How to Squelch an Introvert

It was the spring semester of 2000, first student teaching assignment, second day. My cooperating teacher taught music at a private elementary school, and the big fifth-grade musical was in the works. When the school day ended, I followed my cooperating teacher to a classroom for a show-planning meeting with two of her colleagues.

They’d taught together for years, knew all of the fifth-graders like their own children, and had already listened to the musical more times than I’d watched The Princess Bride. Like a cat at a tennis match, I listened as the three teachers tossed around names, casting ideas, inside jokes, and warnings of theater moms, the conversation developing so rapidly that their remarks often overlapped and I felt myself out of breath just trying to keep up. Eventually, something was apparently accomplished, the meeting concluded, and we extricated ourselves from the student desks to go home for the evening. It was at this point that the art teacher looked at me and asked: “Do they tell you you have to be real quiet when you’re student teaching? Because you’re allowed to talk, you know.”

I can’t share my response with you, because I honestly don’t remember it. At first, no doubt, I laughed awkwardly; next, I either (a) said nothing or (b) said something stupid that I have since repressed. Actually, I must have repressed my answer – silent or spoken – because, again, I have no memory of it.

Fourteen years later, I’m still not sure what the best response could have been. All things considered, the “best” response might have been something like, “Oh, ha ha, well, you three all know each other so well, and since you know the students better than I do, I preferred to just listen this time so I could learn the ropes. By the way, I love how you’ve done your hair.” That would have been polite and non-awkward, I think.

Really, though, here’s what went on in my head once the confusion abated and I could reflect:

“Dude. Lady. I have never even glimpsed the score for this musical. I haven’t met three quarters of the kids you mentioned, the other quarter I have seen exactly once, and I certainly don’t know their names. You three know every kid in the school, you know exactly what you want for the musical, and you can evidently read each others’ minds so efficiently that you interrupt each other to predict what the next person is going to say. What could I possibly have contributed to this conversation, and when could I possibly have done so?”

Because – please pardon my bluntness – that was a dumb thing to say. I can’t imagine what she thought I could have said during the meeting. I do know, though, that something became clear to me that day: I am marked. It might be a scarlet “I” on my clothing, visible to everybody but myself, warning people that I’m an Introvert. Or a tattoo, some place where I can’t see it, that says “Socially Challenged.” Or maybe just an aura. An aura of awkwardness.

There’s no other explanation. I mean, even a highly gregarious socialite, a Miss Congeniality in the flesh, would have spent most of that meeting as an observer, right? One would have had to interrupt in order to get a word in, and since this was a planning meeting, even a Miss Congeniality wouldn’t have had much to offer after only two days of student teaching. So plainly there’s something about my silence that differs in nature from the silence of someone with a more sanguine personality.

On one hand, that’s okay. I didn’t always think so, but I’ve accepted the fact that we can’t all – shouldn’t all – be extroverts. Moreover, the recent influx of books and articles on introversion has – as far as I can tell – helped people to understand that some of us just don’t feel compelled to be the life of the party. (Or to even go to the party).

Nonetheless, I sometimes sense that I will always be a little backward. That, by seemingly having little to say, I make people feel uncomfortable. Worried, even.

So if you’ve ever been concerned about me – or another introvert in your life – let me reassure you: I’m fine. We’re fine. Some of us enjoy listening. And, yes, we sometimes struggle to find things to say, but it’s only because we need more time, not because we’ve taken a vow of silence or because we don’t like you. AND – speaking for myself, at least – trying to jump into a quickly flowing conversation is daunting. It feels like interrupting, which feels rude, and what if we interrupt and then our words end up coming out wrong and weird and killing the conversation? No, thank you.

Here’s then, is my smidgen of unsolicited advice: if you want to get an introvert talking, then leave room for that to actually happen. Maybe even ask questions. Because, if it’s not obvious by now, some of us quiet ones have quite a bit to say. We just need to feel comfortable saying it. And if we’re led to believe that our silence is troubling, quirky, or alien, trust me: we will never feel comfortable enough to say anything.

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Traveling With Children, Part 12: Things I’ve Learned

Unless you’re new to this blog, you know that the title of this entry is nonsense. After all, I’ve written four entries to date, and not one of them has addressed the topic of traveling with children. Have no fear: you’re not crazy. The simple explanation is that, in my head, I have composed numerous essays on this subject over the past six years; in fact, this might be more like Part Twenty.

Our children, as it happens, have traveled extensively. I don’t mention this to compete with anybody; some families certainly travel more than we do, and I’m cool with that. And I certainly don’t intend to brag; the bragworthiness of having well-traveled kids is dubious at best. We just have a husband and father who has racked up enough frequent flyer miles and hotel points – and made enough friends in other states – to vacation all over the place, and sometimes to let us tag along on his business trips. This, in addition to visits with out-of-town family members, means that packing for a trip has become as natural, for me, as going to the grocery store.

My first few mental essays on this topic were decidedly dark; cautionary tales that, if made available for others’ consumption, would have driven new parents to schedule staycations for the next eighteen years, and to call their extended families announcing that Thanksgiving and Christmas would take place at their homes until their babies were in college. Vomit, diaper disasters, kid-hating fellow passengers, puke, ear infections, acute sleep deprivation, barf, and endless hours of listening to the tortured screams of a child begging to be released from the carseat, characterized our first few years of car and airplane travel. Before 2007, I loved traveling; by the end of 2007, I was sure I would hate it forever.

Fortunately, I was wrong. In recent years, our children (now six and four) have developed into much more tolerable travel companions, and I no longer dread every night away from home. Still – big news flash here – it is not the same as it was Before Children. Hence, I present to you, in the hopes that it will aid you in your own vacation plans someday, my most recent iteration of Things I’ve Learned.

1. Bringing The Kitchen Sink
I used to pride myself on packing light. As with every other aspect of my life, motherhood has taught me humility in this area. I suppose that’s a good thing. Regardless, the fact is that kids need more than a few outfits and your basic toothbrush/underwear/pajamas trifecta. Without toys, books, and/or games for the hotel room downtime, the entertainment will be either YOU…or SpongeBob. Oh, and one outfit per day? Not gonna cut it. Somebody is guaranteed to fall in the mud, have a spaghetti accident, or throw up at some point during the trip…more than once. Bring plenty of clothing.

(P.S. If you’re visiting someone’s home – especially if that someone has kids or grandkids – these issues are significantly less pressing. They will most likely have toys and – better yet – a washer and dryer that won’t require you to convert the remainder of your vacation budget into quarters. Because of this, I actually get excited about doing laundry when we’re traveling).

2. Bladder Shrinkage
At home, your children might be capable of drinking 32 ounces of apple juice and then playing Wii for six hours straight without a trip to the potty, but the moment you load the last suitcase into your car, their bladders will begin shrinking. You will make friends with the airport toilets, the airplane toilets, and every soggy, decaying rest stop toilet on the interstate. Even if they “went” before you left. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, they will schedule their *ahem* longest potty visits for mealtimes, usually at the moment when your waiter has brought the food to your table. Or for when they’re dripping wet, covered in sand, and wearing a one-piece bathing suit.

There is nothing you can do about this. Except to prepare. Carry wipes at all times, and learn to protect your children from the Automatic Flush Toilets of Death. (Hint: cover the sensor).

3. Shifting Your Paradigm
You don’t need me to tell you that “vacationing” with kids will be less relaxing than when there were just two of you. Aside from the fact that parenting is hard work, there’s also the fact that kids don’t know how to relax. They don’t see the point.

This used to depress me, but as my kids have gotten older, I’ve realized that they DO know how to have fun. We are currently wrapping up a vacation in Puerto Rico, and every day the beach and poolside are strewn with twentysomethings wearing sexy bathing suits, languidly working on their sexy tans, so they can don their sexy cocktail dresses in the evenings and drink, dance, and gamble until they pass out. This description has never fit me, which I guess is an advantage, but honestly, it’s much more FUN to race up and down the waterslide dozens of times a day, to play Connect Four and table soccer in the shade, and to splash in the waves while my kids scream with delight. (They really do scream).

Sure, I admit to feeling a trifle envious of the vacationers relaxing by the water with a good book, or running on the beach every morning, but it’s about adjusting your expectations. Some day, I might be able to do that again; meanwhile, it’s amazing to remember how I used to smile as I’d watch adorable children giggling and playing on the beach with their families…and to realize that I now have adorable children of my own.

4. What Happens in Vegas
Here’s something I took a long time to understand: a week or so of bad habits won’t ruin your children for life. Having disparaged SpongeBob in Item One, let me now say this: you can buy back some relaxation time if you’re willing to let your children chill with some mindless TV. They’re most likely getting an abundance of fresh air and exercise, forming wonderful memories, and strengthening family relationships, and some extra screen time won’t destroy that. Meanwhile – and here’s the perk for you – this is a perfect time for you to grab a book, some knitting, or your favorite gadget, and head for the balcony. (Or a quiet corner of the room). Everybody will be happy, you will feel at least a little bit like you’re on a real vacation, and when the trip ends, you can reteach the good habits you’ve worked so hard on at home. (Sounds easier said than done, but it’s not as hard as you might expect).

5. Pedicure Damage
Because I knew my feet would be exposed all week, I gave myself a pedicure before we left. Three coats of sparkly fuschia nail polish seemed sufficient, and I didn’t pack the bottle because of my aforementioned penchant for packing light. It turns out that extensive swimming and playing in the sand chips away nail color much more efficiently than my 99-cent nail polish remover. So take a lesson from me and pack the 0.5-ounce bottle of nail polish…just in case.

I’m not sure how to relate that to traveling with children. Consider it a bonus tip.

Our next trip isn’t planned yet, but it can’t be far off. When it happens, I expect we will all learn new things, because it changes a little bit every time. Meanwhile, happy travels. Watch out for those automatic-flush toilets.

Turning Into My Mother

As we make our way from infancy to adulthood, we mark time with multiple rites of passage. From our first loose tooth, to a successful driver’s exam, to the birth of a new baby, each of these events signifies our crossing into a land of unexplored possibilities; our transformation, even, into someone new. For many women, one such rite of passage is marked by the exclamation: “I’m turning into my mother!”

Generally, this is announced with dismay. Brought on by a peculiar mannerism, a premature grey hair, or a personality quirk dictating that the dishwasher may be loaded only just so and the glasses must be arranged in the cupboard the same way every time, it usually indicates that genetics and environment have conspired against all one’s efforts to become an individual. Fate has decreed that yet another well-meaning young lady is doomed to become the same conglomeration of idiosyncrasies characterizing the dear woman who raised her.

Well, I have yet to make this statement. Call me a late bloomer, if you will. I didn’t get my ears pierced until I was fifteen, and I earned my driver’s license at the venerable age of twenty-one. (Passed on the first try, thank you very much). So, true to form, I have yet to discover that telltale sign that I have, in fact, become my mother.

But here’s the truth: I’m not sure what aspect of my mom, manifested in me, would cause consternation. Perhaps I could find something if I really tried. I guess, for example, I could dwell on the fact that she’s just so darn nice that she can think of something positive to say about every person she meets. So nice that my brothers tease her by calling her President of the Nice Club. (It’s a lifetime appointment; don’t bother running). And she occasionally laughs at jokes before she gets the punchline. Which is, you know, pretty appalling.

The fact is, when I undertake the foolish exercise of searching for traits I’d prefer not to adopt, I find so much more in my mother that I do want to see in myself. So much that, as of now, I have yet to attain. This struck me with special force recently, when it occurred to me that someday my daughter would be “all grown up”…and calling me for advice.

Which is frankly terrifying.

When I answer the phone twenty years from now to hear her sobbing on the other end because her baby won’t stop crying and she’s exhausted and her house feels like a cage…can I soothe her fears with the same wise, comforting words my mom used for me? When she feels like a failure because her children acted up in the grocery store and aren’t listening to her and told her she was no fun…will I have the grace and wisdom to assure her that she is an amazing mommy? To encourage her with the reminder that she serves an incredible, loving God who daily overcomes her weaknesses and will use her strengths for His glory? To tell her that everything will be okay…and know that she believes me because, after all, I’m her Mama? Can I even come close to being the mother I’ve been blessed with?

To these questions I have no certain answer, any more than I can say whom my children will marry. But I do know that I pray for the ability to meet adversity with grace; to respond to criticism with kindness; to see everybody, even difficult people, as precious individuals created and loved by God. In other words, to be – at least a little bit – like my Mommy.

And someday, if I catch myself laughing at a joke before I get it, or being told that I’m just way too nice, I will hope it’s a sign that I’m finally turning into my mother.

Shuffling Off This Mortal Coil

My children get along famously. They wake up in the morning and immediately begin playing with their toys together. The living room has become a small town, complete with a canine President, a Chick-fil-A, and a curfew. While they play, I am able to clean, bake, work on lesson plans, maintain correspondence, and manage the incessant stream of laundry. I rejoice in the fact that I can accomplish all this while they engage in imaginative play instead of staring hypnotically at a screen.

That is right now.

Four months ago, I was in despair. After getting Super Mario Wii for Christmas (I won’t disclose the name of the benefactor, but will simply say she knows better now), my children decided that nothing they had ever done or could ever do came close to bringing them the joy brought by Mario and Luigi. Consequently, any of my attempts to wrest them away from the remote controls long enough to teach them something, read them a book, or even make eye contact, met with resistance and gnashing of teeth. Only the Wii could bring happiness, and I was in the way. I concluded that their imaginations were doomed for destruction, and that I would never again interest them in other activities without a violent struggle. I wept for the brain cells that were slowly dying, never to revive.

Looking back, I see clearly that the Mario obsession was just a phase. Not the healthiest or most laudable of phases, but certainly not cause for my hand-wringing and abandoning of all hope that they could someday grow into educated, productive citizens.

You see, I’m hopelessly time-bound. As humans, of course, we all live within the confines of linear time, but I fear I’m worse than most people at letting it get to me. When it’s raining, I feel like it has always been raining and the sun will never shine again. When I’ve eaten too much, I see no point in making a grocery list, because after all, why would I want to make meals when I’m not hungry? And I certainly can’t discuss vacation plans when I’m sick. I mean, come on, I’m sick. I just want to stay in bed for the rest of my life.

Knowing this about myself, I’ve tried to temper my responses to the highs and lows that life brings. I can usually recognize a bad day for what it is: just one twenty-four-hour period with more bumps than usual. Not a horrible omen that my life has taken a permanent turn for the worse. Likewise, I can appreciate a ridiculously productive day without expecting that every day thereafter will yield the same output and eventually earn me the uncontested title of Supermom. It’s when I experience several consecutive days of sameness that I get into trouble. Right now, for example, I’m hatching all sorts of glorious schemes. As my children play happily, I’ll redecorate their rooms! I’ll plant a vegetable garden! Write a book! Clean the baseboards! Nothing can stop me!

…Yet I know this, too, is a phase. When summer becomes too hot (which is a given in Pennsylvania), and the kiddie pool has lost its appeal (usually after three refills), the kids will grow irritable and antsy and demand entertainment, and the two options will be: Mama or the screen. And as I desperately try to be as much fun as the Wii (yet also educational and character-building), then collapse on the sofa when the afternoon finally arrives and they get their daily screen time, I will once again resign myself to my fate of relentlessly trying to rescue their precious imaginations from atrophying. Forget cleaning. Forget writing, beautification, self-improvement. It’ll be all about survival.

Except that maybe, maybe I’ll know better. Know to look back and remember how wonderful it was when I had a breather. To recall that it followed a period of frustration and doubt. To look ahead without worry, realizing that “tomorrow will take care of itself” (Matthew 6:34), and that my task, each day, is to walk with the Lord, to love my husband and children, and to trust that God’s grace is not limited by the temporary circumstances of daily life.

I’m thankful for the way my children are enjoying each other right now. I relish the opportunity it’s allowed me to do things I don’t always have time for. And when the time comes again that all I can do is keep everybody alive until bedtime, I hope I will recognize it as a season in my life…and remember that a better season will always follow.