Lying in bed with my eyes closed, I wondered if I was the victim of a cosmic joke. A few days earlier, I had celebrated a few moments of silence, but four days of looking at nothing but the inside of my eyelids was starting to feel like a bit too much.
The Sunday before, our entire church was silent just before the sermon. Everyone was reading the white text on the black screen in front of us. Among other thoughts of discomfort, the text said, “It’s too quiet” and “For the love of God, this is anguish.”
After a few minutes, our pastor asked, “How did that feel to everyone? Did that feel like forever? Because it was just three minutes.”
While various murmurs reverberated through the congregation, my hand shot up. “It was nice not being asked for anything!” I volunteered. Chuckles ensued. Our fellow churchgoers are well-aware of my husband’s and my weekly Keystone Cops routine, chasing our young kids around to ensure they stay in the sanctuary.
But a few days later, I was starting to regret my enthusiasm for silence. I had a case of the flu so brutal that even visual sensory input overwhelmed me. But as awful as it was, I realized that my experience as a mom helped prepare me for it. While that sounds like a joke – the flu as a vacation! – what I’ve learned as a parent has actually made silence far more tolerable than I ever expected it to be.
I used to fear true silence. I always needed something to do. If I didn’t keep my mind busy with reading, listening to music, or talking, it would start to wander down some nasty roads.
If I was with someone else, my anxiety would throttle me, making it hard to function unless I said something, anything at all. Something must be wrong if no one is talking, right? Filling the air with noise had to be better than that awful silence.
If I was by myself, I would make endless to-do lists and then berate myself for not having them done yet. I would go over all of the things I had done wrong or mistakes I had made, sometimes going back years, just to find something to nitpick. The guilt would drown me.
There was just no way to turn off the constant grind of my mind. The only times I could quiet it was when I had to focus my whole being on a single task, like holding a hard yoga pose or finishing a hard run.
While I could muddle through as an independent adult, I’ve had to face those demons head-on since becoming a mom. Being responsible for the lives of two little people sets off all of my performance anxieties. If I hadn’t started finding some ways to calm the constant “but I haven’t….” voice, I’d be paralyzed. While traditional meditation bores the crud out of me, I learned to turn down the internal monologue on walks and focus my attention on nature instead. Similarly, realizing that as Anne Lamott says, “Expectations are resentments under construction” has helped me loosen my grip on life. Having two stubborn-as-nails, anti-authoritarian kids has also helped me realize how little I actually control.
But the thing that’s helped me accept those long silences the most is learning to listen to my older son. He can take minutes to answer what seems like a simple question as he contemplates all of the possible options. Keeping my mouth shut and “listening ears” open is a struggle. I want to yell, “Just answer already!” But finding those depths of patience in myself has built his confidence and strengthened my ability to embrace life’s pauses.
This sickness was a test of all of those hard-earned skills. Between endless, feverish naps, I would drift in and out. I didn’t have physical pain, pleasure, or even the beauty of nature to distract me. There was just me.
Normally, my default would be thinking about what I wanted to get done. But in this situation, that was clearly absurd. Even if I compiled the most comprehensive to-do list in the world, there was nothing I could do about it. Watching the kids for an hour sent me back to bed for three more. Even working a half-day from the couch sent my fever spiking back up to 103. Simply put, I was useless. I had to accept my limits or drive myself into despair fighting against them.
I chose to accept them.
To focus, I repeated one phrase to myself over and over: “What you do does not determine your value.” This is a message I’m trying to teach my kids. I want them to know that no matter what they or someone else accomplishes in life, they are worthy of basic human respect. But despite my best efforts, I had never fully internalized the message myself.
In my overwhelmed state, I could finally extend the grace that I try to show my kids and other people to myself. It was both a relief and revolutionary. Instead of despair, my main feeling was of simple boredom.
Now that I’ve over the flu, I’m trying to embrace that self-acceptance more and more. Especially when the house is loud with the shouts of children, finding and accepting that internal quiet is so important. Even when my to-do list is longer than ever, I want to be able to put it to the side. It’s a hard thing, especially when so much of my world and my head is noisy. But in that quiet lies freedom that I need as a mom and a person.