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My Runaway Train of Thought

A friend stopped by for a cup of coffee this morning. A chance to talk with another adult! This was pretty much the highlight of my day, if not my week. There is always a vision that our two daughters might play quietly together while we sip our coffee and enjoy an adult conversation.

The reality is that both girls were whiny. They have teeth coming in, and it was nearing nap time. Yuba the dog hadn’t been walked yet today so was dancing around wanting attention from me, knocking over the babies and then licking their faces in apology. The cat needed to be let out – scratch, scratch, scratch. And then back in – scratch, scratch. A snack for the babies gave us an extra 10 minutes or so to talk, and then they let us know that this play date was over.

Once BabyC was down for her nap, I thought back over my conversation with my friend. We started talking about fascinating topics, but I feel like I never got to finish a thought. All I can think of is what I meant to tell her. Our conversation was fragmented, broken by my continual pleas of “Yuba, back!” and “Yuba, stay!” and “Careful, BabyC!” These days, my train of thought changes direction so many times that it never reaches its destination.

Train wreck, 1922 (photo in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons). This photo is meant to illustrate a metaphor for the state of my mind, not my coffee/play date with my friend or my day. Don't despair. Things really aren't that bad!

I think this is one of the reasons why writing and blogging have helped me maintain some sanity. It gives me a reason to sit down and finally finish a thought.

I have never claimed to have great multitasking abilities. I learned this in the lab, when I would try to run too many experiments at the same time or carry on a conversation while pipetting sensitive samples. I could get away with focusing on maybe two things at once but not more, and even then, I’m not sure I did as good of a job at either one.

Like it or not, parenting a toddler requires continuous multitasking and rapid-fire task-switching. And yet, the pace of life can seem maddeningly slow at the same time. I’m used to it now, but I realize just how much energy it takes when I want to do something on top of caring for BabyC: make a phone call, read an article from start to finish, or just have coffee with a friend. Even when BabyC is playing contentedly on her own, there is always a bit of attention on her. Is today the day that she will figure out how to climb up onto the couch? She’s working on this one. Or the day that she actually ingests an entire board book? And at the moment that BabyC senses that I’m really trying to accomplish something else, she often NEEDS me in a way that just can’t wait. It’s funny, that.

My mind is always busy – usually thinking ahead to what else I want to accomplish during the day and sometimes to what I want to write on this blog. These mental lists often distract me from being in the moment with BabyC, a moment that might contain some joy if I was present to receive it. And at the end of the day, despite my busy mind, 90% of my thoughts are disorganized or completely vanished. It is a disappointingly unproductive use of energy.

Am I the only one that struggles with this? Can someone tell me – does it get any better with experience or only worse with more kids? Any strategies for finishing a conversation in the presence of young kids?

By the way, coffee and adult conversation – however fragmented? Still the highlight of my week.

14 Comments
  1. It definitely gets easier as they get older… mine is 3, and my favorite thing to do is to have a friend come over and walk with us. My son rides his tricycle/balance bike, and we chat behind him. Perfect.

    I’ve also found that it’s easier with other parents. We’re used to the complete break in conversation, and picking it back up. I’ve found that a lot of non-parents are completely thrown by this.

    Like

    March 13, 2012
    • Amy #

      Yep! First thing I thought was, walk with those kids. Surely the cat will be fine left to themselves for 10-15 min. Can the dog behave well enough to walk on a lead you have in one hand, or around your wrist, with the other hand on the pram or stroller? And will the kids maybe sleep in the prams? Possibly – and especially if the need for a nap is imminent. After about 5-10 min of walking, you’ll be able to get away with quiet, uninterrupted conversation, return home, and actually drink a coffee that is still warm or hot by the time you finish it! Well, it’s possible, anyway…. worth thinking about / trying, depending on what you know about your own kids.

      After-thought… maybe a drive would be better? If there’s too much to carry or juggle otherwise… just more ideas.

      Like

      March 18, 2012
      • Except that we live in Oregon, where the weather has been crappy with a capital C for the last few weeks! Not the most pleasant for a walk. And to be honest, BabyC doesn’t nap that well on the go anymore, and she always wakes up once I stop walking. She sleeps best in her crib. And the dog on leash – well, that’s another story:) Needless to say, I’m looking forward to nicer weather! One thing I have learned is that BabyC does much better if we are out of the house. If we are outside, she’ll play happily for an hour, even if she’s tired and teething. We’ve also been meeting up at a bakery with a covered sandbox, and that is great for the kiddos and the mamas, too! Still, we all have these days where just finishing a thought feels like dragging our brains through the mud, right?

        Like

        March 22, 2012
  2. You are so not alone! Everything you wrote, I am experiencing too.

    I have a joke with my husband, that I haven’t had a complete conversation since my son was born, I have mom-talk. Which is like the train wreck you described. When I get together with a friend and I catch him up on what is happening with them, like “so-so is planning on moving”, he’ll ask a question, like “when are they moving?” and I’ll realize that I have no idea. And then he asks, “you spent almost two hours together and didn’t ask when they were moving?”. And I in thinking back to our “play date” I realize that if the thought had crossed my mind to ask, that there were probably a million little other things I was distracted by or that she was distracted by with her own child, that stopped the discussion from going any further than “we’re thinking of moving”. And sometimes we remember to go back to what we were talking about but mostly we jump around. In addition to being super distracted, I also think we’re super excited to talk to another adult and want to get it all in!

    And the same with the mental lists. Sometimes I have the greatest ideas when I absolutely can’t do anything about them (not even jot them down) and when my son is finally asleep, sometimes I literally just stare and the computer. Trying to remember what it was that I wanted to do/read/write and end up wasting time on Pinterest. Its also why I started blogging- I just want to finish a thought.

    I’m glad to hear that it eventually gets better. I get glimpses now that my son is a little older and I can go out for an hour or two without him to meet a friend for coffee. But I still have to get over the trying to get a whole week’s worth of conversations in at once…

    Like

    March 13, 2012
    • I am so with you on the great ideas that disappear on me. I’ll often have an idea for a good topic for a blog post or a point I’d like to make in one that I’m working on. If I don’t write it down, it is gone within a few minutes. Like seriously – there is just a void in my mind where it once was. I know this didn’t happen to me, at least not this often, before I was a mom. I have little notebooks around the house and tons of random notes typed into my phone. Of course, even these often don’t make sense a few hours later! I wonder if our brains need a certain amount of uninterrupted time to focus on one thing in order to operate optimally. I’m not sure I get it now… One thing I do when I’m trying to write is set a timer on my phone, even for just 20 minutes. I commit to writing or at least thinking about writing for that amount of time, and I don’t let myself check Facebook or email or anything online. Sometimes I’ll get stuck with writing and start opening up Facebook without even thinking, but if I see the timer, then I think, “Geez, surely I can do 20 minutes!” It’s like I have to trick myself into focusing:)

      Like

      March 15, 2012
  3. Sarah #

    So true! I think my most common saying is ‘where were we?’. I generally find an evening/naptime phone call a much better way to exchange any really important information, although I do still get a lot out of the fragmented conversations. I also agree that older kids will often entertain themselves for a surprisingly long time. (Until it all collapses spectacularly if left too long!)

    Also agreed that non-parents find it very awkward to have their sentences interrupted. It really does go against years of social etiquette training.

    One technique we are trying with our 4 year old is, rather than having her come up to me in the middle of the conversation and saying ‘Mummy, mummy, mummy…’ repeating ad nauseum, until I give her my undivided attention, to have her place a hand on me, upon which I place my hand, so that she knows from my touch that I have noticed her presence. The idea is that I can then finish my sentence before checking in with her as to what she is wanting. Of course, this is still very much work in progress – any enthusiastic preschooler tends to want Mummy’s attention RIGHT NOW!

    Like

    March 14, 2012
    • Oh, I love the hand idea. I’m not sure BabyC is ready for that yet, but I’m going to remember it and start trying it soon. We are definitely practicing delayed gratification with her now. She’s in a phase of whining a lot. Sometimes when I’m working in the kitchen, she will come and wedge herself between my legs and the counter, stand on my feet, and whine. And she just learned to say “Up!” which is way better than whining but no less demanding. I say, “BabyC, I’m cooking dinner for us right now. I can pick you up in 5 minutes.” She’s actually sort of starting to get this concept, I think! But yeah, it is a work in a progress!

      Like

      March 15, 2012
  4. Laurel #

    I think that this is something that most moms struggle with. It is especially hard when you are a stay at home mom (I have been both a sham and go to work mom). I found it much easier when I had two children. Even though my daughters are only 21 months apart they where able to entertain each other from a young age (for a short period of time). Now they are 4 and 6 and can play together for much longer time periods.

    It is very frustrating when your partnew asks you to finish just one or two tasks for him/her that day and you are unable. I often find myself questioning how did I spend my day? where did all the time go? It is so hard to explain how busy your kids keep you sometimes even to yourself!

    I have found through the years that I have learned to enjoy the presence of another adult just as much if not more than the actual conversation. Just knowing that I was not the only one above age 6 in the room gives me great pleasure even if the conversations and energy is still completely focused on the kids.

    Like

    March 14, 2012
    • I laugh at myself a lot when Husband comes home and asks me what we did today. The things that come to mind are that we took a walk or even more exciting, washed the diapers, and it might feel like a really busy day! I have the same thought, “Where did all the time go?” Oh yeah, it went to preparing meals, eating them, cleaning up, changing diapers, dressing and undressing, folding laundry, I could go on and on. And Husband would laugh if I really listed what we do every day for him. I remind myself that whatever it was that we did, it was enough. The joy is in all the shared moments, not in any accomplishment, which is completely contrary to the way I was used to thinking about life before becoming a mom.

      Like

      March 15, 2012
  5. Christy #

    Although I’m not a parent, I know what this mental runaway train feels like, at least to some degree. And know that at least one non-parent understands why the conversation is fragmented or never finished. The fast task-switching and attention-division of being a postdoc has me trained for that. And trying to carry on conversations while on a 50-mile bike ride trained me not only for the hills, but when I got to the top, to turn to my riding buddy and finish the sentence I started at the bottom of the hill. It’s good to know that these skills will come in handy outside the lab and off the bike too.

    Like

    March 14, 2012
    • Oh yeah, those skills will come in handy! Although you may be surprised to find that you can’t remember how to finish your sentence when you get to the top of the hill:) Actually, one of the most valuable things for me right now is running. I’m training for a half marathon now and starting to get into some longer runs. I’ve noticed that I can really let go of the runaway train of thought and either clear my brain or focus in on one thing that needs some thought on these long runs.

      Like

      March 15, 2012
  6. I think it most definitely gets better (though, with a toddler and an infant, I’m struggling to remember this myownself). And, in my case, it helps that I get out daily to work with other adults…but I get NOTHING done without a fairly detailed list.

    My most recent “adult friend over” experience included an interlude where Emily pooped in the bathtub after a day of insisting she didn’t really need to go and clearly holding like crazy. Now, Dad was on-duty while I chatted with my friend, but, still – I felt like bathtub poop required both parents. One to clean the tub, one to clean the kid. I have NO idea what we were talking about just before the poop bomb landed.

    Like

    March 14, 2012
    • I’m so glad to hear that it gets better. I think I would benefit from getting out and working with adults more often. I’m still looking for that elusive balance. Writing is giving me some of that now, but writing when it can be interrupted any minute by a waking child is a little different. I’ve also found that making a physical to-do list frees up a lot of mental space. I love my refrigerator white board!

      Nothing like bathtub poop to bring the family together:)

      Like

      March 15, 2012

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