The introverted parent

I used to work for a consulting company, a job where new clients and projects were introduced on a weekly basis. One day I was kicking off a project with a more experienced colleague. We needed to talk things over, so I could be adequately prepared. 

“We can have lunch today and talk about the project,” he said. “But just today — I usually have lunch alone.” 

Whenever I relay this anecdote to my more social, well-adjusted friends, they’re aghast. 

“Wow,” they often say, shaking their heads in disbelief. To them, this “just one lunch” limit is the height of rudeness. 

But to me, this professional boundary setting was a revelation. 

In workplace situations, I had grown accustomed to playing the part of the good-natured team player — dutifully tagging along for every group lunch, gamely making small talk in the break room and forcing myself to say at least one thing in every meeting so as to appear properly “engaged.” 

And I did all this in a desperate attempt to hide my dirty little secret that I am, in fact, an introvert. 

The fact that there might be another way — a way to be a good employee while staying true to my nature — had never occurred to me. 

Boundaries?

Now that I’m a parent, I continue to struggle with what Susan Cain — the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking — calls “the extrovert ideal.”

In my experience, parenting and introversion aren’t always the greatest match. Need some “alone time” to recharge your psychic batteries? Well, too bad! Your toddler is melting down in the middle of a tube slide; the neighbor kid is banging on the back door and inviting himself to dinner; the restaurant manager needs to talk to you about how your child broke a drain pipe while attempting to climb onto the roof.

All of these situations involve exhausting — and sometimes humiliating — encounters with other humans. What to do? 

Damage control 

When you’re an introverted parent, sometimes all you can do is survive. Therefore, I’d like to offer some of my hard-won tips for navigating the relentlessly social, aggressively connected world of parenting when you are, personality-wise, an island. 

  • Avoid crowds: Nothing wears me out quite like a big, jolly community event. While other functional humans happily commune with half the Twin Cities, I obsessively ruminate on the title of an old David Foster Wallace book: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I go through the motions, of course: I’ve gone with my family to the May Day festival, Open Streets, the State Fair and countless other festive group gatherings. But do these experiences fill me with boundless energy? Absolutely not. 
  • Know your limits: Get out of there when you must. Even better, consider dispatching your more extroverted partner to the bouncy house extravaganza while you stay home and vacuum the couch cushions in solitary bliss. 
  • Escape for awhile: The party hostess needs more ice? Why, you’d be honored to run down to the corner store to get it! If you’re having that “my-head-is-about-to-explode” feeling from too much social stimulation, embrace any and all opportunities to make a hasty retreat, if only for a few minutes. From escorting your child to the bathroom to moving your car from a far-away parking spot to a less far-away one, the possibilities for temporary solitude are endless — use your imagination! 
  • Focus on the negative: One of the common understandings about us introverts is that we hate small talk, and instead prefer “deep” conversations. This has always sounded really pretentious to me. But social experts have an interesting take on how this takes shape: Introverts, it turns out, often seek out “problem talk.” And what could be more problematic than modern parenthood? Tough topics abound — fertility issues, postpartum depression, separation/divorce, baffling toddler behaviors — the list is endless. And while all this doom and gloom makes some people nervous, this darkness is where we introverts can really shine. 

My advice? When someone at a party mentions a troubling problem, grab her by the arm, find a quiet place together and do what you do best — listen to her, carefully and thoughtfully. 

Let someone else lead the bunny hop around the block.   


Shannon Keough lives in St. Paul with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to skeough@mnparent.com.