In the hours and days after their first child is born, parents are deluged with copious felicitations from every kind of acquaintance. They receive cards and flowers and gifts. They happily share pictures via text with family and friends, and may also be inclined to dump pictures on social media, proudly displaying to the digital world a new citizen of the human race that they themselves have wrought. They grin in acknowledgement at those who express commiseration with their lack of sleep, and take comfort in all manner of advice about post-partum hardships from doctors, parenting books, and online scarymommy.com articles.
Yet one thing that is surely among the more common occurrences but is nonetheless like an elephant in the room, not easily discussed or even openly acknowledged amid the feverish onslaught of felicitations and logistical obligations and rigid feeding schedules, is the threat of post-partum anxiety. It is true that mental health professionals, obstetricians, and anyone with an inkling of the rigors of childrearing are acutely aware of the potential onset of post-partum depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or the general disquiet that comes with being overwhelmed by an immense new responsibility that severely and immediately transforms one’s life as he once knew it. The basic competence with which he has managed his own personal affairs in life is suddenly thrown into doubt.
There is a dread that shocks the core of his self-esteem.
As a man who has been a father for less than two weeks, I have not experienced depression, OCD, or a loss of self-esteem. I do not doubt my competence, nor do I feel a debilitating sense of helplessness in the face of unforeseen adversity. Yet sure enough, I only became a father in the last two weeks, and already I feel like a failure. I don’t say this because I got careless and dropped my newborn daughter on the floor, or because I let her mother oversleep and miss a feeding, or because I was oblivious to her mother’s texts about going into labor while I was feasting and drinking with friends at happy hour, and only got home in time to drive her to the hospital and let her deliver at the door of the emergency room.
None of that happened. Nor has anything catastrophic or melodramatic come to pass. Nor do I feel besieged by guilt about not being rich enough to provide her with a lavish home and lifestyle like a Hollywood movie star, or because I did not secure a place in an elite preschool three or four years from now.
The reason I already feel like a failure is because I am an introvert, and as an introvert, I worry about my ability to address the enormous emotional responsibility of caring for a child. All the anxieties natural to an introvert—not having enough time to oneself, constantly being barraged by nagging spouses and children in need of attention, the delirium of too many sensations for too long a stretch of time—are beginning to emerge. It’s not that I fear the loss of my personal time and space, because an introvert will find his personal time and space like an animal in the wilderness will find his sustenance. Personal time and space, like grass for a cow, or sunlight for the plant, is a matter of survival, a matter of health, a matter of staying sane and at peace with life. But because I cannot run from my introversion and the reclusive demands to which it gives rise, I also cannot run from the fear that my child will eventually, when she grows older, mistake my introversion for neglect.
Introverts live their lives in a solipsistic bubble, the extent of which varies from a cool reserve to a complete withdrawal, meant to be regenerative but which can make an introvert seem like a misanthrope or a hermit or a narcissist. It’s never one or the other—cool reserve or complete withdrawal—but a range that can manifest in the same person at different times depending on an introvert’s current emotional state. At times, an introvert is simply content to sit quietly in a crowd and watch and listen. At other times, an introvert is so drained from social interaction that he can barely stand to be in the presence of other human beings, and runs to the nearest sanctuary he can find.
An introvert like myself can easily come across as selfish, anti-social, or narcissistic.
The more sensitive to external stimulation he is (I am on the more extreme end), the more selfish and anti-social and narcissistic he can appear. But his withdrawal is only a physiological response to overstimulation. While an introvert appears aloof and uncaring, people around him may not know that his retreat and withdrawal can make him feel sad, depressed, or inadequate. He desperately wishes he could convey that it isn’t a pure aversion to humanity that makes him aloof, but a temporary intolerance for external stimulation after a succession of sensations from the realm of human experience. An introvert is like David Thoreau when he wrote: ‘I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.’ There are only so many faces and voices he can encounter before the synaptic networks of his brain sputter and derail like a train that tries to go too fast on its rails.
This predisposition can easily invite trouble in relationships. I have written elsewhere about difficulties in my relationships that stem in large part from being an introvert. This includes my fiancée, the mother of my child. Sure enough, our occasional frictions have spilled over into parenthood. We have gotten testy with each other, sometimes to the point of name-calling and profanity, which means I have already broken a promise to myself never to incite hostility in the presence of my child like my father did (though a corollary benefit is I have gained an even deeper appreciation of my father’s own struggles with introversion in an era when the cultural awareness of mental health issues was perhaps not as advanced and inclusive as it is today, and qualities associated with introversion perhaps carried more of a stigma than it does today, some thirteen years after Jonathan Rauch wrote a well-received article in The Atlantic about ‘caring for your introvert’).
The occasional frictions between me and my fiancée as we adjust to parenthood are not solely a function of my introversion.
Some can be traced to the basic post-partum challenges alluded to above, like anxiety rooted in the intensity of her maternal instincts, which have her constantly on guard, in contrast to my more easygoing nature, which is not scrupulously on watch for every little thing that can go wrong with our child. She worries about things that I don’t, like whether I’m going to trip while holding the baby because my walk-around-the-house shoes are beat-up fifteen-year-old Nike Air Prestos with the soles falling off (what can I say, they are comfortable!). That disparity in the degree to which each of us worries about things erupts in disagreements about what should and should not be done to address each other’s parenting preferences. The disagreements can often manifest in prickly remarks that, as they accumulate over time, can boil over like a hot cauldron of resentment and contempt.
It’s just the sort of thing that can break down an introvert: the chronic accumulation of beckoning calls, needling jibes and barbs, and expressions of frustration and resentment. It has put me so much on edge at times that I have gotten short with her, finding myself running around too much for too long, feeling overwhelmed, like I was never going to be able to read a book again, or write an essay, or simply take time alone to think about and reflect on, for example, the experience of being a dad. One morning, in a moment of frustration, I blurted out: ‘I’m not trying to be a 24/7 call boy!’
It wasn’t because I no longer wanted to care for my daughter or her mother. It wasn’t because I do not want to be there in times of need, or in cases of emergency. I said it precisely because I thought everything was going well. I was upset she did not share my belief that everything was going well. My daughter, fiancée, and I all had had a decent night of sleep. I had completed my morning chores, or at least the important ones. Things were ‘under control.’ Then I sat down to read a paragraph in a book while I was waiting for my fiancée to finish getting ready before we left to go to a pediatrician appointment. Maybe I can’t expect to have hours at a time to myself, but I can certainly try to steal a few minutes here, and a few minutes there, to read, to gather my thoughts, to take a deep breath.
My fiancée walked into my office. Thinking she caught me slacking, she chided me for delaying our trip to the pediatrician. She said it in a tone that made me feel like I should feel guilty for taking a moment to open up a book. It was apparent that we disagreed about what constitutes a situation that is ‘under control.’ As a result, I got the impression that she was never going to stop thinking of things to do, whereas I liked to do things piecemeal, a little bit at a time, according to a plan, whereby everything does not have to get done at once; tasks could be prioritized, completed incrementally, allowing for breaks, sleep, rest, conversation, and other activities associated with healthy living. We did not have to labor 24/7 like taskmasters preparing for war. I understand that in the general sense, the work never ends when raising a child. But I was striving to balance the need to get things done with the need to take breaks. Some kind of dynamic equilibrium was the goal. It was becoming clear, however, that she believed she was putting more into parenthood than I was. It was becoming a cause for nascent agitation, which then became cause for outright acrimony.
I wanted to communicate to her that I was merely attempting to establish an equilibrium.
Her view, however, was that we were only a week into this thing, and the round-the-clock priority was our child. She was right, but an introvert who has spent three days in a hospital constantly interrupted in the wee hours by doctors and nurses, and then five days constantly running around with little time to sit and work and think can get a little stir crazy. My outburst was the spontaneous combustion of a man who felt he had completed his chores for the time being and wanted to take a moment to himself, then felt a hot irritation run up under his skin when he felt she chided him not because there was a task left unfinished, but because he wasn’t doing something. This was a consideration that was extremely unwelcome to an introvert, because taking alone time is what an introvert must do if he is to remain sane. And he wants is to remain sane, not only for his own sake, but for his child’s sake, and the child’s mother’s sake. An introvert taking time to himself is no different than a patient who needs his pain medication, or a baby who needs to be fed if she is to stop crying.
But it sounded terrible, like I was in denial about the responsibilities that lay before me. My fiancée was not unwarranted in the wicked stare she gave me. It did not make me feel good. She was confronting me with the possibility that I was failing my child (and her). The raw biological love that exists between a parent and child is one I have grown accustomed to in the last week. To fail one’s child would be a terrible twist of fate, and I want to do what I can to avoid that fate. Was I already failing to do what I need to do to avoid that fate? It is a frightening question to ask, because I know the same tendencies will continue. I will forever be drawn to time alone, time to dwell in my thoughts, time to emotionally recuperate from the incessant stimuli of daily life in the society of family and the confines of domestic responsibility.
There are many introverts and others who may decide not to become parents in order to save themselves the trouble. I can understand their point of view. I have even thought to myself over the last week: what did I get myself into? Was I enamored with the idea of having a child but not the reality? Yet for all the pitfalls, I have been amazed to realize what satisfaction I derive from being witness to my child as she urinates or defecates on the bassinet in the middle of changing a diaper, whose derriere and haunches must be wiped because she squirts mustard-colored poop every time she has a bowel movement, who needs to be burped, who darts her eyes left and right in intense curiosity as her cheeks lay skin to skin with my neck. Even when I am anxious to get back to a book I was reading, or a football game I was watching, or an essay I was writing, I cannot help but smile to myself in amusement and contentment that I get to watch her squirm around while I make sure she has a clean diaper. All of that is true despite the climactic protest that I would not be a 24/7 call boy.
Nothing can prepare or condition an introvert to find enjoyment in the constant interruptions of parenthood except the experience itself. Only the reality of when labor is announced by contractions, bleeding, and water breakage; the reality of driving to the hospital at midnight; the reality of the delivery room filled with masked physicians in aqua blue body suits, cool as ice as they manage the chaos of childbirth; the transformative moment when your child is handed to you, and you see your daughter enter into the world. Out of nowhere it seems, a newborn baby is handed to you. Like a cub out of the wild placed at your doorstep.
You learn a whole lexicon of new words: vernix, colostrum, merconium.
You witness the dedicated, serious medical attention, the shots, the weigh-in, the reflex check, the respiratory check, the heart rate check, the response to stimulation, and more tests. The cutting of the cord. The not-knowing-how-to-act. The wrenching pit in your stomach as it dawns on you this is for real. It’s all happening without even a decent night’s sleep. You’re in a daze, being introduced to all these new inventions of nature and nurture. And then there she is, a little alien creature. Your child. Crying, squirming, kicking. You listen to the advice of the nurses. You pose for a picture. You look at her and cannot turn away. Then you endure three days in the hospital. You learn how to change diapers. You learn how to swaddle, and how to put a child to sleep when she has the hiccups. You listen to lactation consultants help her mother figure out the mechanics of breastfeeding. Then, you leave the hospital and spot mosquitoes. You thrash at them before they have a chance to pounce on her, in this age of Zika. And finally, you arrive at home, and feel the urge to sing the ABCs, and read to her from infant books about Hansel and Gretel, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. You look forward to reliving the fairy tales of your own childhood, by retelling them to your own child.
In short, I have succumbed to the joys and toils of fatherhood. But that does not mean I am always happy. It does not mean I don’t feel the need to get away from it all. It does not mean that I don’t succumb to the emotional needs of introversion. It does not mean I do not worry, as the reclusive demands of introversion call me from within, I am destined to fail my child.
My view is that parenting is an art, not a science.
I say this as one who is new to parenting, so I cannot claim to base this opinion on a lot of firsthand experience. It is an opinion derived from secondhand observations of how family, friends, and even strangers deal with their own children. It is derived from observations of how children interact with themselves, with each other, with adults, and with the world around them: their impressionability, their short attention spans, their susceptibility to peer pressure and marketing and cultural influences, their whimsical desires, their fits and starts, their profound need to believe that the adults who watch over them are safe, trustworthy, reliable, and interested in what they are doing with their lives, and what they are going to do with their lives. Finally, it is derived from the wisdom imparted to me by older folk whose experience with parenting now extends to being grandparents, and who invariably say that there is no standard approach or rule of thumb. Every parent must find his own way given the personality of his child and the dynamic of his own emotional constitution.
If parenting is an art, a child is a work of art.
Bringing it to life, i.e. raising a child, involves skill and talent and instinct and all the feeble attempts to apply what one reads in how-to books and websites. But as a work of art, children are also an obsession, a constant call to attention, a calling as profound and mesmerizing as Pygmalion’s sculpture, which was granted life by Aphrodite when its creator, the sculptor Pygmalion, gave it a kiss. Like Pygmalion’s creation, a child subsequently develops a mind and heart of its own. Once granted life, what will the child think of the parent who raised her? These are the questions that haunt a parent, especially one who worries that his introversion will be mistaken for neglect. I can only hope my child comes to understand that the inner life to which I am so attached has made much room for contemplation of my love for her. It may seem like a haunted house from the outside, but inside there is a dark, silent cellar in which a great love is stored, hoping to be discovered when the child looks into the eyes of her parent and finds a mystery that fascinates her rather than a mystery that scares or repels her. That is the hope of a parent who is an introvert.
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