Years ago, I was chatting with my sister-in-law, who had babies at around the same time I did. She was talking about how much she loved her kids. When they were napping, she would go in and watch them sleep. Sometimes, she said, she was tempted to wake them up so that she could play with them.
When I heard that, I felt as if I was punched in the gut. I had never, in my few years as a parent, felt that way. Did she have some kind of innate mothering instinct that I lacked?
My husband and I had our children in rapid-fire succession, adding four kids to our family within four years. I was overwhelmed and outnumbered. The volume of work it took to keep my household running was exhausting. But there was something more to it than physical fatigue: parenting was emotionally exhausting. I felt trapped. I lived for naptime and bedtime. If one of the kids woke up early, I felt rage. I was desperate to get time away from them in any way I could. My overwhelming thoughts when they were napping were, Please don’t wake up. Please give me a little more time to myself. Please, just a few more minutes. I couldn’t imagine waking them up on purpose unless there was a fire.
It wasn’t only the exchange with my sister-in-law that made me doubt myself. Society tells us that we should savor every precious moment with our kids, and I was struggling to do this. If motherhood had been one of my biggest goals in life, why did I want to get away from my children? Maybe I was a horrible mother. Or I suffered from some kind of defect, an intimacy disorder, or psychological baggage that kept me from being able to enjoy my children as much as other people did.
I made an appointment with a therapist and explained my feelings to her. I love my kids dearly, I told her. I enjoy being with them. But I felt like I needed a bigger chunk of time to myself.
I was eager for the therapist to explain my glitch. Was I innately selfish? Was I a narcissist?
After a few weeks of listening, my therapist put her clipboard away and asked me to listen closely to what she was going to say.
“Kristen, you’re an introvert,” she said. “There is nothing wrong with you beyond the fact that you need time to yourself to refuel and recharge. You are running on empty. And you need to stop beating yourself up over the fact that you need time alone. It’s how you’re wired.”
I’d never considered myself an introvert. I’m not shy. I’m not scared to speak to a room full of people. I consider myself a “people person.” I always assumed those traits meant I was an extrovert. But as I began to read some of the books my therapist suggested, it became clear: I’m an introvert. I need a lot of downtime to recharge for social interaction.
I spent a few months wrestling with my therapist’s interpretation. I wanted a quick fix, and introversion wasn’t something I could take a pill for or change with therapy. I disliked the idea that this was just how I was made. I was also worried that the introversion diagnosis was a convenient cop-out. As a person who struggles mightily with guilt, I found it hard to take my therapist’s advice and let myself off the hook—especially when berating myself is something I’m so good at!
Eventually, and slowly, I came to understand that my introversion was indeed behind how I felt and that my desire for time to myself was not an indicator of how much I love my kids. My therapist had to remind me many times that the fact that I was there, sitting in her office looking for a solution, was proof that I cared deeply about my children.
Eventually, I learned to accept—and even embrace—my identity as an introvert, and I found some tactics to help me survive parenthood.
I let myself off the hook. This was the most important step. I accepted who I am and the personality I was born with and stopped trying to change myself. Instead, I looked for external solutions to make my life more conducive to my needs as an introvert.
I shifted my career to involve less face-time with others. At the time I had children, I was working as a marriage and family therapist. My job was 100% human interaction. It’s no wonder I was drained. I spent all day listening to people talk, which left me little energy for anyone else. I shifted my role—I began writing more, and I also began teaching, which I found less draining. As I altered my professional role to give me more time to myself, I found I had more energy at home.
I found out-of-home childcare. Previously, any childcare I had for the kids involved someone coming to our home to watch them. Our house is small, and even if I worked from my room, I could still hear the kids and would inevitably listen in on their day. I finally decided that I needed alone time at home and found a quality Montessori preschool that would take my kids for three mornings a week. Those mornings alone were my saving grace during that stage.
I instituted quiet time. While naptime provided me with some daily downtime, I also scheduled our day to include designated quiet time, when each kid played alone for about 30 minutes. In addition to giving me a mental break, this time was of great benefit to my kids who learned quiet, independent play. Some of my kids are introverts as well, and this quiet time was just as helpful for them as it was for me. As they’ve gotten older, quiet time has morphed into reading time, and it remains a great way for all of us to have a little time alone to recharge.
These small shifts made a huge difference in my ability to parent well and to be present and connected with my kids. I didn’t need to change who I was, and I didn’t have a fatal flaw that prevented me from being a good mom. I just needed to accept my temperament and honor my own needs.