Motherhood and introversion:

the story we don’t tell

“it is hard to say, yes I chose motherhood, but it challenges the core of who I am, every single day”


11 January, 2005. I’m at the checkout at Sainsbury’s, making smalltalk with the cashier as I pay for my groceries and slowly pack them in my bag. Ordinary enough, except I’ve given birth just hours before.

This is no act of Wonderwoman-style heroism or supreme nonchalance. It is mental survival. I’d found it hard to convince my husband half an hour earlier that I’m fine to walk the half mile there and to do it on my own — hell, we don’t even really need more milk — but all I know is, I have to get out. Anywhere. I have to leave that warm fuzzy cocoon of a house filled with the hushed care of family and friends and efficient strangers and find some time and space alone to make sense of the gigantic thing that has just happened to me.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a book that not so much changed my life, as made sense of it. Quiet by Susan Cain explores the secret power of introverts, offering a sensitive definition of introversion and explores what that means in the world that we live in. Cain describes introverts as ‘people who prefer quieter, more minimally stimulating environments’. Not necessarily the shy, nor the unsociable, but those whose energies are sapped by highly stimulating scenarios and environments, to the point that (often solitary) recharging is needed. To read Cain’s wonderful book was to finally feel valid and seen. I was an introvert. And that was OK.

What spoke so loudly to me was the level of sensitivity that Cain recognizes in fellow introverts. It made sense of my intense hatred for loud noise, my need for order and visual calm, the occasional but overwhelming desire to withdraw during, and certainly recharge after, social interactions, no matter how enjoyable they may have been.

Armed with this new knowledge about myself, puzzle piece after puzzle piece seemed to drop into place. In the process, I was reminded of that cold Monday morning in 2005 when I was propelled by a seemingly counter-natural yet utterly powerful urge to leave my newborn bundle at home in the care of others and seek solitude in the dairy aisle. That seemed to me the greatest pointer of all towards my own particular shade of introversion.

Then, something struck me, and it shocked me to the core. On the face of it at least, motherhood and introversion seem entirely incompatible. Motherhood is about the unexpected, the loud, the needy, the sociable, and the intense. But these were the things that I’d found unexpectedly hard about motherhood all along — genuine discomfort and discombobulation about a house full of constant mess and disorder, physical tension and mental panic in response to noise, conflict and high-gear emotion, the overwhelming sensation of being needed and, in their early years, literally and physically attached. They could now be better explained, but they were no easier to reconcile.

Had I chosen wrongly, by becoming a mother? Could I ever find the kind of easy joy in parenthood that others appeared to manage? When would it get easier? How different would life have been, if only I’d understood this deep-rooted aspect of myself before I’d started a family? Would I have handled it better? And why don’t people talk about this stuff? Surely I’m not the only one.

Today, there is probably more recognition than ever before of introverts and their needs — in society, in schools and especially in the workplace. This is due in large part, I suspect, to Cain’s book and well-loved TED talk on the subject. Governed societal spaces such as workplaces and schools can quite realistically implement the changes needed to cater for the introverts’ needs, but go outside of these spaces and the waters are murkier. What does the introverted mother, at home for most of the day with a tiny baby, do? And what if she never knew she was an introvert up til now? What then?

When that mother was me, I didn’t recognize my struggle as being (in part, at least) to do with my introversion and high sensitivity. The source of the struggles I experienced so intensely, at my very core, remained a mystery until Cain’s book came along. I have wanted, for several years now, to pick up the baton, where Quiet stops, and talk about the impact of introversion on motherhood. Yet so far, something has stopped me, time and time again. Something akin to taboo.

After all, it is hard to say, yes I chose motherhood, but it challenges the core of who I am, every single day.

I know I am not the only one juggles those two facets, every single day. I am not the only one who feels strangely off-kilter as a mother, unable to experience and express an easy joy that is the commonly accepted face of motherhood. For me, that joy is often replaced by something altogether pricklier, more jarring, albeit still deeply rewarding. My deep-rooted needs jostle with those of my children and it’s a toss up as to which wins on any given day. There are rarely joint victors.

Mainly I’m concerned that my daughters feel safe and loved, and I think I do a good job at that. Playground mothering has always been anathema to me: mass, obligated social interactions that bring back the unease of my own school days. But I befriend a few parents on my terms and arrange playdates and coffees and it’s OK. Sole parenting is grueling and sometimes tedious, but brings a bittersweet boon in the form of the weekends my girls are with their father. Typically, I miss them like hell every second they’re gone, but I need the time to recharge, enjoy the silence and move in my own gear for 48 gentle hours. Sometimes it feels like a wasted opportunity to party like it’s 1999 rather than come down with The Archers and some soothing laundry. But it rarely is wasted.

It’s not about gloom. Far from it. There is joy, just not in the traditional places. And I have tried, over the past few years, to uncover the gold in all of this. And it has manifested in different ways: the chance the get to know myself better, and recognize my introversion for what it is; the chance to teach my kids something about being sensitive to other people’s needs and to recognize — and express — their own deep-rooted needs.

Looking my introversion straight in the eye has also prompted me to dig deeper about motherhood and its idiosyncratic nature, what it means, and how we respond to standards and expectations. It’s forced me to think realistically about my own experience as a mother and face some uncomfortable truths. The starkest is this: perhaps my time as a mother — when joy flows easiest and our needs co-exist more comfortably — will come not now, as my children’s ages slide into double digits, but later, when they approach or even meet adulthood. And while on the face of it, it might sound like a sad state of affairs not to be able to bathe limitlessly in the joy of their childhoods, it’s also quite heartening.

Maybe the best is yet to come.

Originally published at www.katefoster.co.uk on March 15, 2015.

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