Parenting involves a lot of sensory assaults. The whole process kicks off, of course, with searing pain and grinding fatigue. Your sense of taste takes a backseat to getting the baby to eat – you shovel down cold, lame dinners after you’ve wrestled the kids to bed. Your formerly pretty living room turns into an ugly plastic hellscape of toys, offending any visual sensibilities you might once have had. Your nose becomes exquisitely attuned to various odors and what each one means for how fast you have to pull the car over. Even the tactile experiences are new: The first time my son took a dump in the bathtub, I asked my husband, horrified, “Well, was it at least one big piece?” and he replied grimly, “Oh, I think all the fecal textures were represented.”
But what I’ve found the hardest to endure is the ongoing barrage of noise.
Case in point: Our local park has a circular sandbox, surrounded by a one-foot concrete wall. My toddler likes to turn a pail upside down and scrape it along the top of the wall, capturing about 29 grains of sand under the rim of the bucket and grinding them slowly along the concrete, around and around the circle. In terms of horribleness, the noise is somewhere between a dragging fender and a dentist’s drill. Every time he scrapes something along the wall, I stick my fingers in my ears. This happens maybe every 14 seconds, interrupting any conversation I’m trying to have with an adult on the bench. If I had a choice between listening to the sandbox-dragging or someone putting human remains through a wood chipper, I’d gladly shove the body down the chute myself.
When we talk about parenting, we talk about lack of family leave or sick leave, the struggles of sleep, feeding, bedtime routines, and discipline. And yes, these are all important. But no over ever talks about the ongoing assault of noise, beginning from those middle-of-the-night wails in early infancy to the plastic “musical” instruments – instruments that will tinkle out only “Oh Susannah,” forever – that family members love to give as presents. (Hey, you know what makes a nice quiet gift? Money.)
Here’s the latest noise battle I’ve been fighting: the kitchen chairs. My 2-year-old’s favorite game is to “make a train,” which means pushing the chairs away from the table and into a line. This makes the most dreadful scraping noise, again, somewhere between the long, low groan of an out-of-tune trumpet and a dentist chipping tartar off your teeth. I’ve tried those felt pads you stick on the bottom of furniture, but because our floor is old and splintering, they pull off at the slightest nudge. So there’s always at least one chair leg dragging its gimpy, screeching self along the hard wood. I have dropped ladles and knives and half-chopped garlic cloves as my son, behind me, startles me by shoving a chair across the floor. My fingers fly to my ears. “Gaaahhhhh,” I say, “that is too loud!”
“That is too loud” is something I say maybe 40 times a day, and it makes me feel just terrible. I have two young boys, and they need to run around and holler and have fun. And sometimes they invent noisy games, like pretending to be hyperactive squirrels, or they make each other laugh at dinner by dragging their forks through their mashed potatoes, which naturally means also dragging the tines along the plate.
Admittedly I have supersonic hearing. Bats wish they could hear as well I do. I sometimes wonder if I have hyperacusis – a genuine condition where one’s ears are hypersensitive to certain sounds – because some frequencies, like the intersection of “scrape” and “high-pitched squeal,” can bring to me to my knees. I’ve learned to always carry earplugs when I’m on public transit or at concerts; I pretty much have a set of earplugs with me all the time.
But here’s the bummer: I really hate this quality about myself. Sure, I wish the world were quieter, that my kids didn’t invent new decibel levels for “keening,” or kick the grocery bags repeatedly just to get a rise out of me (thump, thump, crinkle, crinkle), or tap the jelly jar softly with a spoon (clink, clink, clink), but what I mostly wish is that I weren’t so sensitive. It makes me feel uptight and high-strung when I snap across the dinner table, “too loud, cut it out!” My grandmother was so noise-sensitive that I remember struggling to pick up a kitchen chair and set it in a new place rather than risk angering her by pushing it across the floor. I don’t want my kids to have to tiptoe around me as I did my grandmother – they’re still little, after all, and if they’re yukking it up at the dinner table, I hate to shut them down with “that’s too loud!”
But like it or not, this is our reality. We all have weird qualities we have to accommodate, like, say, pooping in the bathtub. And hey, maybe this has an upside: My kids may have brilliant careers ahead of them – as librarians.