For the introvert, parenting small children can be especially challenging. By definition, we find social interactions depleting. When my kids were small I was uncomfortable with the social filler required by innocent run-ins on the playground, simple, mindless questions like, She looks tall. Is she tall? Is she potty trained? Does he have all his teeth yet?
In most of these interactions I sensed a form of socially acceptable competition. Even in the unsolicited story, I felt a greedy need to rank: We’re eating nothing but bread at our house. What about you? Green beans and chicken, like normal people?
A lot of this went on in my first mommy group, seven women who didn’t know each other well. Each week we met and traded stories, trying to reassure ourselves that our struggles were not out of the ordinary. This sort of thing is said to be healthy: new mothers need new mothers. I confess I’d leave our meetings feeling better because at least my kid wasn’t sleeping in my bed, or biting, or you-fill-in-the-blank.
But in the long haul, this wasn’t particularly uplifting.
When my daughter was three-and-a-half, she broke her tibia on a slide at the playground. She had to have a full, non-weight bearing cast and needed a wheelchair to get around. The reactions to my hand-wringing tears over this event ran the gamut from the pediatrician’s reassuring, “These things happen,” to horrified gasps from other mothers.
We spent a lot of time at the children’s museum that fall. One afternoon we bumped into a preschool friend, Sara. She was there with her big brother, Tommy, and their parents. It was a quiet Sunday; the dad had fallen asleep on the couch and the mother hovered nearby. Though we had met before, I introduced myself, then pushed my daughter over to play in the doctor’s office. The kids followed us. I offered my daughter water and Sara said, without looking at me, “I want some.”
Tommy said, “I want lemonade.”
“There isn’t any lemonade,” I said, handing his sister a Dixie cup.
“What? No lemonade? Then nothing.”
“Here,” said Sara, handing me her cup. “I’m done.”
Then she wanted to try the wheelchair. I had carried my daughter to sit in the canoe, and Sara popped into the armless contraption rigged by the pharmacist to fit a three-year-old. I glanced at the mother; typically this was when she’d step in, corral the chicks. I’d already served her girl a drink. But she was paging idly through a picture book. I showed Sara how to make the chair turn. She tried but couldn’t manage it, so hopped out. She asked Tommy if he wanted to try and he said, looking dubiously at it, “No, thanks.” After a pause he added, “I’ve done a lot of things harder than a wheelchair. I work on computers. You have to decrypt them and find the right word to get in. That’s what I do.”
The mother had drifted over, near enough to hear all this. I looked again, waiting for a polite reprimand, or at least a knowing smile. Nothing.
Sara got back in the wheelchair. “My leg’s broken,” she said. Again without making eye contact, she said to me, “Carry me over to the boat too.”
I stared at her. I stared at the mother. It was time to go.
I gathered our coats and put my daughter back in the chair. Tommy took the opportunity to take a plastic ball and kick it across the room, narrowly missing my forehead. No one saw him, so he did it again. Sara trotted over to her mother, who was rousing her husband. “I want to go with them,” I heard the girl say, pointing at us.
Her mother made a quietly amused face. “Oh?” she asked. “You want to go with them and become part of their family?”
It was an opportunity. The mother might have said, A playdate! Or I might have, for that matter. But again, she did not make eye contact. I wheeled my daughter out, feeling hurt. Even insulted. So used to squirming my way through this kind of exchange, I was at a loss. Why wasn’t she speaking to me! Didn’t she want to know how it happened? How we were getting along?
The incident nagged me. I lay awake wondering why in god’s name it was so difficult to be polite. Then it hit me. Maybe she wasn’t rude; maybe she was shy. Not impolite, but reticent. She was me on a different day. I’d met an introvert even less skilled than I was.
Illness and injury are even more isolating than small children. The two combined can make an extrovert out of anyone. What the incident revealed was my own need. Need is at the heart of all that competition on the playground. Is competition even the right word when what fuels it is a sense of inadequacy?
Sara’s mom had no idea how much I needed at the museum that day. That’s the thing with introversion—unless you wear a sign stamped “Introvert” on your front, it’s invisible. My being at the museum was an act of desperate courage, a reaching out. But as an introvert I must constantly remind myself that courage doesn’t always show.
Not judging is the central challenge of mothering. Most of us fail. Daily. Still, while it might be too much to ask to resist judgment, is it too much to ask to be nice? I might have said to Tommy, Oh, go ahead and try the wheelchair! It’s not as easy as it looks, but I bet you can do it. I might have engaged the mother, folded her into the conversation by saying to her child, Maybe your mom would carry you to the canoe.
Setting aside my own need was too much on that particular day, but the lesson lives on. Even an introvert can learn new tricks. Thereafter, I challenged myself to speak to people I recognized, even if it was a simple hello. I also challenged myself to go into any interaction assuming that reticence was shyness, not meanness. These unplanned, uncomfortable interactions can change how parents see one another. It’s more work for the introvert, but worth it. We are, after all, raising the introverts of tomorrow.