I was once asked what I wished I’d known before having children. "I wish I knew they would be on me for two years," I replied.
I love my children, but there were afternoons when my husband would be outside playing with our offspring; I’d hear them laughing through the window and he’d call out, "Honey, come play with us!" and instead of leaping out to join in the mutual adoration I’d just think. "Piss off."
This is an unpopular position for a loving mother to find herself in. Nonetheless, for some of us there are reasons why it’s a challenging experience to have a small person attached to you semi-permanently. I knew I was an introvert, but I didn’t know how much it would impact my parenting.
Introverts are not necessarily shy, socially awkward, or clever bookworms with a past/present that features a fondness for Dungeons and Dragons. We don't fit a simple stereotype. Instead, introverts may have slightly different brains than our extravert opposites.
Scientists are discovering that introverts take in more information from their surroundings than other people and require solitude (alone!) to process it. If introverts can’t get peace and quiet to digest the influx of information, they risk feeling overwhelmed – which is bad.
Introvert’s brains also have a higher level of activity than others, they run "hotter." This means that introverts tend to limit input from their environment; they may seek to avoid crowds (shopping with a toddler) or high-adrenaline situations (most things with a toddler) as their brains are already pretty well activated. So, when you add an excitable child to a brain that requires solitude and is easily overwhelmed what could possibly be challenging?
The dichotomy that I found myself in, as an introvert with a baby, was that you were meant to achieve "baby bliss." The socially acceptable way to behave when you have a child is to spend lots of time with them, to play with them (and enjoy it), to have a messy, noisy house, and to miss your children terribly when they’re away.
Introverts can struggle with the expectations of parenthood when they seem to go against their own basic needs as a person. Babies are crap at both being quiet and alone time. However, these issues, as difficult as they may be, often aren’t the most pressing for an introvert. Instead, guilt may be the biggest struggle. All the guilt.
Seger-Guttmann and Medler-liraz (2015) state that "psychological adjustment depends on the degree of match between personality and the values of surrounding society." Introverts can experience a mismatch between the ability to function as a person and the often intense reality of caring for a child; particularly in a society that insists good parents cheerfully ferry their children around and invest heavily in social interaction.
This may lead introverted parents to ignore their own needs as they attempt to fit this new expectation. Seger-Guttmann and Medler-liraz go on to say that, "introverts today face one overarching challenge – not to feel like misfits in their own culture." The way an introvert’s brain works best goes directly against "good" parenting and culture. Introvert parents may question their relevance and worth as a parent, and are at heightened risk of anxiety and depression. Sounds great doesn’t it?
Are introverts destined to not enjoy parenting? No, not at all. Are extraverts happier about their parenting experiences? Well, yes, but extraverts tend to be happier about everything (Lischetzke & Eid, 2006). This isn't as unfair as it sounds, because introverts (complicated creatures that they are) are actually not that concerned with being happy.
Culture dictates that happiness is a goal for everyone, it’s deserved and should be strived for and if you’re not happy then what’s wrong? Research did focus on introverts' apparent unhappiness for a while, trying to figure out what this meant and how it could be helped. However, what they found when they actually asked introverts, "Do you want to be happy?" was that most introverts were like, "Nah, not really."
Instead introverts place more value on the meaning behind experiences rather than whether they make us happy or unhappy (Lischetzke & Eid, 2006). Introverts want meaningful experiences and they want to savor them. Having the time to process emotions fully means that an introvert can find the joy more easily in hindsight than when put on the spot. If you love your children just a tiny bit more when they’re asleep then you might be an introvert, too.
Understanding your worth as an introverted parent can go a long way to assuaging guilt and finding meaning. Since introverts absorb more information than extraverts, they may notice things that others miss. This can be incredibly valuable in raising children. Introverts may sense children’s triggers, the tiny signals that indicate a switch in mood or an impeding meltdown. They may pay more attention to the minutia of kid’s lives, those simple things that mean the most. These things make for high quality parenting, which is just as important as the quantity of time you spend with your child.
Introverts are aware of their own shortcomings. Research shows they tend to be more critical of themselves than extraverts, and focus more on mistake than triumphs. When extraverts are shaking off a bad day and planning on making the next one extra good, introverts are flagellating themselves and hoping child services don’t show up.
It’s not all gloom though. Once they move on from the flagellation, introverts actually have a really good grasp on what’s going on, even when it’s not great. This is called "depressive realism" and it means that they can make more effective changes when required. So while introverts may not be as happy as extraverts, they’re pretty okay with that and they have some great skills that make them kick-ass parents.
Find some structure. Even if you never follow it, having a structure in mind when you start the day can be less overwhelming than trying to figure out what to do when small people are running around the house yelling and naked.
Headphones. Put your children in the stroller/carrier and go for a walk with headphones in. Even getting 20 minutes to yourself makes a difference, and pointing out the occasional butterfly on a walk makes small people happy, too.
Make other people leave the house. If you get a babysitter, or regular childcare, make sure you either drop off your kid or that the babysitter takes them out. Time alone to potter around an empty house and make your own decisions is vital. If you can hear other people then you’ll remain invested in them rather than yourself, which completely negates alone time!
Honor your need for alone time. It’s okay to not want to be around other people, it’s ok to limit social engagements or avoid crowded, busy environments. It’s not selfish, it’s self-care.
Discover quiet activities that work for you and your kids. They exist! Reading books together can be replenishing, as well as some craft activities (but not all craft activities, some are horrifying). Find the things that work for you and your children and invest time in those activities every day.
Acceptance is key. Introverts have some fantastic skills, and sometimes the meaning of life really can be found while reading a book in an empty house. An introvert brain is a beautiful thing. Don’t try to change yours and definitely don’t discredit it.