Introverts require periodic alone-time in order to function properly, so constant connection to their children is simply not reasonable. Does this make them bad parents? No, says Lynn Beinser, it just makes them human.
My friend April planned to be an attachment mother. She planned to co-sleep, wear her baby in a sling, breastfeed on demand, and hold her child whenever she cried. In all the books that she read, April was told that mothers find this sort of constant connection wonderfully fulfilling. The intimacy of on-demand feeding, she was told, would make her feel a sense of connectedness and joy unlike anything she had ever experienced.
April describes experience with attachment parenting as the biggest failure of her life. She is not just convinced that she is a bad mother; she is fairly certain that she is a defective human being. She found the constant connection of attachment mothering exhausting. Breastfeeding on demand did not make her feel closer to her baby. She felt closer to her daughter after she went back to work than she did when she was wearing the baby in a sling. Now that her daughter has entered her toddler years, April finds herself exhausted by her daughter’s chatter and clinginess. She confesses to me in hushed tones, almost as if she is confessing to a murder: “Work is my refuge. I can just go in my office and close the door.”
April is especially disappointed in herself because she just cannot seem to find the energy or the will to take her daughter to more than one dance class, swim class, or to Gymboree. She says that they feel like departmental meetings full of politics and covert competitiveness. She is worried how she will cope when her daughter is older and has activities three or four times a week.
I do not think that April is a bad mother nor is she a defective as a human being. I think that she is an introvert trying to parent like an extrovert. Not surprisingly, she finds that parenting in a way that is counter to her nature is not working well for her or her daughter.
About a quarter of the population are introverts. So it seems safe to guess that about one out of every four parents are introverts. This does not mean that they are shy necessarily. In fact, I am an introvert and no one would describe me as shy. I am usually the first to speak up in meetings and I cannot walk from one place to another on campus without five people stopping to talk to me. What it means is that all of those social interactions take it out of me.
To put it simply, being an introvert means that being around other people slowly depletes my energy. I love talking with people, but it is as though I have a word limit both for hearing and for speaking. Once I have exceeded my limit for the day, I begin to lose my ability to be a kind or even polite person. I cannot be around people—any people—24/7. I absolutely have to have alone time to recharge my emotional batteries.
Like April, I hated taking my children to their various after-school activities. Then again, my idea of hell is a cocktail party that goes on for all of eternity. But it is more than just that. I am a homebody, I read friends’ Foursquare check-ins and marvel at their ability and desire to be constantly engaged in activities outside of their home.
I am fully convinced that many—if not all—of the parenting experts favored by liberals are extroverts. Extroverts find themselves energized by connection to other people. So it isn’t surprising that extroverted parenting experts have told us that we should be overjoyed at spending every waking minute with our children. Extroverts have a nearly unlimited number of words that they can hear and say in a day, so they have told us to be constantly attentive to what our children say, to engage in every conversation. Extroverts can talk for hours on end, so it seems perfectly reasonable to them that everyone should be able to be tuned into toddler babbling and grade-school chatter for days on end without becoming suicidal or homicidal. Extroverts enjoy being in close physical proximity to other people and can go for days on end without any alone time. So they believe that everyone should be able to be able to wear a baby in a sling, be snuggled up to another person 24/7 without going completely out of their minds.
The world is, more or less, run by extroverts. Politicians and high-powered business people have to be able to thrive in social situations. What is more, our definition of success and even normalcy is based on extrovert characteristics. We talk of loners as potentially dangerous people, and having “ties to the community” is considered a basic requirement for being a trustworthy human being. In a world that discriminates against introverts, it seems safe to assume that “good parenting” will almost always be extroverted parenting.
I would argue, however, that the first step to being a good parent is being a self-aware person. It is knowing and honoring your own limits. I believe that we are better parents when we work with our nature rather than against it. For those of us who are introverts, this means that we honor our own need for space, for quiet, for time alone. We do these things not because we are selfish, but because they make us better parents.
No matter how hard an introverted parent tries to parent like an extrovert he or she is likely to fail. And even if the parent can go through all of the motions, I fail to see how a child can benefit from extroverted parenting practices like attachment parenting if their parent is completely drained of all emotional energy.
I am going to assume that someone reading this is going to say that what I describe as introversion is actually just the hallmarks of being an emotional cripple. But even if you buy that argument, the solution would be the same: self-care.
Look at it this way, when we discover that our children have special needs, we move heaven and earth to make the kind of accommodations that will allow them to thrive. Even if we decide that being an introvert handicaps us as a parent, we owe it to ourselves and to our children to make reasonable accommodations for ourselves so that we can thrive as parents.
Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.