Tree lights and Michael Buble’s Christmas CD keep me company in the living room as I thumb through catalogs and read nutrition articles. Jagged guitar riffs seep up through the floor from the basement where my oldest son practices on his new Les Paul. My middle son is putting together a Dollar Store jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table and my daughter is watching Youtube videos on how to create miniature food out of clay. We are happily, contentedly and amazingly alone together in our home. I can almost feel our inner worlds glowing. It is introvert heaven.
Prior to this state of nirvana, we had all been out together for sushi and suburban consumerism (Guitar Center, DSW, Dollar Tree). We are not hermits or anti-social by any means. In fact, our home often hosts neighborhood buddies after school and for weekend sleepovers.
It wasn’t always this way
There were days (OK years) when I never thought I’d feel that kind of peace in my home. I had resigned myself to living a raucous family lifestyle with constant interaction, action, and noise, at least when everyone was awake. Some view this lifestyle as ideal. I enjoy lively discussions and engagement a good share of the time but there is nothing better than free space to just BE. No one pulling at your attention. No one expecting you to entertain them. Just a deeply pleasant mind buzz from going internal with whatever is passionately stoking your thoughts at the moment.
Begging for space
It took years and a persistent plea to make it OK to be alone in my thoughts/activities in our house. For a long time, I felt selfish and wrong for wanting and taking space for myself. Those were the years when I was a fish gulping air on the riverbank. I prayed to be thrown (allowed) back into my natural element (quiet time for daydreaming, deliberate thinking, meaningful one-on-one conversation and thoughtful creativity). I prayed to return to myself.
In those days, it was my job to keep the family busy, cared for and content. Granted most mothers and fathers feel these responsibilities, but as a sensitive introvert, my anxiety levels rose especially high as solitude not only disappeared but was misinterpreted as selfish or personal rejection if it existed at all. Most of my elder role models and family members told me the right thing to do was put family first. You can take time for yourself when the kids are gone. The trouble with that was I was overstimulated and drained then. I needed my kind of rest. I needed time alone or at least time alone together.
Not understood, just needed.
I didn’t have a partner who understood my needs. It was not his fault. I didn’t have the self-awareness and courage to constantly stand up for and explain myself back then. I felt so bad for wanting time away from everyone and, even more confusing, I loved being with my family most of the time, but when I hit the wall of over-stimulation it was difficult to recover. My husband was involved and helpful with the kids but had a full-time job to maintain.
He also wanted my attention.
Secrets to parenting as an introvert
Having lived fifteen years as an introverted mother and having heard countless other introverted parents echo my sentiments, I now have words of guidance for those in similar situations.
1. Help your partner (if you have one) understand and appreciate your temperament. Resentment and misunderstanding kill intimacy. Share articles, videos and books about introversion. Have open, honest and vulnerable discussions about what it’s like being an introvert. A teammate who respects and understands you, can make all the difference. They can help protect your energy. They can help the children respect and understand your ways without making your needs appear selfish.
2. Teach your children introversion is OK. Help them value their traits if they are introverted and value traits of others if they are more extroverted. Help them see temperament as something as natural and innate as hair color. Help them see individual personalities as neither better nor worse but simply different.
3. Keep calm.There are going to be times when your environment is overwhelming. You will have to know how to get to a calm state even when you are overstimulated. Exercise, meditation and talking to a supportive friend work for me. Watching meaningful movies or TV shows with the kids puts us all on the same heartbeat and mellows out the environment. Step back and see the humor in the scene. All that chaos and noise would be funny on a television sitcom, wouldn’t it? Is there a way to poke fun at yourself? If so, do it damn it. Laughter puts everyone in a relaxed state.
4. Know you are not alone. When I first became a parent I had no idea I was an introvert. I had no idea others felt as confused as I did about their desire to both nurture and escape their families. Space2live was created in part to help me process my feelings and in part to see if my thoughts resonated with anyone else. It has been incredible therapy on both fronts. My feelings resonated with many introverted parents.
5. Teach your kids how to entertain themselves (beyond technology). I was perplexed and mildly annoyed when my kids wanted me to play with them all the time. I partially believe it is a generational thing. My parents rarely played with me. I entertained myself beautifully. This generation expects the adults to do everything for and with them. We adults have been so terribly worried about the kids’ psyches that we cushion and manufacture their life experiences, but that is a different post for a different time.
In our home we encouraged hobbies and creativity with our kids. Given the right tools/toys kids can focus independently. The trick is to match the toy or activity with the child’s deep interest. That takes listening and empathy, things introverts tend to do naturally. It was easy for my ex-husband and I to encourage our kids’ curiosity because we are curious people ourselves. We talked to the kids like adults and exposed them to a variety of people, places and things. We also gave them sufficient unstructured time. We didn’t rely on a packed schedule to keep them busy. We stepped away and let them play with other kids or on their own. They learned how to make fun themselves.
6. Quell negativity. In my personal experience, I have found nothing more draining than negativity and/or conflict. The longest days are the ones where my children constantly pick on each other or argue with me. The primary reason behind the conflict is often insecurity. One or more children needs attention. This creates a difficult loop because as an introverted parent you may need a break from doling out attention but the child needs your eyes on them in order to feel acknowledged. The best antidote I have found is to find an area or interest where each child shines and talk it up extensively. Show each child their gifts, so their insecurities don’t hijack their kindness and patience. Having a swift consequence for negative behavior is also recommended. Admittedly, I struggle with this because I am not swift with ideas for consequences but a household chore or loss of technology have been good standbys.
7. Have a good mix of activities and downtime. Look at the calendar before scheduling something new. Make sure there is a buffer of free space around any other activities already planned. I have found one day of activity on a weekend and one of rest/no plans is ideal. Even my more active children like the ebb and flow of busy-ness and space. They like the change of pace and variety of activities. We have avoided any sports that encroach on our Sundays.
8. Establish boundaries. It is perfectly acceptable to say no to your kids. You are not your children’s slave or court jester. You are an adult, an individual. You will care for them and play with them but not all the time and not always at their command. They will survive. This may sound like tough love but I assure you I am no cold-hearted distant parent. I give my kids the deepest, most high quality attention when I am with them but know it is good for their growth and my sanity to let them figure out some things on their own. Just the other day my son told me he is glad we had rules and said no to them occasionally. According to him, it made them less whiny and babyish.
9. Know it gets better. As the kids get older they become more and more independent if you gave them a little room for exploring from the beginning. My children still fight and have their days of neediness. I still get overwhelmed and snap unnecessarily, but hours of alone together occur more and more often. Hours of, Hey the kids are all gone and the house is quiet, are popping up more and more too. Believe it or not, I sometimes miss the noise.
What are your survival tactics for introvert parenting? Do you ever feel like a bad parent because of your overstimulated irritability and solitude needs?
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