My husband and I have been in the room for less than a minute before Chad – a tan, amiable entertainment director – nudges us into a circle of guests. “First timers,” he says, and all eyes are on us. I haven ’t even made it to the bar yet for my free signature cocktail.
We’ve arrived at this rugged resort in Vermont a few miles from the Canadian border to celebrate my fortieth birthday. Or rather, I should say, this family resort. With older grandparents who don’t live nearby, we’ve never had the option of leaving our two-and-a-half-year-old for a much-needed vacation. Even if we did, Miles is a giant, a sprinter in the 99th percentile for height and weight who can deadlift a play stove. We wouldn’t expect our family to watch him for more than a night.
I introduce myself to six strangers in succession, flashing back to childhood summer camp and mnemonic icebreakers. “Say your name and an animal that starts with the same letter!” one counselor enthused, and because I’d read that rhinoceroses wander alone, I mumbled, “Rebecca rhinoceros.”
30 years later, nervously stuffing bacon-wrapped dates into my mouth, I’m still scanning the room for exits.
I’m an introvert by nature. Before having a family, my job as a travel agent took me around the world. One of my fondest travel traditions was seeking out high-traffic places during deserted hours and snapping a photo of myself among the stillness: sitting cross-legged on the cobblestones of Las Ramblas or leaning against a sticky New Orleans pub door the morning after Saint Paddy’s. I feel ill-equipped for meet-and-greets.
However we’d picked this particular resort despite its emphasis on group dinners and team activities for its kids’ camp. In exchange for Miles becoming a Junior Moppet, I would dig deep for a week and make small-talk at meals. In order to reconnect with my husband over leisurely bird walks, I would summon up enough courage to do an adult trust fall after a low-ropes course (ominously referred to by repeat guests as “low-gropes”).
I expected parenthood to change me. I knew I would eat more meals standing up, finish fewer thoughts, and fall asleep in parking lots. What took me by surprise were the demands made on what, at age 37, I had viewed as my permanent personality, the ruts of my introversion. Sometimes I think that more than patience or endurance, parenthood requires sociability.
“Come join us for game night!” a triathlete and father of three says to me, two days into our stay. “Pictionary goes on for hours!”
I wish I could hold up a drawing of my answer, a tiny, reclining stick figure clutching a rectangle, surrounded by white space.
When Miles was born, I suffered the usual anxieties. I was on guard against bottle caps and electrical sockets, deer ticks and deep ends. But beyond matters of survival, I panicked daily over casual conversation. I still do.
A few months ago, at the zoo, Miles ran up to a little girl who looked to be in first grade.
“Do you want to play with me?” he asked, not acknowledging her personal space in the least. His outstretched hand was practically vibrating in invitation. My son’s friendliness is so often borderline ambush that we’ve already had several talks with him about consent.
She accepted; I watched them bound off toward the lion enclosure. I found myself giving chase up the hill with another mother and her infant-in-stroller. We half-introduced ourselves – Miles’ mom, Sophie’s mom – while power-walking. I felt the familiar, suffocating pressure to keep talking. She had on a shirt that read Keep Calm & Wear Stella & Dot. In all my awkwardness and against my better judgment, I asked her to recommend a statement necklace.
When we reached the lions, her daughter informed us of their plan, “We’re going to have a play date next week!”
I touched my throat, anticipating the weight of some unavoidable pendant.
Introversion is not shyness. The latter is characterized by a fear of harsh appraisal. If I ever appear standoffish or come across as cold, it’s less from self-consciousness than depletion. I’m rarely energized by talking to others, even when I’m having fun. I often feel so drained from showing up and being present with my husband, or my students, or my son, that when another parent suddenly wants to discuss Paw Patrol or crumbling democracy, I shut down.
I hide it pretty well. I’ve mostly held jobs that necessitate high levels of face time with the public, enjoyable in large part because I maintained some degree of social control. I stayed a travel agent for years because my one directive was to send people away from me. Now, on playgrounds and in science centers, I’m thrust into extemporaneous interaction. I no longer have the privilege of seeking out conversation, it finds me.
I accept my introversion. I find nothing wrong with needing time and space to recharge, but I am also learning to welcome challenges to my assumption that it’s immutable. That’s one of the more surprising gifts my son has given me: receptivity to change.
At this family resort in Vermont, the staff hands out guest awards at the end of the week. Not everyone gets one. My husband received the Robin Hood award for his performance in archery after accidentally splitting an arrow already lodged in the target.
And me? I was crowned Mead Marion, a title I earned for staying out late on my fortieth birthday, drinking and dancing with newfound friends.