Desperately seeking silence: When raising kids means living in a sound bath, and not in a good way

This article was first published elsewhere in May 2023.

My six month old has recently discovered screeching, and it is death to my nervous system.

Want mum? Screech. Want that food mum’s eating but can’t get to it? Screech! Sore tummy from eating mum’s food? Screeeeccchhhhh!!!

As I type a variety of earplugs, ear muffs and noise cancelling headphones dot our house in child, average adult and giant-man sizes. There are times we yell from a few steps away and others we communicate in gestures and hand signals that say “I can’t hear you, talk later”.

black wireless headphones
Photo by insung yoon

It turns out life with two children is veritable sound bath, but not in the lovely, meditative, Tibetan singing bowl kind of way. I spend my days flanked by two children, one crying because they’re capable of walking but don’t want to, and one crying because they’re incapable of walking but desperately wants to do it anyway. In these moments I feel like the ham filling to their buttered bread, the pressure of their noise dialing up so high the tomato sauce that is my sanity begins oozing from my ears.

Although I mentioned the screeching earlier, and have fully embraced the ear muff strategy since interviewing Annie Crowe for her “Neurodivergent Parenthood” podcast episode, it’s usually not my kids’ collective volume that gets to me. One day I will prove my ancientness by telling my kids how I clubbed and festival-ed in the loudest of all loud places with the best of them, running home in ankle breaking shoes before getting up for the next day’s classes. I will hark back to a time when songs were longer than 15-30 seconds and you needed more than an app to become a DJ. I can see them rolling their future eyes from here, and I find their disgust oddly enjoyable.

But I digress. We’ve established it’s generally not the volume that’s the issue, so what is? For me it’s the many competing layers of sound that tip me over the edge. I am the person unintentionally eavesdropping at social events, following two or three conversations at once, while also being aware of the lyrics of the background music. You can imagine how this plays out when the Trolls soundtrack is playing for the third time through, the kid is stuck asking the same question I’ve already answered twice on repeat, and the baby is crying because she must be walking as previously stated. Now overlay the noise of the washing machine finishing its cycle with a cheery song and my own mental list of what needs doing to get out the door on time because how is it still only 8.27am and my head is near on exploding. I guess this is all to say I expected raising kids to be messy, but the irritation of mess pales in comparison to the challenge of incessant noise.

I find myself averaging out periods of (what to me feels like) extreme noise with absolute silence when I do get bursts of time alone. I’ve noticed that when I’ve finally had space to listen to that longed-for podcast, I’ve instead driven in luxurious peace and quiet. Last week I returned an audiobook to the library I’ve waited months to listen to because I can’t bear the thought of any extra words entering my head right now. When some background audio would be nice I’ve gravitated towards bands who sing in languages I can’t understand like Gypsy Kings (sorry Duo Lingo for never practicing Spanish anymore) or Sigur Ros (no, it’s not Icelandic, they’re nonsense words) that can’t annoy me with their attention-grabbing capabilities. God help me when the baby starts to talk too.

Live music (read: organised noise of my choosing delivered by pros on purpose) has still been calling to me, with mixed success. Crying clutching my sleeping four month old while Clare Bowditch sings of love and loss? Pure magic. Hearing the muffled sounds of Grinspoon frontman Phil Jamieson singing “did you have plans to be a star? Did you have plans to become more than you are?” from inside a port-a-loo only 10km from the house I grew up in while my four year old describes in detail all the ways this toilet was different to our toilet at home? Hello, unexpected identity crisis.

Of course the moments we as mothers and parents want noise is generally when silence descends. An eerily quiet house is met with a sweeping sense of dread: Where are they? What are they destroying? Are they still breathing?

There are also times when the noise of children produces the happiest, most heartwarming, sweetest sounds ever: the baby giggling as the big one dances for her, happy shrieks during outside play, a tired “I love you” before sleep.

I include these delightful moments to say I guess the noise isn’t all bad news, it’s just a lot, like all of motherhood and the child-raising experience is. I haven’t figured out yet if life with two is more noisy than I expected, or I’m more sensitive to noise than I realised, or both. I suspect it doesn’t matter, because I’ll have to muddle through regardless.

I’m committed to not telling my kids to be seen and not heard, to express themselves less or be “less them” for my benefit, so I’m the one who needs to strategise and stretch and adapt. Even with this intention in place I’ll sometimes get it wrong and be snappy. Still, I’ll try my best because that’s all I can do, and apologise and repair the rupture when I need to. We’ll get outside when we can and use all our tricks inside when we can’t.

If you’re brave enough to come over, there are spare ear muffs are by the back door.

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