This is a post for the introverts: and for the socially anxious over-thinkers – the ones who go through life suspecting that everyone secretly hates them, even in the absence of all evidence.
Those people? Those are my people. If you’re reading this and you’re one of them, I just want you to know that I got your back. Seriously, I’d invite you round for coffee, if I didn’t know how excruciatingly awkward that would be for both of us, so we’ll maybe just leave it there, yeah?
Anyway. I am both introverted and a social anxiety sufferer. As most of you know, the two don’t always go hand-in-hand (You can be an introvert without being anxious, and not all anxious people are introverts…), but, in my case, they go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong, so, yeah, I won the ‘awkward’ lottery, basically, Yay, me!
Now, social anxiety – and, to a lesser extent, introversion – makes a lot of things in life harder than they really need to be, obviously, but what I’ve discovered over the course of the past two years, is that it makes parenting particularly hard. Because parenting brings with it apparently endless opportunities for social interaction, doesn’t it?
The play dates. The baby groups. The swimming lessons, and the baby sensory classes and, then, later, the school gate cliques, the sleepovers, and God knows what else the future has in store for us as Max gets older, and makes friends of his own.
My husband, of course, is thrilled by all of this. Terry, you see, is an extrovert: he’s the kind of person who talks to everyone, never turns down an invitation, and thinks nothing of inviting complete strangers into our house – including random delivery drivers, and, well, anyone who asks, basically.
And me, on the other hand?
Well, I’m the kind of person who I think people would say, “Likes to keep herself to herself.” I can almost hear them saying it, actually. “Oh, yeah, the house on the corner? The man’s really nice, always friendly, up for a laugh – but the wife: well, she likes to keep herself to herself, you know? You barely see her. Would walk past you in the street, that one.”
And that’s just the more polite things I imagine people saying about me. You’ll want to tell me I’m just being paranoid, I know, but the fact is, I have literally walked past people I know in the street: not on purpose, obviously, but just because I was either off in a dream world, or I just didn’t recognise them out of context. (Or, more often, because they were on the other side of the street, and I wasn’t wearing my contact lenses. Quick pause here while I go and re-order my contact lenses, brb..)
Where was I? Oh yeah: in the street, ignoring people. And you can call me paranoid all you want, but I know that my shyness and natural awkwardness can come across as rudeness, or, well, weirdness, to people, and I know because they’ve told me. When I was younger, I was frequently described as “stuck up” or “aloof” by people I was actually just too shy to talk to, and I still vividly remember the time a drunk colleague at a Christmas party told me repeatedly that she just couldn’t believe how nice I was “once you got to know me”, because everyone at work thought I was “really stuck up!” I was mortified: mostly because I knew exactly why they thought that, and it’s not because I actually AM stuck up – it’s just because I have resting bitch face, and don’t always wear my contact lenses.
Since then, I’ve worked hard to try to overcome my inbuilt awkwardness, but I still struggle. I’m not good at small-talk, for instance: once we’re past the usual comments about the weather, or whatever, I never know what to say, and I’m always so worried that I’m going to make the wrong impression, that I inevitably end up…making the wrong impression. And then I go home and spent the rest of the day worrying that the person I was speaking to must have been secretly thinking all of the same things that people have thought about me since I was a kid: that I am awkward, and weird, and too quiet, and all of the other things that keep over-thinkers like me up at night.
There’s absolutely nothing to suggest, of course, that the perfectly nice people I meet at play groups and in the park, when Max goes barrelling up to them to tell them he’s got shoes on (Yeah, no idea about that one: he’s just currently obsessed with everyone’s footwear – or lack thereof – at the moment…), are secretly hating me. I still think it, though, in pretty much every social interaction I have with people I don’t know that well (And sometimes with the ones I DO, to be totally honest), and it’s one of the reasons I find enforced socialising so incredibly awkward and, well, forced, basically. Even when I’m good at it, it exhausts me : and when I’m bad at it, it just makes me want to run away, and never have to face that particular person/people ever again.
As a parent, though, you can’t do that. For Max’s sake, I have to somehow find a way to get past my anxiety, to put my introversion to one side, and to get involved in all of the groups, and the activities that he wants to do. As he gets older, I’m going to have to deal with the play dates, and the “school mums”, and all of the other things that will essentially require me to pretend to be a completely different person from the one I actually am, just so that Max doesn’t miss out, or end up being The Kid With the Weird Mum Who Doesn’t Talk to Anyone. And I will have to do this for, ooh, the next decade or two? Sounds easy enough, right?
So, in the end, I guess the hardest thing about having kids ISN’T the people you have to talk to… it’s the ACTING you have to do.
So, in the end, I guess the hardest thing about having kids ISN’T the people you have to talk to, because the people are all perfectly nice, really. It’s the ACTING. Parenthood requires a lot of acting: from the hours you spend pretending to enjoy playing with toy cars, or reading the same book over and over, to the years you spend pretending to be comfortable in situations that take you totally out of your depth. Ultimately, I feel a bit like motherhood is forcing me to change my entire personality: and while I suspect there’s an argument lurking here that that’s probably for the best, because it’s not really healthy to be as antisocial as I am, it’s still a hard thing to deal with.
How do you change your entire personality, after all? How do you stop being the person you’ve been for your entire life, and start being someone else? How do you overcome anxiety and awkwardness, and, well, make people like you, basically, for the sake of your kid? (And yes, I know people don’t HAVE to like me, but, pathetic though it sounds to say it, I’d quite like them to – not because I feel I need “mum friends” or a girl-squad, or whatever, but purely to make my life – and Max’s – easier, over the next decade or so, during which I’ll be seeing these people on a regular basis.) How do you solve a problem like Maria Amber, in other words? And, while I’m here, why IS my toddler so fascinated by the fact that people wear SHOOZ?