When my first child was a baby I dragged myself along to every baby group going, so desperate was my desire to find my ‘tribe’ and someone to spend the long and lonely days of maternity leave with. Breastfeeding groups, WaterBabies, Mother and Baby Yoga, Baby Massage. ( You had to ask your baby if it was OK to give them a massage.)
I didn’t make a single friend. I felt more excluded than ever as the small talk seemed to come so easily to everyone else.
You would think that by the age of 30 I would have had some degree of understanding of myself to know that those kinds of groups just weren’t my thing. (Remember: Good for her! Not for me. They are perfect for many people.) Or maybe I did know that they weren’t my thing, but not really why. The revelatory moment in my self-knowledge came last year whilst reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain.
I would always have described myself as an introvert without any real knowledge of what it meant, beyond the fact that I didn’t much like going to parties and situations where small talk was required were excruciating.
Reading ‘Quiet’ is like coming home at two in the morning and walking through the house flicking every light switch in rapid succession, but the real epiphany for me was this:
“Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialise enough.”
Suddenly, I made sense.
The idea of needing downtime to recharge highlights a problem for the introverted mother – when your kids wont even let you pee alone, its unlikely you’re going to get much in the way of alone time. What Susan Cain describes as the ‘horror of small talk’ is likewise a problem: baby groups and school gates being areas where those gifted in small talk excel and the more introverted amongst us come across as, at best, shy or at worse, cold and aloof.
You see, as Susan Cain explains in her book, we live in a society that values extroverts. Where to be described as ‘outgoing’ is the ultimate compliment, and to be quiet is to be less than. I have a cousin who is gloriously ebullient, as a child I often felt I was being compared unfavourably to her, as I sat on the sidelines happy to watch her show. Even now, at rare family gatherings, I find myself wishing I could be more like her. Cain talks about extroversion being, “an appealing personality trait but we have turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”
“Introverts living under the extrovert ideal are like women in a man’s world.”
But what to do? You can’t make yourself be an extrovert if your not; but the emphasis that society places on extrovert traits does mean that at times you may have to push yourself out of your introvert shell if you want to succeed in certain areas. You may have to make a presentation at work, or work in a shared office environment. I had a brief foray into teaching English to adults, and for the life of me I have no idea how I survived those 18 months. I must have been exhausted, and yet I enjoyed doing it at the time and it was vital in increasing my confidence. Cain talks about how , in the world of work in particular, you may need to do things that make you feel uncomfortable in order to succeed, and that the key for self-survival is to allow yourself the time to recharge after doing these things. She also advises managers to be aware of the strengths of introverts in the working environment and says that too often,now, people mistake assertiveness for good ideas.So true – we often listen to the group member who talks loudest and most often.
Cain’s book is not about how to stop being an introvert, although it does discuss how you can survive in an extroverted world. It is a space to recognise yourself, to acknowledge your introverted qualities and understand how they can be used as strengths.Most importantly, she says,
“If there is only one insight you take from this book, I hope it’s a new found entitlement to be yourself.”
As it happens, I did find my tribe, in those early days of motherhood. I found them online, primarily on Mumsnet. Where I could talk and be myself , without having to socialise, without having to make small talk. You can dive in and start a thread called, “Why does my baby hate me?” or “AIBU to want to murder my husband?” without having to ask about anyones plans for the weekend first.
On my second go at maternity leave two years ago, I didn’t go to a single baby group. The poor second child does not know the delights of baby massage or swimming classes. I pushed the buggy to the shop and binge-watched five series of The Good Wife whilst scrolling through Twitter on my phone.
The Introverts Guide to Maternity Leave: Walks, Twitter, Netflix. It’s all you need.
I feel like I should end with some kind of lesson: do this if you are an introvert and you will be super successful and content. In the conclusion to her book, Cain offers a blueprint of the insights she has provided. They are guidelines for being true to yourself, rather than action points. Here they are in handy summary form for my fellow introverts reading.
Go forth, and be Quiet.