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This Is Your Brain on Noise

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Parents: How tired are you?

Exhausted, right?

I thought so. But why?

Is she really asking me why?

I am. But only because I just figured something out that I should have understood years ago. Yeah, my body is tired, but if I'm being honest, it's my mind that could really use a 12-year nap.

Some of our exhaustion as parents is indeed physical. In terms of small children, it's things like the endless clean-up and assistance factor. With babies, it's sleep deprivation. Lugging an infant car seat around. Schlepping a stroller in and out of the trunk. The gear. The nursing. It's tiring, for sure. But I feel like my body, most days, can handle the running around, the lack of sleep, the 1,363 lunges to pick up the dropped food and the toy that keeps hitting the floor, the wrestling of the baby into a jacket.

But what I've only recently put my finger on is the mental exhaustion of raising kids. I don't know why it took me so long to figure this out. Perhaps cause-and-effect equations have never been my strong suit. Or maybe I just haven't been able to hear myself think since 2007.

I've come to realize that my brain is completely dulled by noise. It sounds obvious, right? The constant hum, or roar, of noise in a house with kids. Sometimes, it's in the background -- a zillion consecutive bing bing bing bings of my son battling Stormtroopers in the family room. Or my daughter singing the first and only line she knows from the Frozen songs, over and over and over. Don't get me wrong: It's charming at first, when not drowned out by the baby crying or, on our best days, everyone competing with each other in one dysfunctional crescendo.

Other times, the noise is distinctly in the forefront. The crying. The bickering. And, of course, the questions. You know, childhood.

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When the day is done, I often sit on my couch in the stark silence for a few minutes so my brain remembers what that's like. Did you hear that? It was the sound of wine hitting the bottom of my glass. It was the sound of my mindless magazine opening. It was the sound of me hitting Like on a few Facebook posts I read on an uninterrupted basis.

Of course I expect noise. It comes with the territory. But at some point, it began eating my brain and swallowing things like complete thoughts and witty remarks.

But it's not just the noise that drives us to the brink of exhaustion. It's problem-solving, mediation and debate. Why didn't I pay closer attention to these subjects in college?

Solving complex equations, for starters. I read somewhere that a woman's brain is like having a million browser windows open at the same time, and it's true. Behold:

  • If I have to leave for school drop-off in seven minutes, do I have time to feed the baby, sign the school permission slip, set up the crock pot for dinner, move the laundry and make sure everyone is wearing jackets and shoes? But where are my keys?
  • If we're going from school right to gymnastics this afternoon and I have nothing for dinner, can I get to the grocery store in a 12-minute window previously reserved for my shower? Seriously, where are my keys?
  • Do we like Juan Pablo as The Bachelor? Why can't he properly secure his daughter in a car seat? Don't the ABC producers see this?
  • How am I already an hour late for something that's not happening for a week?
  • Milk money is due tomorrow. Why can't I pay this online? Oh crap, I only have three more days left for my 365-day Zappos return. Pre-school Show & Tell is the letter I this week -- WTF starts with an I? Can I put ice in her backpack? How about an infant? Yes, an infant! Then I could use that time to get my flu shot and stop by the cub scout store for that badge I have to sew on. Wait, do we have thread? Oh good, there's my cell phone -- in the fridge. How many Weight Watchers points are in a stick of butter? We're out of chicken nuggets? Holy sh*t. AND WHERE ARE MY F*CKING KEYS?

I know I am far from alone in saying that I go to sleep and wake up with my brain firing like this. It is the anti-calm. Especially when it is repeatedly interrupted mid-thought by shoe tying and bathroom assistance requests.

I remember from my corporate days the feeling of my mind overloading with fluid information and critical facts to make a quick decision. And, honestly, most days, the sh*t running through my head now is somehow just as stressful. I know that's hard to believe. And I say this not to pit working moms against stay-at-home-moms, because I have been both, but to map out a frame of reference. (Unless you work for the woman who was my boss from 1999-2003, in which case, you win the stressful gold medal. Please step forward to retrieve it, along with your express ticket to heaven.)

If complex equations are not wearing you out, let's visit the lost art of sibling mediation.

Today, for instance, I negotiated the following:

  • The safe release of a certain princess hostage from the grip of ninja warriors.
  • The share time of a singular and untouched-for-the-last-three-years toy car that is missing a wheel.
  • The distribution of vegetables between the pro-broccoli and the pro-corn set.
  • Possession of the remote control.
  • The replacement of an uncomfortable sock due to poor seam placement.
  • Selection of a bedtime book.
  • The order of entrance into the minivan.
  • Who gets the red cup today.
  • Bath or shower? Bath or shower? Bath or shower? OMG, PICK ONE.

I keep looking for my diplomat license plates to arrive in the mail, obviously, but the UN seems to have lost my address. I need to follow up with them because those plates could probably get me some preferential placement in the school car line.

And, finally, debate. Why, oh why, did I not doggedly pursue a spot on the varsity debate team? I would be so much more eloquent and prepped in my rebuttals to the following broken record:

  • Wait...
  • Just one more minute...
  • Can I just...
  • But...
  • But, but, but...
  • I just want...
  • Why can't I have...?
  • I don't want to...
  • It's not fair...

It's the phenomenon of most requests being met with some caveat, protest or level of resistance. On my best days, my responses are calm and textbookish and parental. On other days, they are emotional and tired and, well, parental.

I know it's not just the sounds within my house that are exhausting. They echo off the walls in every family. And I'm sure these sounds and debates morph as kids grow. They change into real problems and issues beyond requesting a snack every 76 seconds or choosing exactly which cup should be for milk and not for water because who the hell knows why. I anticipate that weariness comes from very deep worries and debates escalate over truly legitimate concerns down the road.

And do I dismiss the noise of laughter, bad knock-knock jokes, a baby cooing and family room dance parties? No, I don't. That noise reboots my brain when its levels hit that of the blinking red light on my phone battery (has anyone seen my charger?).

I appreciate that feeling like my ears are bleeding from the sound of my name being called is something I will miss when they no longer need me for every little thing. And that day will be here sooner than I can imagine.

But, in the meantime, I think it's OK to feel exhausted and grateful for the tiny pockets of quiet between the madness.

This post originally appeared on The Fordeville Diaries.

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