Before I became a parent, I thought it was rude when friends said they needed time alone. I assumed they did not want to be around me because I was an extrovert and unable to empathize. After five children, I understand what it is like to need isolation like one craves food. Even before I remarried and got two more kids, my first three taught me how annoying it could be to be around other people. The sound of someone clearing their throat was enough to drive me crazy, and the sound of a spoon hitting a Jell cup made me lose my mind.
In What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood, reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks quotes a patient saying about her husband, “He just wanted us to be close and have some adult time, to cuddle or just sit together and talk, but I could not handle it after spending all day with the baby attached to me.” She reminds me of a mom I met at a support group in the back of a Seattle maternity store. She said she would kill her husband if he touched her breasts again. However, it is not just mothers. My friend from high school was our ringleader, master of ceremonies, and host. Bill’s life was his stage, and he excelled in audience participation routines. “I needed to leave my house and go camping alone,” he stated after weeks of confinement with his daughter. Another buddy was forced to hide from his husband after their children had gone to bed.
Parents like them and me, who feel like they have had enough noise, touch, movement, and interaction, have they become more introverted?
Extroversion is one of the “Big Five” personality traits identified by psychologists. Most of us figure out what degree of stimulus reaches a Goldilocks zone that avoids boredom and overwhelms us as we age. There is a continuum; individuals who like life in the middle are known as “ambiverts.” Still, academics have long questioned whether our personality qualities remain stable or alter over time when we become parents. Most people now split the infant, claiming that qualities are fixed but can and do shift. For starters, we can stretch. An introvert can become a master of small talk.
Moreover, certain life situations induce more profound change. Wiebke Bleidorn, Christopher J. Hopwood, and Richard E. Lucas evaluated findings on Big Five alterations following motherhood in a review published in 2016. The first did not influence extroversion. Another person argued that men have a reduction. Finally, a 2016 study using Australian data discovered a decline in extroversion, but when researchers controlled for “selection bias,” they found no effect. Almost everyone is either introverted or extroverted.
So was I imagining things?
Maybe I needed to get my ideas mixed up. In the 1960s, anthropologist Edward T. Hall found that different Americans have different comfort levels. Intimate space is allocated for family and close friends and extends from 0 to 1.5 feet from us. We like to have between 18 inches and 4 feet of space between ourselves, close friends, and acquaintances. The next ring out, social space, ranges from 4 to 12 feet, which he describes as the usual buffer with which we are comfortable socializing with strangers. These distances are not set in stone. For example, different cultures expect different measurements, and rich people tend to want more space. So maybe being maxed out causes my bubbles to expand? Or does my subconscious demote a kid who has irritated me from friend to acquaintance?
However, there is more to it than proxemics. I identify with sections of Julie Vick’s 2021 book; Babies do not Make Small Talk. So, what is the point? An Introvert’s Survival Guide to Parenthood, “This book might be for you if some of the following claims ring similar,” she says. You frequently leave voicemail messages and then text people back.You would rather not be overscheduled and are occasionally relieved when plans are canceled.
You need some downtime at home afterward when you attend a networking event, a large holiday celebration, or a particularly loud knitting circle session.” When my first child was born, none of these things were true, but by the time I had a 7-year-old and a 17-year-old in the house, they all were.
My newfound introversion sometimes felt generalized, leaving less space for reaching out to my mother. However, like the bubble concept, it felt person-specific at times. I would leave a talk with a buddy wanting to know more, but playing 20 Questions with the kids seemed to like the attention equivalent of giving blood.
I wondered if fatigue was a factor and wrote Isabelle Roskam, a leading expert on parental burnout who co-authored the 2016 paper. She affirmed that “having children does not make one more introverted.”
Burnout may play a role in those who believe otherwise: “We do not have empirical data,” she said, but “due to their irritability, it seems evident to me that these parents are more sensitive to noise (especially from the children).” As a result, feeling more introverted may be a warning sign of the illness.
However, it could be much simpler than that. I spoke with Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Cannot Stop Talking, whose books taught me most of what I knew about extroversion a few years ago. I informed her that being a mom had made me more introverted. She compared them to “very high-powered, in-the-spotlight extroverts who would be content with a typical extroverted calendar, but they are so on all the time that even they feel like, ‘Oh my God, this is too much.'” “I am an extrovert, but occasionally I feel more introverted,” they will add. “I believe everybody has their boundaries,” Cain continued. It is just a matter of knowing where they are.”
Even extroverts may feel overstimulated when surrounded by children for hours on end, day after day, year after year, which may help explain “mom wine culture.” Cain spoke with personality psychologist Brian R. Little while researching Quiet, and he told her, “When you go to a football game, and someone gives you a drink, they are essentially saying, ‘Hi, take a glass of extroversion.'” Alcohol raises our stimulation threshold, helping us to cope with more – more people pushing for our laps, more awkward mingling at soccer pickup, and more PTA meetings. It is no surprise that in this day and age of strict parenting, parents are turning to it.
Vick presents a few less likely-to-become habit-forming coping methods in her amusing book. “Pumping gas is an efficient approach to earn a few minutes to refresh.”I can see my child in their car seat the entire time, but I cannot hear them wailing because a cracker broke in half,” she adds. On a more serious note, Vick advises, “Go back to work. As long as you are not a Wal-Mart greeter or a door-to-door salesperson, your job will likely give you a few seconds of respite from people, at least sometimes.”
That is precisely what I did. Some parents have successfully persuaded their children to leave them alone, but having raised two young extroverts, my salvation was more structural. With all five of them back in school, I began to feel like myself again, eager to give Zoom interviews, make the rounds at birthday parties, and even play misnamed rounds of 20 Questions, the ones that last 60 or 70 questions.
It has also known as burnout management or excitement management. As I prepare for the holidays, I will refer to the hours I spent drafting these sentences in my empty house as “bubble space.”