A strange calm has come over neurotic me and I don’t trust it.
In a few days I turn 40. I expected crises of self, of life choices, of personal demons.
But they’re not here yet, and I don’t think they’re coming.
Almost all of the past year has been clouded by selfhood panic. (Lest that seem dramatic, one month of every quarter of every year of my life has been in that same category. So while it was a marathon session of exploration, longing, and frustration, a year of existential melancholy was still within the realm of my normal.) I spent the year mourning decisions long since irrevocable. Convinced of terminal failures of self and of dreams. Planning the next month, year, and decade. Revisiting the knowledge that there are no right answers and beaten down by the perception that mine are all wrong answers.
I’ve been poring over psychology books to try to tame perfectionism, gain perspective about parenthood, manage expectations, soothe wanderlust, and jump start solutions. I have notebooks full of exercises to reveal my true passions, potential paths toward happiness, and actualizing mantras.
It’s like binging on every Oprah magazine ever published.
This process of self discovery has been going on, in stops and starts, for sixteen years. I remember the first book I bought, too, when a series of massive roadblocks thrown up in my path made me crumple, defeated for the first time in my general pattern of goal-oriented, driven pattern of achievement. The death of, “I know what I want so I will charge toward it full force; I’m choosing to change direction and will charge toward the next thing full force…” rocked me to the core. And I’ve been foundering for most of my adult life.
So a milestone birthday should really freak me out.Why isn’t it?
Because the notebook is working. The “find the person I’m meant to be” stuff is netting out results I’ve always known, and that is more reassuring than I thought it would be. And maybe feeling less lost because I’ve been found all along is part of my existential calm.
Perhaps it’s watching how normal my crises of selfhood are just makes me feel comfortable to freak out amongst friends.
But over the past few years, two realities came to me thanks to personality assessments. One was borne of end-point confusion over how to handle my son. The other lucky is happenstance thanks to a book I flipped through at someone’s house.
What I found actually shocked me. It shouldn’t have. I know I’m an extroverted INTJ. I know I’m a red yellow. I know both my son and I are highly spirited. Name the assessment and I can tell you my score.
But perhaps I’ve missed the forest for the trees. I thought everyone abandoned their shopping cart and ran out of stores when the overhead pages to the deli got to be too much. I thought all humans absolutely lost their ability to think straight when three children are laughing and jumping joyously and safely nearby. I believed everyone could taste the hint of mold in that batch of soda. I thought that when trying to cook with two small children clamoring to watch all moms flipped from Hercules to Medusa if an additional person then quietly asked where the car keys are.
I hit sensory overload with too many stimuli, and I thought that was normal.
It is, of course. But my Too Much, as with about twenty percent of sentient creatures, hits way earlier than for others. Sensory input (sights, smells, temperature, sounds, complex combinations) often feels a lot like constant panic to me. What some people find fun I find physically stressful.
And I didn’t really notice until I became a mom, in part because I could follow my own needs before I was a mom.
I’ve written about how I used to retreat to the corporate bathroom when work got too stressful. And how I need days to calm down after a party. Not because I don’t like work or parties. Because it takes all of my energy to function in intense situations and it takes a lot of solitude to get that energy back.
Turns out that highly sensitive people feel that way, too.
[Note: I refuse to use the acronym HSP or the phrasing that makes being sensitive to stimuli seem like a diagnosis. Hating loud sounds and bright colors and intense smells, and feeling that daily life is unbearably chaotic does not make me a clinical type. It’s who I am. Finding out it’s a category of personality helps me frame my reality differently. But I refuse to label it. Labels simultaneously feel like condescension and crutch.]
The remedies for those who process sensory information differently make sense, but are laughable to a full-time parent.
Take frequent breaks in a quiet, calm environment.
Take time off at least every three months.
Keep healthy calorie intake steady through the day.
Keep lights and sounds low.
Get lots of sleep.
Wear noise-reducing headphones or earplugs.
Have a space in your house to which you can retreat when overwhelmed.
Bahahahaha ha ha ha ha! Let me go propose that list to my children so we can all laugh together.
As reassuring as it is to find that my reactions to stimuli are actually different from others’ and that there is a simple and normal reason I process input the way I do, this information initially felt as though I’m destined to be a bad mother. I don’t want to play for long periods of time. I don’t want to scream and sing and jump and run wild. At times I want it quiet, and I get overwhelmed in a lot of very typical situations. I Capital-N need to be alone.
Sorry, but none of that fits with what I think a successful mom is.
The intense, complicated, chaotic, or new situations that make me feel overstimulated are pretty much the default of parenthood.
So I’m naturally built to be overwhelmed by and upset by parenting?
That’s a problem, yo. Because I chose to stay home to raise amazing human beings. I chose to redirect my creative and intellectual energies into enjoying, teaching, and modeling behavior for my kids. So I need to not be daunted by the hourly realities.
Since I stumbled upon this information I’m much more gentle with myself. I choose to lock myself in the bathroom during tantrums where I’m being physically assaulted. I choose to gently tell the boys that I love them and support their feelings but need a time out when their screaming and crying overwhelm me. I choose to take a break from their really raucous play to get
caramel a glass of water, which reminds me to take a deep breath and functions as my moment of restorative calm.
And now building and accessing those small escape valves doesn’t feel like wanting to escape my kids. It feels like giving myself what I need to stay engaged with them.
If you frequently feel overwhelmed in your day, check out this site by a researcher who studies sensory-processing sensitivity. There’s a quiz for adults and for kids to assess highly sensitive processors. There’s information including books.
Information abounds online, including a discussion at mothering.com of moms who are dealing with the love of children and the tendency to be rocked by the noise and sounds and colors and smells of semi-public life. That’s what a family is, right? Living with people eliminates privacy. Living with small children makes restoring a sense of intact and independent self almost impossible. That feels really good when the family rings with love and joy and laughter. And yet it’s a challenge for highly sensitive parents even if blissful all the time. (Shocking revelation to the childfree: it’s absolutely never blissful all the time.)
I’m guessing if you’re easily overwhelmed, you already know it. And perhaps I am the last mom on the planet to realize why I’m so rocked by the rather simple realities of parenting. Or to acknowledge that the too much of our family life is actually just too much as defined by my brain. And that I can find positive ways to handle it.
I’m awfully relieved to find out that I don’t hate parenting. Can you imagine the burden of investing your entire life in your children for seven years and thinking that you secretly hate parenting? It weighed pretty heavily on my self-esteem.
I already knew that I can’t calmly, patiently, and lovingly handle fourteen hours of my children without breaks. Now I have permission, it seems, to acknowledge that I actually can’t handle an hour without a small break.
That knowledge feels like power.
That power feels like permission to breathe.
And my, a long deep breath and a glass of water feels really good.