It’s a Thursday afternoon at the splash pad. The air is thick and humid and filled with the joyful screeching of toddlers and big kids as they chase after each other, getting sprayed with streams of ice-cold water at every turn.
I’m hiding under my floppy sunhat, sweating and silently wishing we were running around with them. Instead, my 18-month-old daughter and I are crouched down on the gravel path nearby, inspecting tiny rocks and creating tiny piles. She’s completely focused on her task. She has a vision in her head and, left to her own devices, she’ll spend the next half hour working diligently to bring it to life.
I am learning to follow her lead as she pulls me towards rocks and flowers instead of “play areas,” away from crowds of children instead of towards them. The alternative—picking her up, putting her in the place I want her to be, and watching as she turns and runs in the opposite direction—well, it’s not exactly effective.
My mother tells me she is exactly the same as I, a card-carrying introvert, was as a toddler. She’s miserable in crowds, happiest surrounded by family, and shows absolutely no interest in other kids, aside from a strange mix of horror and fascination as she watches them from afar.
Part of me is thrilled at having created another being like myself. Now, at 27, I think I’m pretty great. But a much bigger part is terrified that she’ll have to go through what I went through to get here—years of bullying (“What’s wrong with you? Can’t you talk?”) that culminated in some seriously awful self-hatred that persisted into my early twenties.
Introvert shame. It’s a thing, and it starts early. Even now, at 18 months old, people come up to us and say, “Wow! She’s so quiet.” (She’s not. You should hear her screech “yay!” when I tell her we’re en route to Grandma’s house. You’re just a complete stranger and you’re standing way too close.) I lurked on a mommy message board one day and saw a post that read—I absolutely kid you not—“My one-year-old son doesn’t like playing with other kids. Do you think he’ll grow up to be a social outcast? A loner?!”
Loner. When I was a kid, it was the most terrifying label you could get stuck with. By middle school, the taunt “Can’t you talk?” had begun to follow me wherever I went. Class after class was group projects, oral presentations, picking partners for gym, and desperately wishing I could stay in the library and read at recess instead of milling about with groups of other pre-teens.
It was hell. And you know what? I wasn’t even actually weird. I was a pretty normal kid, aside from the fact that I’d rather read than kick a ball. I always had exactly two close friends, so while I skirted along the edge of loner-dom, I never quite fell in. There were plenty who had it far worse than me, and still do.
We’re experiencing a cultural renaissance of introversion right now. There’s Susan Cain’s heaven-sent Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, the first book I ever read about introverts that wasn’t trying to fix us. There’s the irritating-ly loveable Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, who does his laundry on Saturday nights and only attends parties when bribed with nerdy presents. There’s JOMO (joy of missing out) in response to FOMO (fear of missing out). There are even helpful infographics on Pinterest for extroverts to help them better understand our strange behavior. Social media itself, it seems, was designed for us—we can work and socialize and network from the privacy of our own homes, all while extroverted folks panic about the death of telephone calls and real-life conversations.
Maybe it’s the fact that I’m an adult now, and rapidly getting too old for angst. Maybe it’s that I’ve carved out a life for myself that celebrates the core of who I am, facilitating writing workshops filled with other introverts. Whatever the reason, when my extroverted husband gets home from work, I happily declare that it’s introvert time and let him take care of our kid while I hide in the bedroom for half an hour and read. And I feel zero guilt, zero self-hatred, only relief.
But still, I’m scared. Scared that while the media may have caught up with the rise of introverts, the school system may not have. Scared that my kid will someday feel torn in two directions between the thing she actually wants to do and the thing she’s expected to want to do. Scared that someday she’ll be standing in a crowd of teenagers, trying to figure out what the hell everybody’s talking about, and someone will sneer and ask her, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you so quiet?”
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I don’t know if my daughter will end up being an introvert. But if she does, I hope more than anything that she can be the kind of person who’s proud of herself. I hope she can grow up in an environment where she’s valued for who she is, and not held up against some outdated expectation of how all kids are supposed to be.
And if she ever gets asked why she’s so quiet, I hope she can come up with a witty answer. Lord knows I’ve never been able to.