Finding Nine O’Clock: The Mental Gymnastics of Parenthood

February 14, 2019

Will did not wake up well the other morning. At first he didn’t want to wake up at all, then he didn’t want to get dressed, then he didn’t want to eat, then he didn’t want to put shoes on, then he suddenly wanted to eat right as we were walking out the door, then he cried in the car because he had no shoes.

He paused his crying briefly to eat a piece of bacon, which seemed to lift his spirits for a little while (as bacon does), but after we dropped his older brothers off at school and began the 15-minute drive home, everything fell apart again, for reasons beyond my (or any rational adult’s) comprehension.

He spent the whole way home weeping and gnashing his teeth, sobbing that he wanted to “go to nine o’clock.” His face was splotchy and contorted, and he was shedding tears that would have made a crocodile jealous. I kept asking him to clarify. “You want to go to nine o’clock?” “Yeah,” he’d sob, and then he’d resume his wailing.

I kept telling him that nine o’clock is a time, not a place, but he wasn’t buying it. He has literally no concept of time, and his sense of direction and three-dimensional space is frankly not so hot either, so my observations meant very little to him. He wanted to go to nine o’clock, and he wanted to go NOW. And when my arguments about time and space failed, I just started to laugh. Not a sweet, isn’t my child ridiculous and cute laugh. No, it was a high-pitched, I’m losing my mind laugh. Because I was. I am. I have. It’s gone.

I still have no idea what or where nine o’clock is. Maybe he thinks school is called nine o’clock (although it starts closer to seven o’clock). Maybe he was still half-asleep and even he didn’t know what he was talking about. Maybe he just wanted to mess with me. Perhaps his usual tantrums were beginning to bore him, and he thought he’d step up his game. (I know! I’ll demand something she can NEVER give me: The exact location…OF NINE O’CLOCK!!!! {evil laugh that sounds a lot like screaming and crying})

Will’s request to go to nine o’clock was just one of many that day, though it was certainly the most bewildering. It’s already hard to formulate answers to the virtually nonstop requests for snacks and activities and information that come from children in the normal course of a day. It’s even HARDER to summon the brain power to answer questions that are legitimate nonsense. You know, questions like: can I go to nine o’clock.

Kids ask a lot of questions. A LOT of questions. And many of those questions are weird. Can I have M&Ms for breakfast? Can I try setting this flower on fire? Can I wear my pajamas to school? Can I climb a ladder up into the tree to retrieve a football, a baseball, a frisbee, and a teddy bear that we lost up there? Does plastic burn? Can I go swimming during a lightning storm? 
Can I stay up until eleven tonight? Can I try melding my broken toy back together with fire? Can I have dessert after these fruit snacks? Can we use all the pillows in the house to build an epic pillow fort? Can I light all the candles in the house using all the matches in the house?

And we — the permission granters or deniers — have to actually answer those questions. We have to process each request, quickly formulate a mental pro-con list, weigh it against other mitigating factors, and be prepared to support our answer with both logic and compassion. (Or we can just say no. Because I said so.)

And we have to do this 100 times a day. More or less. (Studies range on this, some claiming that young children ask around 75 questions a day, some estimating that it’s closer to 300.)

There’s a well-known study that concludes that it takes us — not parents, just people in general — 23 minutes to re-focus after an interruption. I don’t know if you know this, but kids aren’t exactly famous for waiting more than 23 minutes to demand attention. If a child interrupts to ask a question 75 times a day, that works out to once every 11.2 minutes during their waking hours. If it’s as many as 300 times a day (although I think that number is kind of a stretch), that would be once every 2.8 minutes. Both of those are a far cry from the 23 minutes needed to re-focus, which means parents spend a whole lot of time simply moving from one distraction to the next.

In other words, this may be proof that my brain is turning into an incoherent, nebulous blob.

OR, contrariwise, it means just the opposite. MAYBE the tens of thousands of inane and/or insane questions I’ve had to answer every three to eleven minutes over the last fourteen years have actually fortified my brain. MAYBE all that distraction is like mental gymnastics. MAYBE parenting is really nothing more than interval training for the brain, like nonstop cranial fartleks.

Interruptions — especially question-themed interruptions — are a fact of parenting life. But carrying on with everything else that must be done is a fact of parenting life too. After fourteen years of practice, I’d like to think that I can move from one to the other with greater ease than I did once upon a time.

I confess I do sometimes play the “parenting has destroyed my brain” card. I confess that three seconds ago I rubbed my temples while one of my kids came over and struck up an unsolicited conversation. (Hey, Mom’s typing! Looks like she wants to shoot the breeze for awhile.) I confess that my circumstantial inability to keep a train of thought going for more than a few minutes can be more than a little frustrating at times, but — as with all of life — it’s not for nothing.

I would like to think that parenting has made my brain strong, able to focus not in spite of but because of those interruptions. I’d like to think that my brain has become a tough brain, a resilient brain, a quick-thinking brain. It’s a Mom Brain, and its neuroplasticity is off the freaking charts.

Usually, when people say Mom Brain, they mean that a mom is acting spacey and forgetful. But next time someone asks me if I feel like I have Mom Brain, I’m going to say “Why YES, I DO have a strong, competent, capable brain, thanks for noticing.” And while it’s true that I feel on the verge of craziness quite a bit of the time, I also feel smarter than I did fourteen years ago. Savvier. Wiser, even.

Just not wise enough to know where nine o’clock is.

  1. Neil Watson

    February 14th, 2019 at 6:16 pm

    I think that 9 oclock means that he wants to see grandpa in Tucson!

  2. Cassia

    February 19th, 2019 at 10:51 pm

    Maybe he hears some “9 o’clock news” come in at night when he’s forced to go to bed, and wants to watch tv with you? 🙂

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Elisa Joyful 

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