I love my children. To me, they are a constant bloody delight. But at least once every day, they’ll be playing – adorably – on the floor and they’ll look up at me, their little Pixar faces aglow with love, and gesture for me to join them.
And I’ll be like, “Nah.”
Just... nah. Just... I don’t want to. As much as I think that the sun shines out of my kids’ tiny perfect arseholes, sometimes an involuntary boundary just goes up in me. For a long time, and because that is my jam, I assumed this was because I was an awful mother. But I’m tired, now, of assuming all the time, so I looked to other reasons.
And I found one. It is the reason that, at some point during a lively party, I’ll stop enjoying myself and start fantasising about the darkness of my bedroom. It’s why I spent so many school breaktimes behind the PE sheds instead of on the playground. And it’s why, as an adult, I give daily thanks to whichever deity deals with hermits for letting me work from home, because I can go for entire weeks without physically speaking to anyone I am not related to by blood or marriage.
I, you see, am an introvert. And the urge to retreat from people – even my own kids, whom I love more than chocolate, but who also a) keep machine-gunning questions that require more than a yes/no answer at me (how does the fridge work/why is orange etc) for hours on end and b) like to permanently swing from my hair, like Tarzan – isn’t good or bad, it’s just a sign that I need to regroup.
It’s best not to hide things, I think, from kids – because they’ll just figure it out and fret about it anyway. Whenever my husband and I have those slightly shitty clenched-teeth conversations all stressed-out parents have (“Well, I thought that this is where we kept the bin bags, but apparently not”), our three-year-old will thunder over, shout, “CAN YOU SMILE, PLEASE?” and force us to hug.
So, instead, I try to work with my introversion and schedule in “regrouping” time.
'Mummy just needs to play over here by herself for a bit,' I’ll say, and give myself five minutes to flick through a book (once, I tried to explain that I was overwhelmed, but my older son just asked me what a 'whelm' was)
This is challenging with a breastfed, co-sleeping baby and a shouty three-year-old, so twice a week I just go to bed when the baby does, with a book. And I’ll try to dedicate at least 15 minutes a day to solitary, unproductive pottering.
I’m trying to introduce it as a concept to my kids, too.
“Mummy just needs to play over here by herself for a bit,” I’ll say, and give myself five minutes to flick through a book (once, I tried to explain that I was overwhelmed, but my older son just asked me what a “whelm” was). During that five minutes, my three-year-old will argue with my about it and the baby will come over and try and use my face as a climbing wall, but it is a break of sorts.
Later, after lots of engaged physical activity, we’ll do “quiet play”, where we all sit together at the dining table and draw while singing at full volume (my three-year-old), insert pencils into our face holes (my baby) and read about conspiracy theories on Reddit (me).
When we go out, I make sure we have at least a few minutes to quietly observe what’s around us, and talk about the shapes of the clouds, or how many flowers we can see.
But my favourite new ritual is one that sprang up entirely naturally. The other afternoon, my older son clambered into my lap, threw a blanket over us (despite the intense heat) and asked if we could watch The Secret Life Of Pets. It was wonderful. He kept sighing happily with his head on my chest. I got to quietly stroke his hair for 20 minutes straight and he didn’t even complain when his brother joined us.
So, now we do this most afternoons. “This is nice quiet time, Mummy,” he will whisper. “Yes, it is,” I’ll reply, into his hair. Then I’ll hug the baby closer and enjoy the dual oxytocin rush.
This whole endeavour, of course, is only partly for my own benefit. It’s also an effort to teach my children about the varying shades of human behaviour and that introversion – as part of that – is OK.
This morning, like most mornings, began before 6am. This morning, like most mornings, was full of noise – babies gurgling; pre-schoolers singing; Mr Tumble bellowing nursery rhymes from Alexa. At some point, I turned around, though, and realised my older son was now curled up on the sofa, silently gazing out of the window and spinning the wheels on his monster truck.
“Do you want to come and play with Mummy?” I asked him. And you know what he said? He said, “Nah.”