Why becoming a parent makes you forget your life pre-children

Parent mum with two children hugging on sofa. (Getty Images)
Do you find it hard to remember your life before becoming a parent? (Getty Images)

Can't remember your life pre-children? Is your former self and old lifestyle a bit of a haze?

You'll likely already be aware you're not alone, with this felt by many parents, especially mums. But why is this and what actually causes it?

Here, BACP-registered psychotherapist Hannah Beckett-Pratt and Dr Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist, discuss – and clue, there's more going on than just so-called 'baby brain'.

A profile view of a pregnant mid adult woman looking at the ultrasound photos of her baby.
'Maternal preoccupation' has a big part to play in it. (Getty Images)

"The processes of pregnancy and birth can be useful as an analogy for what happens for women psychologically and intrapsychically [occurring within the mind] when they become mothers.

"Just as pregnancy is a time for the unborn baby to develop and prepare to enter the outside world, it is also a time where the woman is preparing to 'give birth' to her mothering self," explains Beckett-Pratt.

The psychotherapist explains this can happen consciously, perhaps through the mother's thoughts about what her life with her baby might be like and how she wants to mother, and unconsciously, where the connection to the child in the womb develops her 'mothering' part.

"This process is called 'maternal preoccupation' and intensifies after birth, in order for the mother and baby to form an attachment so the baby can survive and develop," adds Beckett-Pratt.

"In the postpartum months when the infant is entirely dependent on the mother, maternal preoccupation is so strong that it is difficult for the mother to envisage herself without her baby – hence it feeling somehow impossible that she once had a life without a baby.

Father and sons watching TV at home
There can be benefits for all parents when it comes to deciding to live your life a different way after children. (Getty Images)

"Humans all begin life in the womb, as an inseparable part of our mothers. Birth and the cutting of the umbilical cord launches us into separation before we are really ready, as human babies cannot survive alone, like many animal species can. So, a symbiosis with the mother in postpartum months, where the mother will be completely preoccupied with her baby’s needs is necessary to enable the infant to gradually transition to life in the external world outside of the womb and to develop a sense of itself as a separate identity aside from the mother."

But, adds Beckett-Pratt, "Unfortunately, for fully-grown adult women, maternal preoccupation can be totally disorientating because we are not used to being completely consumed by the needs of a dependent 'other' in this way and it leads us to bizarre new states of mind as we integrate our new 'mother' identity with our 'woman' identity."

Two mothers at hospital ward holding their new born baby boy.
More research is needed on how this affects father's and non-birthing parents. (Getty Images)

These disorientating experiences, she explains, might include forgetting who we were, what we did before we had a baby, finding it hard to return to work because we now feel like a different person, or difficulty relating to and understanding ourselves and our partners.

Circling back to the 'conscious' aspect of the transition, Dr Trent, also host of The Aspiring Psychologist Podcast, says, "It may be that if you feel you've forgotten your life pre-children or that your life looks very different, you did make that mindful consideration to live a different life, something that might not look like going out drinking to bars or staying up late.

For Dr Trent, when her little boys were younger, In the Night Garden became a part of the daily structure. "This actually helped keep us all well," she adds. "So it's whether you're just making that mindful connection to do something different while they're little. But, there still ought to be aspects of your life ultimately that are about you as a person, not just as a parent."

"It can and does happen for fathers and non-pregnant, non-birthing partners, but the transition is different. Maternal preoccupation describes the biological process of pregnancy and birth and so it is likely that the process is different in the partner who does not carry or birth the baby," explains Beckett-Pratt.

Sadly, she points out, there's not much research around this currently.

Mother giving a kiss her baby boy
Studies suggest pregnancy can offset baby brain, but is this helpful language to use?

With everyone different, in terms of specific memories pre-children, Dr Trent says she can remember lots, dating back almost 25 years with undergrad friends. "I actually think that the term baby brain can be really unhelpful," she says.

"People, even when pregnant, will say 'it's just my baby brain' or 'I'm overly emotional because I'm pregnant' when in actual fact, no, if somebody's been insensitive, or they've hurt your feelings and you've cried, that's not because you're pregnant, it's because they've been insensitive and hurt your feelings. So we must be careful that we're not invalidating ourselves."

Dr Trent points out that differences in actual memories are more likely down to differences in the individual's memory itself, whether better or worse. "It's also important to think about what we know about how memories are created initially, but also what keeps them in place. So we have the original memory that gets put down and if we never talk about it or think about it again, then there's going to be less neural pathways that lead us there," the psychologist explains.

"But if it's something we might have recounted on previous get-togethers with friends, family, partners, or children, then we're putting down new traces for access, memory retrieval. But then of course, that then pollutes the original memory."

Dr Trent warns that telling a woman she's forgotten something because her brain's 'gone to mush' due to pregnancy or new motherhood can be in danger of gaslighting.

Smiling mother with sleeping son sitting by friends at home. Happy females are with baby boy in domestic room. They are spending leisure time.
Surround yourself with people you love and trust from your life pre-children if you can. (Getty Images)

Firstly, Beckett-Pratt wants mothers to accept this process is supposed to happen. "It can feel very alienating and unexpected to 'forget' who one was as a woman before children and often women misattribute this as something which shouldn’t be happening, as though they should remember their 'old self' and seamlessly integrate themselves into motherhood, feeling complete and whole," she says.

"But pregnancy and birth involve the most significant change in the self since we were born ourselves and so in many ways, we are as new to our motherhood identity as our baby is to their new life outside of the womb. We would not expect our baby to know who they are as a person in their first few years of life and yet we seem to expect this from ourselves as mothers – self-compassion and patience are key here."

The psychotherapist emphasises the importance of good support. "Especially in the first few months of motherhood. Studies show time and time again that if the mother feels well cared for and looked after, she has an easier time transitioning to being a mother. Being able to ask for and receive help from partners, family, friends and maternal health professionals is crucial."

While Dr Trent acknowledges not all aspects of parenting will be enjoyable and it's normal to find looking after a screaming baby hard, she adds, "We can be aware of postnatal depression, which can happen almost as an adjustment disorder for both genders, mums and dads. If people are feeling like life is not worth living, there isn't any joy in their life, or they're not getting the joy they might expect from time with their children, then this might be a sign to reach out for support or opt for a non-judgemental conversation that feels safe with a GP or a mental health professional.

"This might be a great step because life is supposed to be enjoyable and we should be able to at least have some time in the moment that feels this way."

Whatever you're going through, you can call Samaritans for free any time on 116 123.