By Rachel Pieh Jones
It’s like the cries of our offspring have been perfectly designed to ping with a Doppler effect unique to the frequency only our ears can pick up.
I hear phantom voices. I’m in the bedroom and I hear “Mom” from outside and it sounds exactly like my daughter. I hear babies crying and it sounds like my babies. Except my daughter is in Kenya and I’m two countries away and the babies crying aren’t babies, they are kittens and my babies are fourteen years old now.
As soon as my twins were born I developed a powerful sense of hearing. My husband did not develop this, which makes me think it may have been in the medication I received post-surgery. At first it felt like a super power, my sense of hearing was so strong I could identify which twin was crying before my husband was even aware they were making noise. But this quickly deteriorated into the realization that, as with Spider Man, so with motherhood: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Sure, my new hearing capabilities were powerful but they meant I woke up in the middle of the night. Over and over and over. A baby cried, whimpered, coughed, rolled over, sniffled, snorted, shifted, breathed unusually heavily. I heard it from way down the hall. Since there were two babies making all these nighttime noises, I heard a lot. I didn’t sleep a lot.
During the daytime the super sensory hearing powers continued. At the playground a child would skin his knee and at the first screech I would know that I didn’t need to race toward him. Not my child. Some other mother with super hearing would already be making her way between slides and swings to comfort him. At a play group with dozens of kids and half a dozen moms, a kid would call out, “Mom!” and I would immediately respond. Not only was that now my name, but it entered my ears with the exact pitch and tone of one of my own. I was the mom being summoned to meet an urgent graham cracker, sippy cup, or bathroom need.
Moms can sit in large groups and a single, faint cry wafts in through the window. One mom will stand up and say, “That’s mine.” And almost every single time, she’s right. It’s like the cries of our offspring have been perfectly designed to ping with a Doppler effect unique to the frequency only our ears can pick up.
This is excellent for rushing to the skinned knee and for speedy graham cracker delivery. It is decent for middle of the night needs (effective, which is a good thing, but too effective, leaving my husband sleeping while I instantly wake, which is not a good thing when it happens night after night after night). It is not so excellent or decent once kids are in school.
See, the trouble is that the kids move on but our hearing doesn’t change. They are now in kindergarten and then junior high and then off to college but our ears are still designed to hear every little squeak and cry and ‘Mom.’
Now that it is not our babies or toddlers or middles calling out for Mom to please, ‘look at me just one more time,’ our hearts start to mess with our hearing.
I could be at a high school soccer game and my daughter is on the field, in front of my eyes, but I hear a little voice call, ‘Mom!’ from the parking lot and now I turn to look and I remember my daughter toddling across a gravel parking lot, lips stained red from a popsicle. Or I might be in the library, enjoying some time alone to read and write, and a baby squeaks and I turn to look and am flooded with a memory of scouring through board books with pictures of dinosaurs for my son.
These voices don’t belong to my children. They aren’t calling to me, not anymore. But I pay attention and respond with nostalgia, the feeling like when a lawn mower revs up on a quiet Saturday afternoon in June and someone else mows their grass while I lean back in a chair and sip lemonade. I pause to listen to the little voices, to wonder about the mom they are calling. It feels happy-sad, those beautiful, hard, exhausting days are mostly gone now, though not entirely. Never entirely. And it feels proud, look how far we’ve come. It feels full, brimming up and over. It feels comfortable and familiar, like home.
The kid calling for his ‘mom!’ isn’t mine, that’s true, and the swelling memories that come with it are misty phantoms rising from the past. But the word is mine and I do still hear it, just not for skinned knees and dirty diapers.
Now the call is for me to watch them learn to drive, call a girl, choose a dress, study for an exam. The voices are deeper, the call harder to discern. But my super power hearing is still there and I’ll respond because one day soon these calls, too, may turn into phantoms.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.