When my son, Jack, was 4, my family traveled to Lake Superior. The photographs from our trip are mostly predictable: lighthouses, bridges, sun setting on water. Tucked among our snapshots of a shoreline train excursion is an off-kilter photo of a pair in their 50s, shoulder to shoulder and grinning broadly. Meet Ed and Phyllis, the couple who sat facing us on the train and with whom Jack spent the entire 90-minute ride in conversation.
Jack was the little engine that couldn’t stop talking. Where did Ed and Phyllis live? What did they do there? Did they have kids? Pets? Between a play date recap and speculation about the weather, Jack borrowed my camera to photograph his new companions. “Put your faces together,” he said. “Say cheese!”
My husband snapped another shot that day from his vantage point across the aisle. It shows Jack chatting with Ed as I sit with my hands in my lap and a strained smile on my face. Jack’s memories of Lake Superior involve people he met, but I recall pervasive exhaustion. I am often exhausted in the company of my gregarious son for one inescapable reason: I am an introvert.
Introverts have tiptoed into the spotlight lately, thanks mostly to Susan Cain and her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. For an introvert, Cain has made quite a splash. More than two years after its publication, her book is still on bestseller lists. Her 2012 TED talk on introversion has been viewed online nearly 9 million times. Headlines portray Cain as a placid revolutionary, spearheading an introvert uprising against what she calls the “extrovert ideal.” I like this image of a stay-at-home protest — an Occupy Yourself movement, if you will. We are the 33–50 percent, depending on which source you consult.
In a more recent TED talk, Cain revealed that she is developing tools to help parents and educators “cultivate their quiet children.” I laughed (silently, of course) when I read this. I appreciate the concern for reticent children, having been one myself, but what I really need is The Introvert Parent's Guide to Extrovert Progeny.
My soft-spoken husband and I have a theory that introverts are like negative integers: When they multiply they produce their opposite. How else to explain our son, who greeted fellow grocery shoppers with gusto as soon as he could sit in the cart and wave? Who by age 2 was chatting up our neighbors, his pediatrician, his Sunday school teachers, the library staff and the mail carrier? Who, now that he is in school, routinely greets me in the carpool lane with a posse of new friends and a list of phone numbers?
Jack’s extroversion charms me. I love that he can hold the door for an older woman at the bookstore, strike up a conversation, and call her by name (specifically, Betty) when he spots her at a concert in the park months later. But the same quality drains me. I may not survive another impromptu play date, interactive homework session, or prolonged trip to the gas station while Jack hobnobs with someone at the next pump. When an extrovert, who draws energy from the people around him, is the child of two introverts, who need solitude to recharge, a domestic energy crisis is inevitable.
To restore my depleted reserves, I've adopted various strategies: I let Jack break the ice at social gatherings and on errands requiring face-to-face communication. I assign screen time while I escape for an afternoon shower. I resist initiating play dates and volunteering at school. I fear these admissions cast me as a misanthrope, when I’m actually a friendly person who’s nourished by quiet. That’s Susan Cain’s point, after all: Feeding oneself as an introvert shouldn’t feel like something we need to confess.
Here, I suspect, introverted and extroverted parents find common ground. In striving to meet our kids’ needs, it’s easy to deny our own, to feel guilty for doing our best with what we have. I’ve yet to come across a formula proving I’m adequate to the task of raising children. Until some studious introvert derives that formula, I’m consoled knowing my extrovert will be the first to tell me if anything needs adjustment.