Not That Kind of Mother

I confront my own introversion often during the year, but these confrontations happen most baldly during the holidays. I talk to friends who bemoan the busyness of the weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year, whose speech is dotted with sighs, and who describe feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by a nonstop whirl of commitments.

The truth is, I can’t relate. December is busy for me at work, absolutely. And there are a few additional things on the calendar, sure: a dear friend’s annual holiday party, our ritual Christmas cookie baking, buying a tree, and two school holiday concerts. But all in all, it’s not an overwhelming season for me and my family. I have actively chosen, in many ways, to narrow our world to the four of us, to our home. And yet again, as I do almost every year right about now, I find myself wondering about this bias.

I grew up in a decidedly “the more, the merrier” environment. For starters, at its very heart, my childhood family of four was sort of a family of sixteen. We had three other families we were very close to, and those people were a part of our daily life in the loose, everyday way that I understand now reflects true intimacy. Each of those six other children is stitched through my memories so tightly that they are a part of their very fabric. Each of them remains a part of my life today.

Moving outward in concentric circles from this center, there were always lots and lots of people around, especially during the holidays. My sister Hilary and I used to joke that it wasn’t Thanksgiving without a foreign student or two whom we’d never met before at the meal. It’s the Thanksgiving table—with a turkey at each end and my large, motley family plus adopted visitors in between—that I remember most vividly.

But the weeks leading up to Christmas were always full of activities too. I remember Tree Trimming parties, our own and those of other families, and what felt like a wonderfully raucous set of celebrations. I also remember, if I’m honest, retreating to my room, shutting the door, and feeling a little overwhelmed by what felt like a constant set of obligations. My memory of my family (and my continuing experience of it, actually) is of a roving, magnanimous extroversion that manifests itself in a million friends, a phone that’s always ringing, a lot of plans, dinner parties, coffees, and people stopping by just because. One of my mother’s many gifts is her immediate and expansive warmth, the genuine way she welcomes everyone into her life. She has always attracted people to her and, like a sun, is surrounded by more orbiting planets than I can count.

I am not that kind of mother. It’s no secret I am an introvert. I am also very sensitive and quite shy (two traits that Susan Cain’s Quiet helped me understand are separate from, though highly correlated with, introversion). Perhaps because of this trifecta of qualities, I am much more selective and private with our family time than the family in which I grew up was. I don’t recall making an explicit decision in this direction—my bias towards spending time at home, just the four of us, has developed instinctively. It’s almost as though I noticed, maybe seven or eight years into this parenting journey, that my family’s life looked different from that of my family of origin. I treasure and guard fiercely our home life. And yet, I sometimes worry about what impact this will have on Grace and Whit, my children.

What I can’t stop thinking about, particularly during the holiday season, is the shadow of my instinct, the dark side of this particular aspect of my nature. What do my children lose without the extended net of people coming and going, without the example of parents who constantly welcome friends, new and old? Will they grow up to be exclusive, or clannish, or close-minded?

I do feel strongly about exposing Grace and Whit to the world; we’ve made that a priority. We travel together as a family and do regular philanthropic outreach (with our time as well as our resources). And in general, we have an orientation towards talking about the universe outside of our house. But when there’s a random day off from school or an open weekend date, I admit that my immediate and powerful instinct is that we do something as a family. It’s not hey, let’s bring some friends along. There are socializing events organized by other parents I know we’re missing out on simply because it doesn’t occur to others that I and my family may want to attend. I worry that my social proclivities to spending time as just a foursome have a major downside.

Am I protecting something that I cherish—time as a nuclear family—to a point that harms Grace and Whit? I don’t know. There are many ways I wish I was more like my own mother, and being socially outgoing is one of them. Earlier this year, I noticed that most of my closest friends are strong, sparkly extroverts, and I’m sure this must reflect a deep-seated desire to surround myself with models of my mother. I wish I could take on some of that confidence, that inclusion, that warmth in the center of a crowd.

But that’s not me. What I do offer my kids is reading together in bed, family dinner most nights of the week, walks around the neighborhood, and the guarantee that it’s me who will tuck them in every single night. It’s the fact that I convey to Grace and Whit every day in word and deed that our family of four is the most important thing in my life, that it’s holy to me.  

This time of year, the tension between the mother I had and the one I turned out to be is particularly real in my life. Maybe tonight, after we do our homework, we’ll take a walk in the neighborhood, look at holiday lights, and say hi to everyone we pass. That will be fun, for a while. But then, afterward, we’ll come home to cuddle and read Christmas stories and bask in the warmth of our company. And I’ll allow myself to lay aside that vision of the mother I’d hoped to be for a few moments and feel confident and happy being the mother I am.

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  • Lauren

    I love the distinctions you made between the family you grew up in and the family you have created. I, too, had a mother that attracted people to her and she adored the holidays and all they entailed. She passed away when I was 16 yo and I always thought I didn’t enjoy the holidays because of that. I am slowly coming to realize that I do, in fact, enjoy them but in a much more subtle, close-to-home way. I’m not sure whether her death had an impact on that or not…I’m sure it did, but I no longer feel guilty for wanting a different experience. I can honor her in so many ways…not just by recreating the holidays I experienced as a child. Thank you.

  • I totally get this, Lindsey, and I love seeing your words here.

  • Anne Krause

    You’re mothering with love. Whatever that looks like in any one family is individual and unique. Your children will remember with gratitude what you gave them – a home full of love. That’s all that matters.

  • Rod Brazier

    What I have come to realize and appreciate after 65+ (introverted) years on this planet, and having had many an occasion to reflect on similarities and differences between my own raising and my own preferences and experiences of raising 3 children with very different personalities is this: However you choose to steward your family, if it is done in the spirit of love and best intentions, all will be well. Unless your family constantly rebels against the ways you plan and carry on your family dynamic, they will likely experience it for what it is — loving intention. Such an environment (one might say family culture), combined with freedom to pursue individual interests and preferences, will enable children to become who and what they were meant to be. Lindsay’s story, and those of others who have responded to her post, describe growing up in a family environment in which they responded based on their personal preferences. At a certain age, children do take stock of their family environment make choices about what works for them, and what they wish to change. In my view, that’s a sign of healthy development.

  • Tricia

    Thank you for tackling this complex topic, and doing it so well. I grew up with family at the core of daily life, and most fervently during the holidays. With 5 siblings and 35 cousins, a standing “joke” for one brother was to retreat to the cellar to escape the onslaught of relatives and ensuing chaos; I very early and very naturally loved, instead, to gleefully prepare for the holidays and the guests. My brother and I loved each other fiercely, but were just wired differently. Interestingly, after sharing my life with such a big family, I happily married in my thirties and had one son — a clan of three. Yet the intensity with which I approach the holidays hasn’t changed (I adore the decorating and the traditional baking and the formal Christmas Eve dinner), but for me, it’s not about numbers of people, but rather embracing whomever is part of my life that year, and doing so with sincerity and an extra fun dose of the holiday spirit. I think what passes down to our children is not the memories of the bigness or smallness of the holiday calendar, but the acts of giving and sharing, and just being, within the context of a very magical season, however you choose to do that. It’s a mix of my favorite and oh-so-quiet Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman video, and cheery, robust get-togethers full of love and laughter. Merry Christmas, and I look forward to more provocative posts in the new year!

  • Margo57

    Thank you so much for this well-written article. It makes me feel okay to be me. Yes, holidays are a constant reminder that I am quiet, making me question my personality. But this Web site, and articles such as yours, gives me permission to accept my quiet ways and that I am not alone.

  • Sue P

    I am very much like you. I grew up in a family of 5 that was more like a family of 14 plus grandparents — my cousins were more like siblings. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, it was non-stop holiday prep, concerts, parties, etc. I used to have to disappear a lot because the togetherness got to be too much. As an adult, I raised my kids with more emphasis on the spiritual side of the holidays. There was always Nutcracker performances and one gathering with friends who were more like family, but that was really it. Today, the kids are grown, and they aren’t like me at all. They are very social people who have created traditions that involve lots of outside people and activities.

  • Michelle Messina Reale

    Lindsey, thank you for writing this. I literally could have written this myself. I have suffered in exactly the same ways. I have felt enormous guilt over the effect my introversion would have on my children. I am also shy and grew up in the same kind of “the more the merrier” family and suffered from not feeling like I could cope in the same way everyone seemed to be so good at. Thank you so much.