“What did you do during vacation?”
It’s a question intended to spark schoolyard chitchat—a basic social ritual among parents—but I fear I never have quite the right response. Why? Because my two young children and I tend not to do much of anything during a school break. Or over a long weekend. Or, well, at all. We are neither lazy nor uninspired; we live in New York City, arguably the most exciting place on Earth, where we have lots of friends and loved ones with whom we can share fun, meaningful experiences. My family is, in short, very fortunate. Happy. But we are not eager doers. We tend to stay put and just be.
Is that so scandalous to admit? I suspect there are plenty of parents out there who also value the comfort and quiet of their homes above all other places. Still, I’ve always been self-conscious—if not downright apologetic—about being a homebody. That’s the term I would have used to describe myself back when I was a latch-key kid growing up in the suburbs, spending most of my free time curled beneath a blanket with a book. Or writing in my diary. Or daydreaming, cat in lap. I didn’t really know what an introvert was or understand the exact reasons why I wanted to be left alone, but my desire to withdraw from the outside world seemed wrong somehow, and I struggled to invent excuses for my behavior. “Sorry,” my little brother was trained to say to anyone who called for me. “She can’t come to the phone right now.” “Sorry,” I might say if I was invited to a sleepover party. “I’m coming down with a cold.”
Of course, I couldn’t just tell my friends the truth: that the social demands of the school day left me depleted and I needed time and space to recover and rebuild my confidence. Would they think I was weird? Dump me from their inner circle? (They did both, eventually.) If only I understood that choosing a solo activity over a social one was nothing to feel ashamed about. “Spend free time the way you like,” Susan Cain writes in Quiet. “Not the way you think you’re supposed to.” Why did I waste so many years of my young life doing things I didn’t want to do? Why couldn’t I resist all that peer pressure and simply say no?
Even now, as a single working parent who prizes private time above everything else, I’m still learning how to decline an invitation with grace and reply yes when it counts. Birthday parties? Absolutely. Play dates? For sure. Double-booking birthday parties and play dates with drop-ins and/or fly-bys? Not so much.
For the most part, my well-worn efforts to reduce social overload have proved welcome in our family. My born-in-dance-shoes daughter, age 6, knows that all she has to do is give me a Little Rascals wave and I’ll take her home. My 4-year-old son, a tried-and-true Quiet Child, barely makes it out the door before I start up with the promises of “we’ll be back soon.” (Needless to say, I know where he’s coming from.) Children, with all their restless energy and unmitigated impulses, need their downtime as much as their too-often overwhelmed parents do. That’s why, during this past school break, we skipped the travel arrangements and scheduled lots of opportunities for building sofa-pillow forts, having picnics on the living room rug, staging readings for an ever-growing collection of Beanie Boos, and even pulling down the shades on a sunny day to transform our apartment into a darkened movie theater. Because in my book, that’s what being on vacation is all about.
But sometimes that old guilt over being a homebody/introvert creeps back in, and I worry that I’ve compromised my kids’ worldview by not being more outgoing. As a mother who consistently chooses to bake cupcakes instead of going to a Broadway musical, a staycation over a trip to Club Med with family friends, I can’t help but wonder: Will there come a day when my own kids criticize me for my apparent lack of adventure? Or will they be judged by their peers the way I was by mine? I’ve imposed my adult lifestyle preferences on their young lives. Should I try harder to escape my comfort zone and give them a wider range of experiences?
I’m inclined to think that my family is just fine for now. After all, they will always have Paris—as I had, at an age when I could truly appreciate it. As time goes by and my son and daughter become more independent, I will encourage them to explore their interests and interpersonal relationships, no matter how far and wide they go. Until then, I plan to keep things simple by staying close to home. This grants me a chance to catch my breath as well as to have a glimpse of my kids’ inner workings. Because it is indeed breathtaking to witness their joy as they discover what they’re made of—and what they can make of themselves. My daughter, for example, will take over the kitchen table and draw elaborate, highly literate cartoons for hours. My son, sitting beneath her on the floor, can solve complex puzzles and construct LEGO landscapes well into the night.
Would they have found such creative ways to entertain and express themselves if they were busy attending social functions or fighting jet lag after a trip across the globe? Perhaps. But I choose to believe that by making their solo downtime a priority, I am helping them realize their greatest potential. In these quiet moments—of play, self-reflection, even vague boredom—they can hear their unique voices. Learn who they really are on the inside. And use their hearts and minds to do anything they want. They are free to just be. No apologies necessary—not to me, not to anyone.