A VHS tape with images from my preschool fashion show in the 1980s sits in a box somewhere. I don't remember being there, wearing what looked like a velvet curtain fashioned as a dress and accessorized with a long string of pearls and beret appropriately askew. But I've watched the video so many times that it lives in my memory...
I enjoy my time strutting down the runway and reluctantly leave the stage when my time is up. In fact, I am so reluctant that, within minutes, I'm back!
Apparently not content with the attention and admiration I received during my first appearance on the catwalk, I run back on during another child's moment, all but pushing him out of the way to take center stage until my parents wave me off. The audience offers good-natured laughs at the antics of an extroverted four-year-old.
For years, this is who I think I am.
Who knows why I ran back onto that stage 33 years ago. Maybe I was looking for my parents. Maybe I was bored. Maybe at that time I really did enjoy being the center of attention, needing others around so I could draw my energy from them.
All I know is that, from a very early age, I take that identity seriously. It isn't until I have children that I realize my whole life has been spent trying to fit into a skin that is suffocating me.
The rest of my school years see me as a girl with a steady group of friends, captain of the drill team, surrounded by others because I believe that is what makes me happy, but I'm not. The times I find myself alone in the library during lunch because I need quiet or without plans on a Saturday night, I assume I'm a failure even though I feel content.
In these quiet breaths amidst my busy life I feel the happiest, but that happiness is ruined because this isn't who I believe myself to be. I stumble through my 20s with the same problem, feeling guilty for wanting to be alone and like I've failed when I only have a handful of close friends, even though these situations feel ideal.
Nearing my 30s, my oldest daughter comes along, and I sit in a recliner and nurse for 11 weeks of maternity leave. We don't venture to the grocery store on our own until she is six weeks old, instead sending my husband for essentials. I have never been more content.
When I am thrust back into full-time work, it's like being thrown into ice cold water nude. Thirty eighth graders wait for me at 8 a.m., and faculty meetings await during my planning period.
"Bet you're glad to be back around all these people after being stuck at home with a baby, right?" everyone asks.
No, actually, I am not, and it hits me I never have been. That's why I eat my lunch with only two other teachers, hidden in someone's classroom instead of the lounge. It's why I never say yes to the invites to happy hour. Maternity leave brought it into focus, all my past behavior now looking like a trail, a pattern.
My son comes along two years later, and I leave full-time employment behind. Part-time work at a library seems to be the sweet spot for me while raising two kids. I'm surrounded by equally quiet-enjoying people and books for a limited amount of time a week.
Then I get pregnant with the twins.
At that point, I still can't define myself. Introvert? Extrovert? Weirdo? I like people. My relationships with close friends are everything to me, but I can't enjoyably handle a large network of people or big crowds. After a few days away from home and routine, my anxiety level skyrockets.
Instead of continuing to try to put myself in a box, I know what to do when the twins are born. I follow the path to who I know I already am. Close friends drop off food, my older two play with blocks, and I sit topless in that same recliner nursing two babies and enjoying what many other cultures practice – 40 days of recovery in a quiet environment, without guilt or remorse.
During this time, I understand that who I am and what I want from life aren't mysterious or wrong. I can connect to both the introvert and extrovert personality and choose what that means for me. I am the epitome of a term now in popular rotation: ambivert, a person who doesn't fully fit into the introvert or extrovert categories, but exhibits traits of both.
Surprisingly, surveys show that most people fall into the ambivert category, though we have put so much focus on breaking individuals into the extrovert and introvert groups. Turns out my underlying shame about not fitting in either category is misplaced. Researchers say that ambiverts are at an advantage because they can adjust depending on the situation, and this makes their interactions with people more meaningful.
The reason that video defined who I was to so many people, including me, is because I was that little girl. But what that video didn't show was that I also liked to play on my own and would become extremely cranky if friends stayed over too long. The video was a snapshot, but combined with descriptions of me as a talker, a people person, even I lost the rest of the picture.
My role as a mother brought it back into view.
I have a core group of friends, some moms, some not, who life would be unbearable without. I'm around people all day since my children are homeschooled, but I tell them, with no apologies included, when I need to curl up with a book or have a mini-retreat to regroup.
When I'm asked to go on big group outings or retreats by people who only know me as a talker, I try not to make excuses as to why I won't attend, and instead honestly declare that group outings are not my thing.
The old me would have felt the need to live up to being the extrovert I thought I was. Being a mother who had to set limits and choose what I wanted most brought me around to the truth. I am an ambivert. I can draw energy from people and can also feel like they are drowning me. Now, I choose when and how I interact.