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.