Being an introvert parent with a large family

When published five years ago, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking opened the floodgates of articles, blogs, and more books on the topics of introversion and extraversion. For me, this discussion has been eye-opening and life-changing. I understand things about myself I never did before. It turns out I am profoundly introverted, so much so that I’ve earned perfect scores on “How introverted are you tests?” and ranked 90% introverted or higher on personality type surveys.

I read a lot about my fellow introverts and our challenges and victories, and I’ve found one common theme in particular that bears mentioning. This is purely unscientific, but in my experience, I’ve found that when it comes to parenting, introverts tend to favor small families. I feel like the ideal number of children for many introverts is zero to two. And I’ve definitely gotten the impression that anything considered a “large” family is nerve-wracking or downright horrifying for a lot of introverts.

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Me and all six of my kiddos with a family friend.

So all that being said — hi, I’m the world’s most introverted introvert, and I am the father of six children. Being the highly introverted father of a large family carries with it lots of challenges, but even more rewards.

Noisy people everywhere, everywhen
The number one challenge: you’re always with a large group.

One of the primary differences between extroverts and introverts is the effect of social interaction upon us. It’s energizing to extroverts and draining to introverts. Some introverts unwind after a day of work in a chaotic, loud, open concept office by going home and spending a quiet evening with their partner and children, or with a small group of friends, or — the introvert cliche — alone. This downtime is necessary. It’s how we recharge, so we’re able to return to our busy, busy, busy job the next day. But for me, there is no such thing as retreating home to myself or to a small group. I live with seven other people. Some days, I’m with smaller groups during the work day than in the evening.

My situation is perhaps compounded by the fact that all six of my children are nine years old or younger, and they’re perfectly normal for those ages — which is to say, they demand a lot of attention. They need interactions with me, guidance from me, fun time with me, discipline from me. They each need this every day, and not just for a few minutes per day. And did I mention there are six of them?

The lack of solitude or even small group time can be overwhelming. The demands put on my attention can be overstimulating. And then there’s the noise. My three-year-old and one-year-old are loud. They can’t help it. They don’t understand “inside voice” and “outside voice.” When they are angered or wronged, their reaction is always an 11; they don’t know how to respond at a lower, more subdued level. And as for the older children, sometimes they fight and yell loudly, as kids do, but most of the time they get along and play together with so much excitement they… still yell loudly. They shout when they’re excited, they all talk at the same time, and their raucous belly-splitting laughter is the best sound in the world… but it’s still loud. Regular, normal familial contact — conversation, a family meal — can be tiring at best and overwhelming at worst due to volume level and the number of overlapping voices.

Most meaningful relationships
If my unscientific guess is right, and most introverts prefer zero-to-two children, I’ve just outlined a scenario that is highly unappealing to most introverts. If so, let me tell you, my fellow innies: you’re missing out.

Despite the challenges, I wouldn’t trade my situation for any other, and the primary reason why has to do with another defining trait of introverts: we crave meaningful relationships. We hate phoniness, we hate superficiality. Instead of idle chit-chat about the weather, we’d rather have a deep conversation about our innermost thoughts or dreams or those of others. By our choice, we may have far fewer friends than many others, but after we’ve decided on a friend, we go all-in.

Our spousal relationship is probably the deepest, most meaningful one we’ll ever have, but we all have at most just one spouse. (Well, except for polygamists, I guess.) Having a large family means having more of the most meaningful non-spousal relationships you’ll ever have: parental ones. Your relationship with your child is one in which the child is entirely dependent on you for physical care, affection, spiritual guidance, and education. Your children are young and innocent, and they want to hear and grok everything you have to say. It’s an introvert’s ideal relationship!

It is an honor and a privilege — and a great responsibility — that I get to provide an example to six little ones. Many introverts feel we’re misunderstood by society, possibly even marginalized. The thesis of Susan Cain’s Quiet is that the world has an extrovert ideal and doesn’t place enough value on introverts. As a parent, you get to change that… at least for your children. I try to show my children that a leader doesn’t have to be a tyrant and that words spoken softly can still have a loud impact. If we want the world to look at introversion and extraversion as two separate but equal ideals, we have to start teaching it somewhere.

How to focus outward when we want to focus inward?
There’s so much more I could say on this topic, and I will. This is the first in a planned series of articles about being an introverted parent. This series is not intended to lecture anyone, or to tell anyone how many children they should have. I hope that it speaks to introverted parents with any number of children. This also isn’t meant to brag about how great introverts are, or about how great I am. Quite the opposite, it’s part of my self-discovery journey, because — confession time — I often don’t know what the heck I’m doing.

My favorite dictionary defines introversion as “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life.” I know the definition of introversion can be a controversial topic, and the first time I read this, I thought, That’s a terrible definition! It makes me sound so self-centered and selfish.

But here’s a hard truth that no amount of self-deception can change. While I might not like to admit it, left unchecked, selfish and self-centered is precisely what I can become thanks to my introversion. And being selfish doesn’t jive very well with parenthood, a rather permanent state of life that demands near-constant sacrifice for the well-being of your children, especially in their first couple of decades. So how can I balance the sacrifices I must make (and want to make) for my family, while at the same time reminding myself that self-care isn’t selfish and is necessary to keep me in a state of being a responsible, loving, unselfish parent?

If you’re an introverted parent, I’d love for us to figure out the answer to that question together. What are your biggest challenges? What brings you the most joy? Leave a comment here, send me a message on Twitter, or use the Contact page to send me a direct message.

Monotasking

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Photo by Karina Carvalho (https://unsplash.com/@karinacarvalho)

I cannot do two things at once and do either one well. I try. Oh, life keeps making me try. But I am not a multitasker.

I’m a dedicated monotasker.

I can accomplish a lot of things. Give me a list, get out of my way, and I’ll conquer it. But I’ll do so one item at a time.

My preference for monotasking is evident in the activities I enjoy, like writing and reading novels, untangling and refactoring a messy bit of software code, or watching a marathon* of a great television show. If it is something I can get mentally involved in for a long time, losing all track of the outside world, blissfully sailing along in flow, count me in.

On the other hand, the days in which I have ten things to do and eight minutes in which to do them are the worst. When I find myself having to juggle multiple tasks for work, the demands of fatherhood, an unexpected incoming phone call, and do it all in a small timebox, that is the time when Cranky Mike is present.

I always knew multitasking was hazardous to my mental health, but I didn’t realize how detrimental it could be until a couple of months ago when I read about a study that found multitasking with electronic media might reduce your IQ.

A much larger study … found a significant negative correlation between media-multitasking and brain density in one part of the brain–the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved with impulse control, reward anticipation, and decision-making. What does that mean? A negative correlation means higher amounts of one variable (e.g. minutes of multitasking behavior) are strongly linked with lower amounts of another (e.g. brain density). Significant means the findings are unlikely to be explained by chance. Correlational studies like this don’t prove that one variable’s changes cause the other’s, by the way, but they’re important in the same way circumstantial evidence is important to a detective; following their trail can lead to stronger, causal evidence.

I knew I felt stupid when multitasking. I didn’t realize it may have been the multitasking itself that was making me stupid.

But as much as I want to, I can’t stop the world and melt with you. I’ve found a few coping mechanisms that work well for me.

  • Eliminate distractions. My work area is my garden of zen. Indirect but natural sunlight illuminates it. My wife planted flowers just outside the window. A small fountain of serenity and a natural scent air freshener provide a light kiss of nature (yes, there’s a window, but for much of the summer in South Texas, no, it is not open). But most important is my noise-cancelling headphones on which I’m usually listening to pink noise. Everything in the world except my task — my beautiful, lone task — disappears in this oasis.
  • Make a schedule. Part of me hates this. I can tolerate confinement to a room better than confinement to a time box. But it is also the only effective way I’ve found to ensure I get everything done in a day that I must. It helps that I look at my schedule as a very strong guideline, but only a guideline. If I’m in flow, and I don’t want to stop working a task when its time is up, I sometimes choose to keep working and figure out how to catch up later. And when I do have to toss something out of my agenda, undone? Well… I cherish those moments.
  • Declare yourself. I make it clear to others, firmly but politely, that I will only do one thing at a time. My children know the phrase, “Yes, I will do that for you, but you’ll have to wait. You’re on my list.” The same is true at work. “Yes, but not right now” is an OK answer to a request for your time. (Hint: it is also a good idea, especially at work, to set an expectation on when, if not now.)

Ferris Bueller said life moves pretty fast, and that if you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it. And he said it 30 years ago! Life is far faster today — Ferrari fast. Monotasking is an effective way to not miss life. You still live it to its absolute fullest. You just do it one thing at a time.

* The newfangled term for this is “binge watching,” but in my day, we called it a “marathon” and enjoyed the irony of applying the name of an incredible test of physical fitness and endurance to a couch potato activity.

Society and Monsters and Introverts

Simcha Fisher wrote a great article titled “Who’s Your Monster?”

Want to learn something about a society? Then take a look at what sort of fictional monsters are currently in vogue. What we fear tells us what kind of people we are.

Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein (subtitled The Modern Prometheus) expressed, among other things, the early 19th-century concern over how far man should go in trying to tame and manipulate the natural world. …

The first Godzilla film, featuring a grotesque monster accidentally resurrected by nuclear experimentation, is a walking, smashing embodiment of the anxiety of a nation who had just been flattened by nuclear war. No secret decoder ring needed there. …

Vampires? I’m tired of talking about vampires, so I’ll just say: Inverted Eucharist. AIDS epidemic. Glamour of evil. And so on.

ZombieWhat’s the current monster in vogue? At this point, I’d like to hand this article over to Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries to sing, “Zombie! Zombie!”

Fisher goes on to describe a conversation with one of my favorite writers, Mark Shea, on why zombies represent modern society’s fears:

The guy who beats the zombies, says Mark, is very often the rugged individualist type — the kind of guy who ignores government directives and relies on his own wits and strength. Most tellingly, the enemy to be feared is not so much the individual zombies themselves, as the contagiousness of the virus or disease or whatever it is that’s causing zombification. There is no one you can run to for help, because the bigger the crowd, the greater the chance there is of contamination. When there are ghosts or vampires or werewolves or sea monsters after you, you seek out allies, and make yourself stronger by banding together with anyone who can fight. But when it’s zombies? You can’t trust anyone; you may be required to turn against your own friends and family in order to save yourself. The only hope, really, is to wall yourself up safe inside some fortress. The worst possible thing that can happen is for people to spend time together, travel, encounter people they haven’t encountered before.

The monster is, in short, community itself — and the solution is to hide, survive, and wait for everyone else to eat each other.

I thought this was spot-on and very true. I definitely think there is a portion of today’s society that fears zombies for just this reason. But I don’t believe it’s universal. In fact, I think there is one part of society to whom this most definitely does not apply. And ironically, it is a segment of society that many probably think it applies to the most.

Introverts.

Susan Cain’s book Quiet launched the Quiet Revolution, an ongoing discussion about introversion and what it means to be an introvert and/or a highly sensitive person (HSP). The fruits of that discussion have been life changing for many people. And I don’t mean that as hyperbole because I’m one of them. I have a better quality of life armed with better knowledge of who I am and how I best function. But the discussion has also led to less desirable fruits.

This article from the Onion — “Report: Only 20 Minutes Until Introverted Man Gets To Leave Party” — is hilarious. But it also reinforces the stereotype that introverts don’t like people.

introvertsUnitePictures like the one on the left have a lot of truth to them and make me smile, but they also make introverts look like misanthropes.

And then there was the time that a newspaper featured a blog about highly sensitive people (Hi, Kelly, keep up the great work!) under the headline “In Other Words, Leave Me Alone.”

Community does look like the ultimate monster for introverts, but only for the stereotypical introverts that don’t exist anywhere except in funny meme pictures.

Real life introverts crave human interaction.

Yes, when we’ve had too much of it, we need alone time, though for many of us “alone time” doesn’t mean solitary confinement. It means either solitary confinement or quiet time with our spouse or partner. (I often tell my beloved Rose that I do need to be alone often, but time spent with just her counts as time alone.)

Yes, we don’t like large groups because they can be loud and overwhelming. But a cup of coffee or a meal with a small group of friends at a quiet cafe is the stuff of our daydreams.

Yes, we don’t like “fluff” conversation like small talk or showboating, but a good genuine conversation is immensely satisfying. (I often think Holden Caulfield was an introvert based merely on the way he used the word “phony.” Well, that and the fact that he was created by the most reclusive author ever.)

So have some good-natured fun with introverts’ need to separate from the community from time-to-time often. But don’t mistake it for hatred for that community.