The Pain of Brain Splitting – Mom Knows.

Yesterday I got a searing headache. Headaches aren’t usual for me and this one had a cause that was very easily identifiable and I should have known better. It wasn’t lack of water or lack of sleep (for once.) The IRS hasn’t called lately and the scale isn’t too horrifying for the week.

The cause of this particular headache was my children.

The worst part? They weren’t doing anything wrong – they were being positively angelic vrooooooming little trains over tracks they designed from dominoes for more than an hour. Meanwhile, I was sitting in a large comfortable chair at my parents’ lake house and decided the moment was perfect for doing a bit of work to free up that night.

It seemed perfect – quiet children playing contentedly, a drowsy afternoon indoors, a simple proofreading and revision project that took about an hour, a Diet Dr. Pepper by my side. And I earned a headache – a big one.

I finished the project, but only because I forced it and then my brain hurt in a big way. Would it have hurt at 9 pm if I’d started work when I usually did? No, probably not. It hurt because even at their very most angelic, having my children awake and in the room,  watched over by my mother who fawns over their domino train brilliance, my mind is still split.

I did a normal amount of work with half a brain. Now, I’m not modest - I have pretty considerable brain power. But when you keep one eye and ear on happily playing children and one eye (no ear) on the work at hand, your brain is doing too much at once. Unfortunately, it hurts.

I could have focused completely on work by going into a different room, pulling on some headphones and leaving my kids to my mother’s care. This wouldn’t have been a bad thing necessarily. The irony was that I decided to work because they were quietly content playing and laughing to themselves nearby and the moment seemed so perfect to be productive and together.

What’s the point of this story?

The point is that even in the best kid-quiet conditions my brain cannot work well if I’m paying even one iota of attention to them. Using a bit of that old logic I took in college a few years back, that means that to do my job well I either have to not be paying attention to my children or I have to work when I don’t have to pay attention to them.

Another lesson here is that I did do some work. I made about $100 while revising a 10-page document. I wasn’t even writing new material, but I’m going to have to review it again tonight before I send it on because I know it wasn’t 100 percent. Granted it was probably about 95 percent perfect and the headache was the benefit I got for working it so hard. The lesson there, however, is that even “easy” work suffers from a lack of 100 percent attention and focus.

It’s a mess, and it leaves you with  few options:

  • Work while you kids are awake and ignore them to do a good job.
  • Work while you kids are awake and do a marginal job on the work to keep part of your mind engaged on what your kids are doing.
  • Don’t work when you have to keep an eye on the kids.

That leaves plenty of solutions, at least, even if they aren’t easy ones. As mentioned many times before, I do evenings and nights when they are sleeping. Other friends do morning or use childcare or relative-care so that they can find some quiet time to dedicate to work.

After doing this little balancing act for five years, I’ve discovered that the quiet time while they play contentedly for a bit can be put to great use. While I can’t use my brain while my little ones are around, I can use my hands. My house is reaching a state of decoration and organization I haven’t experienced in years. I’ve painted, I’ve built shelves, I’ve installed faucets, I’ve sorted and cleaned, I’ve broken tile with my new shiny sledge hammer. I have a pile for donations that threatens to overtake the garage. It’s an awesome feeling of daytime productiveness that I wouldn’t have had just a year ago with a two and four-year-old.

I’ve learned that even if I can’t work “normal” hours with my kids around, the time is very productively spent while enjoying conversations and laughter with my boys and teaching them how to do things like use a paint roller and a power drill. (Something every five-year-old should know, I think). When I do settle down to work at night, I actually enjoy continuing that productivity for another few hours.

Multitasking only works when you use different features at the same time, or you’ll end up with a raging headache like mine. You can’t split your brain very well, but you can split your hands, mouth and brain to do different things during the day leaving yourself some healthy brain power for work when a real opportunity arises.

You can do it all – you just can’t do it all at the same time.

Profile image for Rebecca Garland
Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.

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4 thoughts on “The Pain of Brain Splitting – Mom Knows.”

  1. I’ve been in your shoes/deskchair, Rebecca, and all I can say is: It does get easier as they get older. I bailed on the corporate world when my two kids exactly the same age as yours. Once they go to school, it gets better (though not perfect), or at least easier than trying to cram-edit a 15-page document during a one-hour naptime!

    I won’t lie: I am happiest and most productive when it’s just me and the dog in the house. Now the only time that it’s a challenge is during summer, but since they’re teens who’ve grown up in a SAHD household, they’re generally respectful of my space and quiet.

    During those most trying moments, I focus back on these two things: 1) You’re setting a great example, showing them that hard work is worth it, and 2) you’ve had and will continue to have a bond with them that you simply wouldn’t if you were doing the 9-5 thang.

  2. It’s weird. Maybe writing/proofreading uses a different part of the brain than the creative/redecorating work (makes sense that it would). I can’t give writing my undivided attention either while my toddler is awake. But, like you mentioned, I can do all sorts of other things, like repair her broken dresser, make a new dress from a tank top and an old skirt, all sorts of other fix-it/make-it-pretty things around the house, all while my two-year-old counts number magnets on the refrigerator and yells “Mommy, I counting!” But for some reason writing has to wait until naptime and sleeptime. Go figure.

  3. Ha! I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s noticed it. It hit me again today. They played trains and I grouted the bathroom floor (laid the tile yesterday while the hubby was home). I can grout a damn floor without a problem, but try to open the laptop? Chaos breaks outs or I lose my mind. I think Latoya’s right – it’s different parts of the brain in action. Although I wasn’t using that much of my brain grouting, so maybe that’s the key element.

  4. I pick three — I don’t work while I am watching my kids. I don’t find the split-attention thing works at all, for either my work or the kids. They have sitters, they go to Boys & Girls Club, they go to sleep…and I work. Then, when we’re together, I’m totally theirs. They really need that total focus. Being ignored in their face, I find, makes them — and you — nuts.


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