For centuries, scientists have tried to map the female brain. While its exterior shape may be slightly smaller than its male counterpart, its inner circuitry is vast, complex, and spectacular.
It’s also wired for worry.
Take my midlife mom brain for example:
If you don’t know me well, you might think I’m quiet and reserved.
But if someone were to remove the lid to my egghead, with let’s say a can opener, you’d probably have to run for cover from the slew of to-dos, logistics, longings, concerns, and unresolved dilemmas that would surely burst out of my cortex and jello-y wrinkled lobes like a deafening pyrotechnic display.
I read somewhere that each person has an average of 60,000 thoughts per day. Heck, some days it seems I darn-near meet that quota in the time it takes me to sort through a basket of socks.
My oldest is going on her first college tour this summer. My middle child is setting his alarm clock for high school. My youngest is contemplating her first-day outfit for middle school. My husband’s sleep cycle is wreaking havoc working overnight shifts. My mom is persevering at home with advanced Parkinson’s. My dad is managing their care and household tasks best he can. A second career is taunting me from the sidelines. Our closets are upheavaling. Laundry is piling. Dinner prep is calling. Dark is barking. My calcium level is sliding. Perimenopause is lurking. . .
And my inners are going FIZZ POP CRACKLE KABOOM!
Female brains are as varied as the colors in a fireworks spectra. But I think it’s safe to say each in its own way is in full force more often than not.
While men generally navigate from the left side of their brain, women typically navigate from both sides thanks to a wider bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two. Therefore, logic and analysis from her left constantly ping-pong with emotion and intuition from her right.
The female flood of fret picks up speed around puberty. Stress levels climb. Moods plunge. Sensitivity to pain and rejection turns her world upside down. It’s a roller coaster of estrogen and progesterone.
Fortunately, she’s naturally driven to connect and talk and work things out. Usually things settle down in a few years.
But then the mother-lode of all human events occurs: woman meets child. Hormones of fierce love, protectiveness, and anxiety erupt through her like luminous shards in the sky.
By the time she reaches life’s half-way mark, those hormones are so frenzied from worrying about her children, spouse, aging parents, siblings, friends, and the whole doggone universe, she can be as moody as a teenager again.
During this time, she may experience vague, indescribable feelings. An emptiness perhaps.
She may hardly recognize her own reflection.
She begins to face mortality. Not only her own but also that of those she so dearly loves.
Memories and longings ascent to the surface.
She feels she’s running out of time.
She asks herself probing questions. Who am I? Is this all there is? Now what?
She examines where she wants to be in life vs. where she actually is.
And then, once again, something magical and mysterious takes place: Her composition begins to shift. Her wealth of wisdom and experience allows the brain capacity to rewire itself.
Regions and winding pathways she never knew were there come into view. Response to new experiences sharpen. She feels the sun on her face and tufts of grass between her toes. Smells a hint of pine and the sweet fragrance of lilac. Hears the sounds of a creek and a lark and a loon, and for the first time in a long time, echos of her own voice from deep within.
What she does from that point is as unpredictable as a bottle rocket. But one thing’s for sure. Whichever study concluded the female brain begins to fizzle at midlife is full of malarkey.
I have high hope of eventually finding my way to a clearing of calm. A place from where I can give and love from a less distracted self. For now, I manage the inner mayhem best I know how:
I pray. I walk. I write.
I hide in the pantry. I eat Oreo Thins. On occasion, I sip some brandy.
And this fall, I’ll also take refuge in a new season of This Is Us. Because the right side of my brain could really use a good cry.
I’m Julie Jo Severson, mom to two teens and a tween, freelance writer, editor, and co-curator of HERE IN THE MIDDLE: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between.
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