How Do You Power Down Your Brain?

Spiralstorm (Photo credit: Stuck in Customs)

I’ve said before that I’m obsessed with sleep. This is because i don’t get enough of it, though not for lack of trying. I go to bed at 9:30, I take naps during the day when it gets bad…but I don’t sleep well. In these latter days, I can blame it on kids (last night’s count: Nicholas, 4; Michael, 1; total 5), but the truth is I never have slept well. When I was a kid I used to have long discussions with God, my head wedged up against the screen so I could see as much of the sky above the north pond as possible.

I don’t know if it’s a gift of nature or a learned skill, but my brain just won’t shut down. Ever. In many ways this is a benefit to my crazy lifestyle; my mind is always working in the background–not efficiently, of course, while I’m making grocery lists, cooking dinner or waiting for a child to turn a page–but nonetheless, the gears are always spinning. When I have a moment to work, I’m rarely starting from zero.

But the down side is this constant sense of urgency. I seem to have lost the ability to stop thinking. And so I’m not really living in the moment.

It came home to me this weekend when my sister visited. She loves little kids. She’s so good with them, too. Nicholas lights up whenever she arrives. He’d play with her for hours, and she’d oblige–happily. But me? Well, this weekend we were at last pulling clear of the Infinite Intestinal Virus. In other words: there was a LOT of cleaning to do. And I had this conference call for our Down Syndrome group, so I spent the first two hours of the visit closeted in my room, folding laundry and making beds while I listened to the discussion. (In case you’re wondering, my sister did know before she came that I had to do this call, and how long it would take. I’m not that much of a jerk.)

Later, I watched her play with Nicholas, the two of them obviously enjoying each other. And then it was nap time, and I groused about having to take the time to put them to bed. I had kite string to untangle, and I wanted that job instead, because that I could do while chatting with my sister.

It wasn’t until late that night that all the pieces clicked. Michael was lying across the Boppy, playing with me in between nuzzling the breast. You can’t really call it nursing anymore; he just wants to cuddle. He likes the one-on-one time with Mommy, and he doesn’t want me multitasking. Even my neck stretches sometimes raise objections. He wants me to play with his hand, tickle his ribs, and trade silly proto-words with him.

For once, I was doing it. No reading Thomas Merton, no reading Eragon to Alex, no brainstorming or making mental lists. I was simply there.

And it was fun.

This Lent I’ve been Powering Down along with my critique partner and blog friend Amy. It’s been very good for my writing: closing Gmail, closing Facebook, turning off the internet altogether if the temptation grows too strong. My fiction productivity has soared, and I fully expect this week, when I’m on deadlines, that it’ll serve the nonfiction side of things equally well.

The part I haven’t figured out is the personal powering down. The part where I nourish my family and spousal relationships, and my soul. I can’t simply stop doing everything else. I’ve tried cutting back, doing less work-related stuff, passing off volunteer commitments to others in the local organizations, but somehow the monologue inside my head doesn’t seem to diminish. When I’m with my kids I’m always thinking about how much I still have to do. And not just “me” things, either; some of it is about responsibilities to them. Grr! I still haven’t done homework with Julianna! We’ve got to be better about that! She needs our help to excel! Man! I still haven’t helped the kids finish their dream catchers. Oh, crap! I promised I’d listen to Alex play his festival pieces!

But I can’t turn off Michael, either. He’s always clinging to my leg, wailing if I put him down because I need both hands to use the salt grinder or carry plates with food. (Because I know what will happen if I try to carry him AND the food; he’ll simply smack it and the food will be on the floor.)

This is life with four kids close together.  There’s so much to do, I’ve placed my top priority on multitasking to try to get through as much as possible. But what am I giving up, with my brain powering through every day, all day, and every night, all night? I even struggle when I wake up to use the bathroom, to force it not to start up again.

The answer is: I’m giving up Presence. Presence in my own life.

It’s not an acceptable trade. There’s all the platitudes about kids growing up fast and regretting what you didn’t take time for…but there’s also the part where their overarching memory is of a mom who was never really fully present to them. They are so important to me. It’s time to act that way.

So although I don’t yet know how–the busyness isn’t going anywhere–I now at least know what I need to do. I have to learn to Power Down my brain.