I have a love-hate relationship with parenting books. An entire cottage industry has emerged out of our frustrations, guilt and confusion. They offer you their techniques and philosophies which I occasionally try and adopt, mainly because I’m really worried my Millennial children will take to YouTube and tell everyone what a terrible mum I am.
So far though, none of the parenting books I’ve read have talked about memory. My latest theory, untested and not peer reviewed unless you count my friends nodding and pouring me another glass of wine, is that one of the biggest parental challenges we face is just how much stuff we need to remember.
Back when my PFB (precious first born) was tiny and my brain was saturated with oxytocin and entonox I made a rash promise to myself. With the diligence and seriousness of the swottiest Girl Guide I vowed to myself I would never, ever let my baby down. I wouldn’t disappoint or flounder and there would certainly be none of the procrastinating and winging-it that had characterised my life until that moment. This was a new grown up version of me and I was going to get this mothering lark right.
It wasn’t a vow I made again with my subsequent two children. By then I had learnt the hard way that “Mum Fails” are part and parcel of the job. When my PFB was just days old I had no idea that my brain was going to be permanently stuck in “cramming for an exam” mode.
Back in the 1950s a psychologist George Miller came up with the theory that the working memory can only hold about seven pieces of new information at one time. Miller’s magic number seven is now thought to be more like a measly four. I think three of my four are always Octonaut facts. Our ability to take on and remember new bits of information is seriously impacted by lack of sleep, distractions, stress and what we do with those memories. So, in short, having children will impair your ability to retain information whilst simultaneously giving you loads more to remember. If you don’t write something down or tell someone within twenty seconds it’ll vanish faster than a politician after a car crash radio interview.
It’s widely accepted that our working memory is limited but there is still a shame, and worry, attached to forgetting things. It’s embarrassing to appear absent minded and we feel like we’re the only ones in a brain fog who double book ourselves. It’s why we can’t admit that we have absolutely no idea what Tilly’s mum is called even though we’ve known her for two years.
Most of the time my brain functions like an old laptop in need of a software upgrade and with too many tabs open. I’m not just trying to focus on the four things in my working memory I’m also trying to predict mishaps and problems too, at home and at work. Then there’s trying preempt the things other people in the house are going to forget. They’ve not forgotten them yet, but they will, so I’m trying to remember to tell them not to forget.
Currently I’m working from home, trying to meet a deadline and simultaneously worrying about whether I’ve filled out my son’s passport form in time for a school trip. Even as I type this I’m being asked where the green and blue maps are. For the record they aren’t green or blue, and they aren’t even maps, but I know what my tearful middle child is looking for and I can remember where she left them. It’s a small win in otherwise chaotic domestic scene.
Inevitably our luck sometimes runs out and our memory stalls. I’ve taken an excited child to a party at the wrong time, turning up at going home time. My friend Nicky has not just once, but twice, forgotten half term and arrived at an empty school with her three girls. I’ve packed for a family holiday and failed to include any clothes for me. Louise wins though for leaving her child’s passport in the fridge, putting it in there instead of the milk, before heading to the airport.
We’ve all seen weeping children in their school uniforms on dress up day and we live with an undefined dread that at any moment we could remember something vital, but just too late.
Our days are filled with dodging bullets. It’s last minute school projects, missed supermarket deliveries and high speed dashes to work. We are exposed to more information in one day than our pre 16th Century ancestors were in their lifetime. So if you have a Mum Fail remember to give yourself a break, it’s not being a bad parent, it’s just working memory overload. On the plus side though, I can recite the names of all the Octonauts so that’s my Mastermind specialist subject sorted.
Maybe smiling while winging-it is the best WoMo technique after all.
By Emilie Silverwood-Cope.
A version of this article appeared in Cambridge Independent on May 10th 2017.