I realised, after my friends started having children, that our conversations were different. They had all the zeal of intention from before - to share, to discuss, to analyse - but somehow they didn’t seem to bloom in the same way. I’m not referring to the content, but more to the lifespan and completion of a conversation. After my own daughter began to move and demand a little more of my attention than nursing or gurgling as I chatted away, I began to understand. Interruptions from little ones are sometimes sweet and lispy like the first patterings of rain at a picnic, and sometimes boisterous and unsettling like a thunderclap. But they are all a little frustrating because they interrupt the flow of something else which, at that moment, holds your focus more. Of course, my friends and I all accepted that it was simply more difficult now to have meaningful or prolonged conversations when the children were there. We began to ‘postpone’ them to evening phone calls and visits, when we were often tired but longing for some stretches of listening and talking in adult proportions. This is no revelation to anyone with young children, or to anyone trying to have a conversation with someone with young children. It’s fine, it’s a phase, and even a privilege. The revelation to me was that this pattern of interruption was possibly the most exhausting thing about motherhood.
I soon found that there is almost a cultural narrative on tiredness as a new parent. We expect it and accept it, and it’s an easy first answer to those initial queries about ‘how we’re finding it’. But after some time, while that issue may become more severe for some or regress for others, I realised that there are other things that derail one’s former sense of balance far more. For me, it was the exhaustion of interruption rather than sleep deprivation - and of course the two naturally co-mingle - that affected my life so profoundly. And this doesn’t only apply to having conversations with others. As your child grows into a toddler and requires more of your attention and involvement, almost everything is interrupted: daily household tasks, efforts to read or write something, journeys by foot or car, even thought processes. Again, on one level, it’s fine and the bounties of parenthood generally outweigh these adjustments and tests of patience. But the effect is another thing. I’ve found it much harder to see things through, to be coherent. And then it becomes harder to initiate something to begin with, because it simply takes so much more effort and resolve than it used to.
Research unsurprisingly reveals that tasks take longer to complete and more errors are made when a person is interrupted. Many educational approaches, including Montessori, are based on the premise that it is important to allow a child to see through an activity and not be unnecessarily disturbed. It is linked to the capacity to learn, to problem-solve, to process, to be creative. When we are interrupted it is not just that we ‘pause’ what we are doing; we actually lose our focus and frequently have to ‘start again’. When we apply this to parenting, it’s no wonder that we feel life has changed so much. The way we function is forced to change, and we need to quickly find ways of adapting if we are to remain sane. Is this perhaps why so many mothers say that they find ‘going back to work’ actually easier than being with their children full time?
My own small experience of this exhaustion as a parent caused me to reflect on the same phenomenon in the world at large. We are constantly distracted in today’s society, not just by the obvious examples of technology and information overload, but by the assumptions underlying them - that we are always available, reachable, distractible. In a sense, all these ‘interruptions’ in the form of calls, announcements, and screens wherever we go breeds the same impression of a hectic, exhausting life that we find at home with small children. Our internal life of thought is never left alone.
I don’t mean to devalue the incredible changes that also occur at this time of parenthood. What are these ‘interruptions’? It is a brand new little person, living fully in the present, overflowing with curiosity, learning about everything through you, and needing you intensely - it’s an eye-opening, inestimable gift. But it’s also very hard to exist permanently in this mode of consciousness when so much has to be done - and when you very legitimately need time to just think, breathe and be.
This post first appeared on A Searching Eye