caring for their young is associated with improved learning ability and fearlessness.

 For example, experiments show that mother rats outsmart their childless counterparts at navigating mazes and capturing prey. That’s because in pregnant and nursing mice, dendrites, the special cell structures that are necessary for communication between neurons, are doubled. And glial cells, which are important communication conductors, are also doubled. This is what allows mother mice to learn mazes more quickly than others. (Sorry, dads, I have not read anything indicating that fathers experience a similar boost in brainpower.)

Of course, even with our extra dendrites and glial cells, we mothers still have our limits. Studies show that the amount of multitasking working parents do has doubled since the mid-’70s. Research also shows that too much multitasking has the same effect on our IQs as a bong hit. It makes us do stupid things. And yet, life with young children often requires an absurd, stuntman level of multitasking—something we do more than half our waking time.

Our heads are crammed with mundane chores and challenges—the donation for the teacher gift, the overdue DVDs, the work file we need to resend. One kid won’t eat food that’s not white. The other kid is starting to use the potty and doesn’t own any underwear. So we miss our train stop. We return the DVDs to the library without a DVD in the case. We burn the rice. We write cryptic notes on the calendar that we can’t read an hour later. We promptly lose our new pair of glasses, search for them frantically for twenty minutes, only to find them on top of our own head.

I first noticed the stoner effect of multitasking after Ruby was born, when I randomly started switching around dates and times. I arrived an hour early for a dentist appointment. I showed up for a meeting at her day care in the wrong week. It became a joke between Brian and me—how I should write everything on my body, like that guy in the movie Memento. Haha! Funny!

After Jake was born, it stopped being funny. I left my debit card in the AT M twice in two months. I would lose my train of thought in midconversation. Another time, in my rush to get in the house with a crying baby and his cranky older sister, make dinner, and simultaneously answer an urgent email, I left the keys in the front door lock and didn’t discover them until the next morning.

I began to worry that I had some sort of incipient dementia. An informal poll of my mommy friends reassured me that I was not alone. Lee said she showed up with her kids for an Easter egg hunt a week early. My friend Lily said she started running a bath for the kids, then forgot about it until it overflowed the tub. Another mom I knew told me she had a full basket of groceries with her two kids in tow when she realized she’d left her wallet at work. And another said she managed to actually buy her groceries and even pack them into the car, but when she turned on the car to drive home, the frantic cries from the parking lot informed her she’d forgotten to pack her daughter in the car; luckily, no one was hurt. My favorite was from a mom from Ruby’s school, who confessed that the night before, she’d found her son’s pajamas in the freezer, next to the ice cream. Right where she’d put them.

About the Author

Katrina Alcorn is a writer and an experienced design consultant. She holds a master’s degree in journalism and documentary filmmaking from UC Berkeley, and is a regular blogger at and for The Huffington Post.

Since 1999, Alcorn’s day job has been leading design projects with corporations in a variety of industries to help them put technology in the service of people. This work has given her an insider’s glimpse into dozens of companies-from Fortune 500s to small startups-and she has spoken at more than a dozen design conferences internationally. She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and three children.

Alcorn was a 37-year-old mother of three with a loving husband and a dream job when one day, on the way to the store to buy diapers, she had a nervous breakdown. Her carefully built career came to a halt, and her journey through depression, anxiety, and insomnia-followed by medication, meditation, and therapy-began. Over time, as she began to ask herself how she was unable to meet the demands of having a career and a family, she realized she wasn’t the only one.

Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink (Seal Press / $16.00 / September 2013) is the account of one working mom’s struggle to “have it all,” her subsequent breakdown, and the discovery that she was not alone.  Weaving research into her personal story, Alcorn makes a compelling social critique about the dysfunction between the careers and home lives of working mothers, as well as the consequences to women’s health. She ultimately offers readers a vision of change at every level, from our homes and hearts to our workplaces to government policies, resulting in a healthier, happier, and more productive way to work and live.