My house is loud these days. Really loud.
My boys are five and six years old, and they live up to all the old adages and cliches about how wild and messy little boys can be. They like loud dance parties to obnoxious soundtracks, swords and sabers equipped with futuristic (and terrifying) sound effects, remote controlled everything, and general yelling as a form of entertainment. They’re relentless.
They’re healthy and happy and “normal,” and their zest for play and for life are signs that everything’s right on track, I suppose. But the noise. It’s constant and consuming and crazy-making, and a lot of times, I can’t stand it.
Sometimes I yell back. Sometimes I demand they go outside and stay there until called for. Sometimes I turn on the TV knowing full well it will probably stay on longer than it should. Sometimes I just kind of shut down, refusing to compete with their noise, usually resulting in my husband asking, “what’s wrong?” To which I reply, “nothing,” and, as you might suspect, the conversation always goes really well from there.
Motherhood is noisy. And while it’s noisier than I’d like right now, and while I’m doing a not-so-great job of coping with that, I’ve also been thinking about the sounds that have marked the journey thus far. So many milestones and big moments are recorded in photos and captions, and we can close our eyes and see them like they were yesterday.
But what about the sounds? What did it sound like to be pregnant, to give birth, to have a newborn and then a crawler and then a toddler and then a preschooler? What were the melody and the lyrics and the rhythm that we moved to, together and separately, as we danced our way—sometimes gracefully but often clumsily—from one season to the next?
It was the gasp of an acupuncturist that marked the first confirmation I was pregnant. It was a little gasp, sharp and feminine, and she immediately covered her mouth with her hand like she had accidentally let her guard down in the midst of what was supposed to be a very professional task.
She used pulse as her primary diagnostic, placing two fingers at various points on the inside of my wrists at the beginning of every appointment to assess what course of treatment she’d administer that day. I had visited her office around six or seven times as part of a cover-all-my-bases approach to getting pregnant after being informed by my OBGyn I had polycystic ovaries. Something in my pulse felt pregnant to her that day, and I don’t know if she was surprised or excited or both, but she couldn’t contain that gasp before collecting herself and telling me, “I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I think you’re pregnant.”
It was a Thursday. I’d go on to attend a hip cocktail party with a DJ in the courtyard of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art that night, and one of the girlfriends I was with knew the bartender so we were offered unlimited free champagne. I pretended to drink it, but I kept pouring it into my friends’ glasses when they weren’t looking, hearing the acupuncturist’s little gasp in my head each time.
I went home that night and took a pregnancy test, and sure enough, two lines appeared. I don’t remember if I gasped when I saw those lines, but I’ll never forget that gasp in the acupuncturist’s office—(gasp!) here we go.
The sounds of sleep training my oldest son are simultaneously the best and worst sounds from his infancy. We tried the cry-it-out method, but he bested us. Whatever timer we set, he could cry the whole time. It was a desperate, terrible cry, and listening to it on the other side of his nursery door filled me with anxiety and regret and self doubt. I would go to the store alone and hear another baby cry and have to leave the store, almost like I had PTSD. I’m not sure there’s a worse sound than that of your own baby crying his real, genuine cry. Thinking about it now, nearly seven years later, makes me question the whole thing.
We revised our strategy and he (we?) eventually got the hang of it. We’d lay him in his crib when he was sleepy but awake, and usually, within ten minutes or so, he’d have happily drifted off to sleep. We had a folksy mobile made of little felt owls hanging above his crib, and we when we’d hearing him cooing on his way to sleep we joked he was “talking to his owls.” Every now and then we’d dare to crack open the door and spy on him looking up at the mobile while he babbled, but mostly we’d just stand on the other side of the door and giggle at how cute it was, this precious baby of ours, finding his very own voice.
It was a ringing cell phone that made me a mother the second time. First there was a call from a number that displayed as “unavailable,” but I was weighed down with a diaper bag and a stroller as I ushered my 18 month old from the car into the house, so I didn’t answer. We got inside and I immediately put my son down for his nap, relieved he had stayed awake in the car so as not to spoil it. I closed his door quietly behind me and immediately—serendipitously, almost—my phone rang again. And I swear to you that I knew. The ring sounded somehow different, somehow weightier. The sound of it made my heart quicken instantly.
It was my husband this time. Our adoption social worker, unable to get a hold of me, had reached him and given him the news: there was a baby boy in the NICU who needed parents, and she thought we were a fit. My husband relayed this to me as I sat in our tiny, silent house. I heard traffic in the background and knew he was standing on the street to make the call to me. I don’t remember much of what we said on that phone call, just that everything we said pointed to “Yes. This is our child.” I remember the sound of that ringing phone, that second call, piercing the momentary stillness with the magic of an honest-to-God miracle on the other side.
The best worst sound of motherhood to date is the laughter of my kids from their bunk beds when they’re supposed to be sleeping. It’s early - still dark and calm out with the day not yet ready to break. I’m warm and peaceful in bed, the occasional shifting of the dog in his crate or my husband by my side creating cozy disturbances I mostly sleep through, having grown so used to those sounds by now.
But then a sound from across the hall. Maybe it’s a limb banging against a bed rail or the creak of feet on the bunk ladder. One million times we’ve told them not to wake each other up, and one million times they’ve been unable to abide by this. They are a package deal, just nineteen months apart, neither of them knowing or remembering a life when nearly everything was not shared with each other. They want to be together always, even when they cannot stand each other.
And even at 5:30 a.m. some mornings. Who knows why one of them wakes so early, or which one it was that day? But always, without fail, the first wakes the sleeping one. They crawl under the covers together, and from there I can only guess at what they discuss. Legos? Ninjas? Fart jokes? Whatever it is, it ends up funny. I lay in bed listening as stifled whispers and rustling blankets turn into belly laughs and wrestling matches.
I want them to be asleep. I want to be asleep. But no one is asleep. Instead, they are laughing, and I am listening, full of exasperation and gratitude and exhaustion.
Motherhood is noisy. Sometimes it’s loud and jarring and overwhelming, and we feel like we cannot possibly survive it sanely. Sometimes, though, it’s subtle and sweet and momentary. Sometimes it’s a song that is simultaneously new and familiar, like we’ve known it in our hearts all along but are just now getting to hear out loud.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.