Introversion

All right, all right, you were right. I mean those of you who said I needed to take better care of myself, that I wasn’t particularly good at doing so. I’ve spent most of today randomly falling asleep. So yes, I’ve pushed myself too hard. It’s time to rest. (I’m not sure when I’ll find the time, but I’m trying.)

Yesterday, my friend Jason Eric Lundberg wrote, in a comment to my blog post “On Withdrawing,”

“I often feel the need to withdraw, especially now that I’m teaching full time (and have been since 2008). I’m exhausted nearly every single day with all of the interactions that I have to make with students, colleagues, and management.”

Jason, I hope you don’t mind my quoting you! Jason is a wonderful writer and editor, and is married to one of my favorite fantasy artists, Janet Chui. (I’m very lucky to own two of her paintings.) They live in Singapore with their daughter Anya, whom I mention because Jason also wrote,

“How have you been able to find your own space and withdraw when raising a little one? Anya’s 20 months old now, which means for 20 months I’ve hardly ever had a chance to be alone (and you know how that affects an introvert).”

And then, this morning, as I do every morning, I skimmed the front page of the New York Times online. And I found an opinion piece titled “Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?” that begins,

“A beautiful woman lowers her eyes demurely beneath a hat. In an earlier era, her gaze might have signaled a mysterious allure. But this is a 2003 advertisement for Zoloft, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (S.S.R.I.) approved by the F.D.A. to treat social anxiety disorder. ‘Is she just shy? Or is it Social Anxiety Disorder?’ reads the caption, suggesting that the young woman is not alluring at all. She is sick.”

It’s about our tendency, as a society, to pathologize introversion or shyness, which I think are actually two different things. (For example, I’m introverted, but not usually shy. Although I can be.)

So evidently this is an important issue not only for introverts like me and Jason, trying to figure out how to live our lives in a the midst of what is often a tiring society, but also because it’s a part of the social discourse. Therefore, I thought I would write about it again today.

Like Jason, I teach. During a typical semester, I have sixty students. I spend nine hours a week teaching them, in groups of twenty at a time. And I spend many more hours meeting with them, emailing them. I teach writing, which is much more intensive than teaching literature. You can lecture about literature, but you have to teach writing as a workshop. That means many hours of meeting with students about their drafts. And I love teaching. But how do I reconcile it with my need for time alone?

I think what I do is make sure that throughout the day, I have time and space for myself. I close my office door and spend time reading. Or I take a walk around campus, anything that will allow me to clear my head, to hear my own thoughts again. When I started teaching, I tended to assume that I owed my students all my time, that I was somehow responsible for their progress. And I realized, as I learned to teach more effectively, that the more I made them responsible for their progress, the more they took on that responsibility. I still work fifty- to sixty-hour weeks. But I try to make sure that I have time to myself, for myself. (One thing this means, practically, is that I assign more peer editing than I used to. This past semester, we discussed the concept of copyediting, and they copyedited each others’ papers before handing in the final drafts. How this worked: they sat in groups and handed their papers to the right. The person on the right would copyedit one paragraph, then hand it to the right again, so each paragraph was copyedited by a different person. At the end of the semester, the students told me how much they had liked having other people look at their papers in the final stages. And I got better papers, as a result.)

And like Jason, I have a daughter, although mine is considerably older. For anyone with a child under two, I would say, it gets better, a lot better, but those first few years are intense. Now that Ophelia’s seven, it’s so much easier – in part I think because of how we handled those early years. For example, when she was upset, we would ask if she wanted to have a temper tandrum. If she did, we would say, how about for a minute? We would agree on a time, and she would have a temper tantrum until we said time was up. It wouldn’t be much of a tantrum, because the concept of agreeing on a temper tantrum was so funny. It would be a sort of fake tantrum. (Or what was even funnier? We would offer to have a temper tantrum for her. She would love watching an adult have a tantrum.)  But the point was, she was allowed to have it.

There weren’t many temper tantrums anyway, I think because I decided early on that I wouldn’t make Ophelia do anything I wouldn’t want to do at her age. So for example, I never took her shopping unless I was buying something for her, because I remembered how boring it was to have to go shopping with an adult. If I had to take her, to the grocery store for example, we would make a game of it. Before we bought anything, we would go around and try all the samples. And afterward, she would always be allowed to pick out a special treat. (This worked in part because I would take her to natural food stores, not supermarkets. Those fluorescent lights! Children respond by getting anxious, and they’re right to.) I once had a mother tell me that she insisted her children try new foods. A son of hers refused to eat a particular food, and so he was given no other food until he tried it. I believe he “broke” the next morning, and tried some after a night with no supper. I thought, what are you going to do next, send him to the Marshalsea, where Little Dorrit can take care of him? If someone treated me like that as an adult, I would hate him with a deep and abiding hatred. Why would I treat a child, who is more vulnerable, with less consideration than I would treat an adult?

I’m trying to gather my thoughts here, because my relationship with Ophelia did not grow out of a systematic philosophy. But it does reflect a central belief I came to early: that she was a person, who deserved the same treatment from me as any other person. When we noticed that she started asking for toys on a regular basis, I suggested an allowance of $5 per week. She can spend that money on anything she wants. The interesting result is that she does not ask for toys randomly anymore. Rather, she saves her allowance for them. For a seven-year-old, she is exceptionally self-reliant and mature. Of course, she’s also grown up in a quiet household with people who negotiate rather than arguing. And she’s been taught to negotiate herself. So when she asks for dessert before dinner, I tell her, “All right, as long as you know that you won’t get dessert after dinner.” And we agree. After all, which is more important – eating dessert after dinner (which is an arbitrary social rule) or learning to negotiate for what you want (a skill she will need for the rest of her life)?

I don’t know if these thoughts are useful at all to other parents. Children are all different, and I happen to have gotten one who is particularly mature for her age. I don’t know how much of it is the way she was raised, or just her. But I do know how difficult it is, being a teacher and parent when you’re an introvert – when you need time alone, and sometimes think about how lovely it would be to join that monastic order on a Scottish island where they never speak, and the boat only comes every two months. (I’ve been told they rent out rooms and have a waiting list, so evidently there are a lot of us out there.)

I have lots of thoughts on how to survive as an introvert in a society that values extroversion – or tries to sell us Zoloft. But I’ve written long enough on this topic, at least for tonight. It’s time for some PBS and an orange cranberry cereal bar, which are some of the pleasures that get me through a busy day. Or even a day that I’ve spent mostly falling asleep.

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4 Responses to Introversion

  1. Thanks for this, Dora. I’m very much looking forward to when Anya herself is seven; she’s already quite independent and clever (which she often tests on Janet and me), and she’s a lot of fun to be around, but also very time-intensive as well.

    I like the idea of asking whether Ophelia would like to have a temper tantrum; I think Anya’s still too young for this (she very much decides when to have them, mostly at bedtime), but I’ll try it when she gets older.

    Ah, if only I had 20 students per class! I’ve also got three classes, but 33 or 34 per, which means about 100 total, all teenage boys. Although for 14yo boys, they are fairly well-behaved. Usually. I also try to delegate as much responsibility as possible, but still end up working 50-60 hour weeks, with lots of grading.

    Okay, here’s another question (whether you choose to devote another blog post to it or not): With all the demands that teaching full-time entails, what have you done to establish time for your creative writing? (Because I can tell you, mine has suffered quite a lot; I’ve got 40,000 words of a novel languishing on my hard drive for years.)

    (And thanks for the nice words on my writing. 🙂 I have a collection coming out in September, and I’d be happy to send you a copy.)

  2. sarah says:

    This whole post was very interesting, but I have come away with one main thought – Ophelia is seven?!! Wow, that went fast.

  3. Snippety says:

    Love reading about your relationship with Ophelia. We are raising our boy much the same way – my mantra is “A person’s a person no matter how small” from Horton Hears a Hoo :0) He turned 4 yesterday and is already very mature and articulate for his age. I am planning to home educate and really looking forward to watching him blossom further.

  4. Yes, Ophelia is indeed seven!

    Jason, if you don’t mind, I am indeed going to blog about it again. Yeah, Anya’s in the phase where you just have to deal with the intensity, knowing that it’s going to change. It is going to change. I promise. Everything after two gets easier, and it gets easier year by year. Just imagine, she’ll be talking soon, and that’s a whole new world . . .

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