Thursday, January 19, 2012

be Quiet

You will stay the whole time. She squeezed my hand. Her words fell in the muck between command and plea. She was scared. I squeezed back.

It was just a birthday party.

'It was just a birthday party,' I tell you, and that's a sentence that would work just fine for our other daughter, and probably for your kid, too. But sweet E -- she trips in the  sticky muck. So I stayed.

This is getting harder. Now that the school year isn't brand new and the kids all know each other and the parents all recognize each other, there are no longer any other parents who linger at these birthday parties. I'm surrounded by quick kisses and "I'll be here straight at 4" and "don't eat too much sugar" and "say thank you!" and a flurry of departing adults, off, I imagine, to 90 minutes of carefree lonely bliss. It's probably not true; they're probably leaving this party to pick up another kid at a different party, or running to the grocery store or the gas station or dropping books in the library drop slot or checking in on an elderly parent, or home quickly to let out the dog. They all have responsibilities, I remind myself, and mine is right here, to stand in the corner and walk the balance between unobtrusive and immediately visible at all times.

But I envy the parents who walk out the door and I envy the kids who light up at the entrance, the ones who don't cower or sidle slowly, appraising the room, the ones who rush in and begin exploring and don't even care who that grownup is who tries to help them remove their jackets. I envy the ease with which they embrace the day; E isn't able to embrace and in truth, neither am I, but I stand in the corner, pretending to her I don't mind, so that she can figure out how to do a new thing without cowering first.

Introverts, I read, risk growing into adults who lack confidence in navigating the world. If they're too apprehensive and don't feel supported, they avoid risk and can feel very unsettled in a risk-rewarding world. But: if they are supported, if they are raised to respect the length of time they need to grow comfortable, if they are not unduly pushed or rushed or told to ignore their feelings, they can grow up to be very confident. Introverts spend so much time observing that they may grow up to be very adept in social settings, since they've spent their lives studying human interaction. Their quiet needs can grow to be their biggest assets -- if they're supported. So I smile and wave, and play on my phone looking consciously unconcerned but not bored, and E looks up every other minute or so.

Sometimes she smiles. Sometimes she grimaces. In a tough transition, when the party activity breaks up so kids can find places at the table for cupcakes, she looks over longingly. I follow her eyes from me to two friends. She wants to sit with them, I can see, but they're not sitting. They're chatting with a third girl she doesn't know, and she doesn't know what to do. I say nothing. I smile encouragingly. I watch.

She approaches the three girls and stands peripherally, cautiously. They're giggling, and she's being so timid. They don't notice her. She turns away, looks at me. I smile. I watch her decide not to wait for them to notice her. She finds another friend, not one of her favorites but a sweet girl, and she sits down beside her. I watch her glance at the girls still giggling. She looks strained for just a moment, and then relief fills her face. She starts talking with the other girl at the table.

The tricky moment passed, and the solution she found wasn't exactly the one she wanted but it wasn't a bad one, either. Later, when we leave the party, I ask her if she had fun. I don't point out that this is the first party with her new kindergarten friends where she hasn't cried at all, but it is, and I silently mark that in my head. It was pretty fun, she says, and squeezes my hand. She's proud of herself. It wasn't smooth sailing but we'll just keep trying, together, until the things that aren't scary for other kids aren't scary for her, either. I'm already the last parent, so I'll just keep being the last parent. This is what we do.

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This post was inspired by a book I read for book club. I don't accept every book that I'm offered through our book club, and try only to select books that will teach me something or be enjoyable. This book hit a little too close to home to be enjoyable, but it taught me a lot about myself and our introverted eldest child. Once I understood the clinical terms (i.e., learning that by definition I'm introverted but not shy anymore, although I was very shy as a child; the lovely husband is even more introverted than I am but was never shy; E is shy-introverted and L is straight-up extrovert and who knows yet about G, but I'm curious to find out) and the science behind how those personality traits are mapped in the chemical and electrical functions of our brains, I've been able to understand E's reactions to certain kinds of social situations, as well as my own. This book has been really helpful in anticipating from an objective standpoint what I can do to prepare her for the kinds of upcoming moments that leave introverts feeling uncertain. Like, just say for example, loud unstructured crowded sugar-fueled birthday parties. And may I just say how grateful I am that the next book we'll be writing about is a novel. All it did to me was make me cry, but I didn't have to navel-gaze for it.
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Are you an introvert or extrovert? Author Susan Cain explores how introverts can be powerful in a world where being an extrovert is highly valued. Join From Left to Write on January 19 as we discuss Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. We'll also be chatting live with Susan Cain at 9PM Eastern on January 26. As a member of From Left to Write, I received a copy of the book. All opinions are my own.
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