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Why Mom Your Brain?

Safe refuge (reworked from original). Acrylic on canvas. Meydenbauer, 2022.

Most people intuitively get what I mean when I say Mom Your Brain, but it’s worth unpacking a bit. The mom I’m referring to isn’t necessarily your mom nor is it you, as a mom. Because you don’t even have to have kids, nor even be female. After all, we humans all possess the instinct to take care of others: other humans, animals, plants, communities.

Mom Your Brain is a shorthand that I’m using to invoke that innate caring instinct that all humans possess. And my basic premise is that we need to intentionally channel some of that caring towards looking after our own brain health. Our modern day lives expose us to many risks that predispose us to chronic conditions. These diseases compromise our bodies and minds, and have the potential to burden our loved ones with our care in the future.

Mom Your Brain is a shorthand that I use to invoke our innate caring instinct

So “momming your brain” means proactively engaging in lifestyle habits using mental hygiene tools and practices, so that we can be healthy of mind and body at our 100th birthday parties and beyond. And in so doing, we are actually also protecting our families, ensuring that we can continue to role model what it looks like to age with grace and wisdom.

My mothering instinct

It’s perhaps not surprising that I first became aware of my mothering instinct after the birth of my son in 1992. What’s surprising is how that instinct showed up to ferociously defend my decision to breastfeed him, in defiance of my mom and generations of disapproval. I had mostly been a pretty obedient daughter, so it came as a shock to us both when I exhibited the kind of backbone that I hadn’t even known I possessed.

My mom insisted that milk formula was a gift from modern science, invented to liberate women from tyranny. And she took exception to the idea that somehow she had been misinformed when she had decided to bottle feed, back when I was a baby. Her own mother (my grandma Nai Nai) had employed wet nurses to feed her babies, because it was considered beneath women of a certain social strata to breastfeed.

Photo by Carlos Santiago

But as a doctor, I knew that an even more modern set of research studies supported the many benefits of breastfeeding. And with the support of my mothering instinct, I politely but firmly explained that no one was questioning the quality of her own mothering. Parents and indeed doctors, make the best decisions that we can with the information that we have at the time, but medical science is often forced to backtrack on “truths” as new discoveries are made.

My mothering instinct showed up to defy generational parenting traditions

Looking back over the decades, I realize that my mothering instinct has shown up most often to support other decisions that defied generational parenting traditions that didn’t make sense to me. Like focusing exclusively on academic performance or showing love only when children had earned approval.

Beyond direct parenting, my mothering instinct also pushed me to do a better job of taking care of myself. The best example of this is when I stepped foot in a gym for the first time postpartum. It wasn’t so much to lose the baby weight, look good nor even to get fit. I started exercising regularly because I wanted my kids to grow up in a family that stayed active together.

Dragon vs panda moms

I believe that mothers have been cherished throughout history because we know that motherhood drives us instinctively to put our children first and to protect our families. We see this repeatedly across humanity and in other species. Mothers willingly sacrifice their own needs, putting the needs of their offspring first.

But this mothering behavior doesn’t seem to last in Nature. Fledgling birds are pushed out of the nest at the end of the season. Baby animals all grow up and eventually have to survive on their own. So at some point moms instinctively know when it’s time to reject their young, forcing them out to make room for the next litter of babies.

Photo by Eva Bronzini

My mom parented in a similar fashion, pushing us to be independent and self-sufficient at an early age. My brother and I often joke that she was not so much a tiger mom as a dragon mom. She was often away for work, but when she flew back to check in on us, she would often leave a trail of criticism and punishment that was intended to instill fear and respect. To her credit, she believed that this was the best way to build mental toughness and resilience for the cold, cruel world we would encounter in the future.

My own parenting philosophy was more about exploring the conflicts between the Confucian style traditions as handed down through the generations in my family, and the most permissive approaches of the West. I wanted my children to be raised with love rather than fear and respect, but I was often challenged by my mom on this approach.

My daughter Erin often complained that I should have pushed her to get better grades in high school, noting that I was not so much a tiger mom as a panda mommy. It’s true that I emphasized robust channels of communication and connection over academic performance. I suppose it was my own way of exposing my kids to the consequences of their own academic performance, as perceived by the cold, cruel world. They were supported, but not sheltered from facing the music of their own making.

Momming my brain

In my experience, being a mom has consistently driven me to become better and better versions of myself. Not that I can always deliver on my aspirations, moms are after all imperfect humans, as we all are. But I find that often the most important motivator for me to keep trying, is to consider how doing so helps my family.

I love the reciprocity of the feedback loop that I now have with my adult kids. As I’ve been working to build back more aerobic capacity on my Peloton in recent months, I think about the conversations I’ve had with Erin about triathlon training. I love that she recently won a 10K race in her age category, and that she is now training for a half marathon.

My kids “mom” me, as much as I mother them

It’s so gratifying to know that I have succeeded in breaking a cycle of sedentary inactivity that had been handed down over generations. It’s been over a decade since I ran my last half-marathon, and I had taken a long hiatus from the gym and bike. But it was relatively easy to make a comeback because of the inspiration provided by my kids - it’s like they are “momming” me, as much as I mother them.

Another way that I mom my brain is by reframing self care as brain care. Like when my mind wants to offer that I have worked hard and therefore deserve to eat a cookie as a treat. My old mindset would definitely have followed through with indulging in that cookie, and perhaps several more. I would have enjoyed it for a few brief moments before the shame and guilt set in, and before Milly showed up to perpetuate that self-abuse.

Nowadays, I’ve discerned the difference between self care and escape. Not that I would never have a cookie, but I recognize that sometimes cookies are more about indulging in an escape or numbing experience. So I get to ask myself what would be a truly indulgent, “guilty” pleasure that won’t have the potential to harm my brain and my metabolic health. Perhaps going for a long walk while listening to fiction or doing some art. (These may not seem so guilty to others, but they were frowned upon as a waste of time by my dragon mom, back in the day.)

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

I know that my brain is incredibly fragile and prone to both physical and mental damage that is cumulative over my lifetime. But the good news is that I’m learning how to fully engage my supercomputer mind to protect myself and my family.

My mothering instinct helps nudge me to make the tiny shifts like practicing better sleep habits and addressing mental hygiene through regular self coaching. And every little tweak today means that I’m shifting the trajectory towards being able to protect and mom my family for generations to come.

Dr Em coaching tips

Sleep is one of the highest leverage habits to focus on for improving current brain function, as well as accruing protection against brain ageing diseases like dementia.

  • Start by deciding what aspect of current brain function you’d like to improve, like energy level, focus, memory or speed.

  • Rate your current level of satisfaction on a scale of 0-10 out of 10, and write it down.

  • What’s the easiest habit you can shift to improve your sleep hygiene? e.g. reading a book or kindle instead of your phone before bed, cut your alcohol intake by half of the usual amount, or going to bed 15 mins earlier.

  • Commit to trying this new behavior for a week. Notice what gets in the way of doing it (e.g. did you forget? Too tired? Too much to read/do?), and jot down how your brain function is on that 1-10 scale.

  • At the week of a week, decide if you want to keep focusing on this habit, or what might be easier? Remember that the best habit change is the one that you can be consistent with.



Best-selling book author James Clear describes how tiny changes are not only easier for us to make, but they can build into much more sustainable and powerful results.

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