What happens when an introvert parents an introvert

the creative mind of the sullen teenager

By Lauren Apfel

“Here we are, Mom, just two introverts at a party. Standing in the corner.” This from my oldest son, and he’s right.

We are at a summer soiree thrown by a colleague of my husband’s. One of these events that’s half work, half pleasure, where people who don’t know each other are meant to mingle and be merry. As any introvert would attest to, it’s a five-star recipe for discomfort. My husband, the consummate extrovert, is working the crowd. My other three children are bouncing un-self-consciously on the trampoline. And Oliver and I, there we are indeed, skulking on the sidelines, shoveling food into our mouths and talking only to each other. It actually feels nice to have a “partner in awkwardness.”

It’s been clear to me from the earliest days that my firstborn is a classic introvert. When he was a toddler this manifested as a shyness of sorts, and a caution. The tendency to stand back and observe rather than to throw himself into the mix. As he got older, it became an aversion to trying new things or seizing new opportunities, especially when he was on his own. I remember after his brother was born, the most inherently outgoing of all my children, how we used to send them into the world together, but with the little one in the lead. Often it was the only way Oliver would go places at all. Birthday parties, playdates, indoor gyms: the two-year-old forged ahead, the four-year-old hung at his heels.

Oliver isn’t really shy anymore. At twelve he is, if anything, quietly and pervasively confident. But still very much an introvert—and very much like me. I recognize aspects of his behavior intuitively. The high bar he sets for friendship and the way he hones in, almost to the point of fixation, on one or two people at a time. The ability to spend hours and hours alone, recharging, followed by an intense desire for connection. The seeming contradiction between, in one moment, being the most talkative, opinionated person at the table and, in the next, awash with dread at the prospect of taking a phone call.

It’s wonderful to have this window of understanding into a child—especially when it comes to personality traits that present as potentially problematic. Oliver and I are, as the psychologists might describe it, a good “parent-child fit.” But my role in my son’s life is not just to relate to him, it is to parent him.

I didn’t know I was an introvert until well into adulthood. My older sister and my mother, the two most prominent people in my life growing up, are extroverts and my inclinations always seemed out of kilter with theirs. For many, many years, I simply felt, well…weird. Susan Cain, author of the seminal work on this topic, Quiet, says this isn’t surprising. The world is oriented toward the extroverted “ideal,” which celebrates action, risk-taking, certainty. The introverts, on this model, those of us who are prone to contemplation, heed-taking, and doubt, often feel like outliers. “Introversion,” she writes, “is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.”

Figuring out why I act the way I do—and being able to hold that label in my hands, to wear it as a badge of honor—has been extremely liberating for me. Isabel Briggs Myers, one of the masterminds behind the famous Myers-Biggs personality test, has said that the best-adjusted people are the “psychologically patriotic,” the ones who are glad to be what they are. In this way it seems like a gift that, unlike me, my son has acquired such self-awareness so young. Not only is he aware of his introversion, he is deeply comfortable with it. But sometimes I think he is too comfortable.

If one of the beauties of aging is accepting your natural tendencies, it is also coming to terms with the ways in which they can limit you—and then making the necessary adjustments. I read Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes recently. It was an awakening. Because much like Rhimes—a self-declared introvert who is highly take-charge in certain areas of life but woefully cloistered in others—my default position is no. No to the things that require too much effort. No to the things that fall too far out of my comfort zone. No to the things that might be eye-opening or mind-enhancing but for which there isn’t a guarantee.

It’s taken me nearly 40 years to grasp the reality that to open some doors, both practically and metaphorically, you simply need to say yes—even when you don’t think you want to. And even when it sets off the worst kind of alarm bells in your nervous system. Oliver is lucky in one sense that he has a mother who isn’t trying to mold him into something he’s not, who doesn’t see his personality as a pathology that needs to be “fixed.” This can be a real problem, as Cain documents, for some parents of introverts who are likely extroverts themselves.

And yet, there is also danger of complacency when introverts parent introverts. In this Oliver might be less lucky. Because we can empathize with our children to such a high degree, we might not do the (gentle, necessary) pushing they can’t yet muster for themselves.

So, as with everything else in parenting, I walk the line. Between respecting who my son is at the core and helping him navigate a world in which that nature might hinder him. Often this means saying yes for him: prodding him to join a school club or attend a camp alone, reminding him how much he liked it the last time he took the plunge, teaching him which otherwise “cringe-worthy” social pleasantries are non-negotiable. Over time, however, I want him to be able to figure out when to coax himself into trying new things, to find his own balance between yes and no. As a fellow introvert, I know how hard that can be. But, as his mother, I also know how easy it might be for life to pass him by.

UPDATE: I am writing this at the time of coronavirus. From the confines of my house. After weeks of an isolated life, with no school, no activities, no playdates, and only the briefest of outings each day—when, that is, I can drag my kids beyond the border of our tiny backyard. And yet, and yet, we are doing fine. Strangely fine. Besides the slight rationing of food (crisps and cookies were disappearing at dizzying speeds) and the unfamiliar vagaries of e-learning (Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, who knew?), our existence doesn’t feel terribly different from how it was before. I can’t help but think this is because we are largely a family of introverts. 

Of my four children, it is clear that two have always been so. One might be a bit cuspy and only one is a true extrovert. All of them, however, are used to being parented by a deeply introverted mother. I have never made a lot of plans for them; we are, if anything, an under-scheduled family. And as a newly single parent, my tendencies in this regard are no doubt felt even more acutely. My kids, in other words, are past masters of a home-based life. They know how to entertain themselves, how to change scene by changing rooms, when they need a little togetherness and when they need to retreat again. They know how to socialise from afar: with Discord calls and FaceTime and texting and Snapchat.

As was the case with Oliver when I published this essay over two years ago, the biggest battle is getting them out of the house—even in pandemic conditions. Shaking them from the inertia of their natural indoor habitat. But I continue to try to do it, to push it, with varying degrees of success (iMessage from my nine year old daughter: Are we going on a walk today? Pleeeeeeasee say noooooo). Because, surely, the way things are right now they (we) need it more than ever. 

My hope is that when the world does return to normal, or to normal-ish at least, we will have a newfound appreciation for all we’ve been missing: being out, being with other people, being able to do new things. Or, at any rate, that we will never again take for granted having a choice in the matter. 

Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She is a psychologically patriotic INTJ, who is obsessed with her children’s evolving personality types. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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