Motherhood or Brain Transplant?

There is very little in the world that looks the same to me as it did before I had a child, and most of it I did not expect. Some things, like the challenge of watching certain movies or reading certain books, I had heard about before. Just today, in the car, listening to 99% Invisible’s story about the 1964 Anchorage earthquake, tears welled in my eyes because of the stories of people who used the radio station to call out to their loves ones either to reassure or to locate. Immediately, I imagined not being able to find Q and it was hard to breathe, right there on the highway. Of course, before becoming a mother I knew it was sad to be a parent who loses a child… but now I can feel it, too.

It’s like my brain is suddenly wired differently; my thoughts are not my own. Or rather, they are entirely my own but I am broadcasting from a different channel.

I think I noticed my new brain for the first time when I visited my classroom at the end of the year to watch my third graders give their final presentations. My three-week old son was away from me for the first time, wandering campus, happily sleeping on his dad’s chest, and I was free in an exhilarating but sort of melancholy way.  Being on mat leave, I attended the presentations not as my students’ teacher, no longer in charge of the event, but as a casual observer. I sat in the back, among the parents, and watched. The little girls came up to me with smiles and hugs and we exchanged our usual “What are you reading?”s and “I miss you, too”s. But I was completely unprepared for how different my male students looked to me. Like grown up baby boys. My heart melted over the elbow patches on one boy’s jacket. As another approached his mom, right in the middle of a presentation, instead of my usual annoyance over the lack of respect I found myself empathetically wondering what he needed. I felt a deep sense of pride for the boy who worked the computer by himself, the one who emcee’d, and the one who shyly recited his inaccurate facts. I am always proud of my students, especially at the end of the year, but this felt entirely different. I was seeing them, for the first time, through their parents’ eyes. Each child an individual, each one daydreamed about, then birthed and painstakingly raised until this point, each one growing up both slowly and quickly at the same time.

Now, since arriving in Canada for the summer holidays, I have been getting more acquainted with this strange, new worldview; this brain, suddenly inside my head, that thinks like a parent. For example: I used to think a suburb was a boring, uninspired place, entirely lacking in real culture and adventure. Right at this moment, if I’m not careful, this new brain of mine is liable to place an offer on a house I can’t afford just to have a driveway with a car in it, trails out back, and sidewalks lined with grass to walk on. Here’s another example: I recently enjoyed visiting a mall. Me. In a mall. Voluntarily. Previously, I’d have told you that a mall is a place you go when you want to feel badly about yourself and your life, like Facebook but with air conditioning. It’s a place to want things you don’t need, and to spend hard earned money on things you didn’t know you wanted. I would have told you malls were too fancy, too artificial and too consumerist. Then suddenly, there’s a day when there was nowhere I would have rather been. Why? Because the stroller felt smooth on the shiny, clean floor. Because the lighting was pleasant, there were change tables in convenient locations and healthy food was readily available within walking distance.

The new brain did not interview for the job or research the stylistic preferences of its new host. It just appeared one day, seamlessly taking over operations previously managed by its predecessor, quietly rearranging complexity and simplicity to meet its own needs.

Of course, my view is informed by recent living situations as much as my new role as mom. When I lived in the Middle East, malls were made to look like the outdoors because soaring temperatures and dusty air quality made the real deal a challenging place to be and I missed the real sky. Currently, safety concerns in Guatemala City mean public parks aren’t ever on the day’s agenda and I desperately miss the grass between my toes. And I mind these things much more now, when I think about Q’s life instead of just our own. Now, I look at him and I see my suburban, mall-filled childhood in a completely different light.

I know that part of why my brain is different is because my priorities have shifted. Before he was born, I dreamed about raising a child who was worldly. I wanted to give him travel opportunities and exposure to culture, to answer his every question honestly, to keep him unsheltered and aware. I still want those things, on some level, but now those thoughts belong to another brain entirely. Like a COO hired to manage the downsize, my world is shrunk, turned in on itself, and I am looking through entirely different eyes. I never wanted to prioritize safety over adventure but now I am having trouble remembering how anything could possibly matter more.

Like any transplant survivor, I am warily watching my new brain, working to accept it, willing to make compromises as we both adjust, and wondering if it will ever feel completely my own.

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