Prior to becoming a parent, I took it as an insult when friends cited a need for alone time. Extroverted and unable to relate, I thought they just didn’t want to be around me. Five children later, I understand what it is to crave solitude in a manner similar to hunger. Even before I lucked into two kids by remarriage, the initial three taught me how another person’s presence can grate — the clearing of a throat my undoing, the click of a spoon against a Jello cup an incursion on my sanity.
In What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood, reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks reports a patient saying of her husband, “He just wanted us to be close and have some adult time, to cuddle or just sit together and talk, but I couldn’t handle it after spending all day with the baby attached to me.” She sounds like the mom I met at a support group in the back of a Seattle maternity store who declared she’d been plotting her husband’s murder, in case he tried to touch her breasts again. It’s not just mothers though. My high school buddy served as our ringleader, M.C. and host. Life was Bill’s stage, and he specialized in audience engagement bits. Yet after weeks of quarantine with his daughter, he said, “I needed to leave my house and go camping alone.” Another friend found himself hiding from his husband after their kids were in bed.
Have parents like them — like me — who feel maxed out on noise, physical touch, movement, and interaction become more introverted?
Psychologists list extroversion among the “Big Five” personality traits. As we mature, most of us figure out what level of stimulation hits a Goldilocks spot that avoids both boredom and overwhelm. There’s a spectrum, with those who prefer life in the middle dubbed “ambiverts.” Still, upon entering parenthood almost all people are either more introverted or more extroverted.
Academics have long debated whether our personality traits stay stable or change over time. Most now split the baby, saying traits tend to be fixed, but can and do shift. For starters, we’re able to stretch. An introvert can become excellent at small talk. And some life events spur deeper change. In a review published in 2016, Wiebke Bleidorn, Christopher J. Hopwood and Richard E. Lucas summarized studies looking at Big Five changes after parenthood. One showed no effect on extroversion. Another suggested that men experience a decrease. Finally, a 2016 study based on Australian data found a decrease in extroversion, but when researchers adjusted to account for “selection bias,” they saw no effect.
So was I imagining things?
Maybe I was getting my concepts confused. Back in the 1960s, anthropologist Edward T. Hall found that Americans have different comfort levels assigned to different people. Intimate space extends from 0 to 1.5 feet from us and is reserved for family and our closest friends. Personal space, from 18 inches to 4 feet, is how much room we prefer to have from friends and close acquaintances. The next ring out, social space, spans from 4 to 12 feet, and that’s the average buffer with which we’re comfortable socializing with strangers, he said. These distances aren’t fixed, with, for example, different cultures expecting different measurements and wealthy people tending to demand more space. So maybe being maxed out expands my bubbles? Or my subconscious demotes a kid who has upset me from intimate to acquaintance?
There’s more to it than proxemics though. I relate to passages in Julie Vick’s 2021 book, Babies Don’t Make Small Talk So Why Should I? An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving Parenthood. She writes, “This book might be for you if some of the following statements sound familiar: You often let your phone calls go to voicemail and then text people back ... You’d prefer not to be overscheduled and are sometimes relieved when plans are canceled. Whenever you attend a networking event, big holiday gathering or particularly rowdy knitting circle meetup, you need some downtime at home afterward.” Not one of these things was true when my first child was born, but by the time I had a 7-year-old and a 17-year-old in the house, all of them applied.
Sometimes my newfound introversion felt generalized, leaving less bandwidth for reaching out to my mom. But sometimes it felt person-specific, like the bubble concept. I’d leave a conversation with a friend eager for more, but a round of 20 Questions with the kids seemed like the attentional equivalent of giving blood.
I wondered if burnout could be at play and emailed Isabelle Roskam, a prominent scholar in parental burnout who also co-authored that 2016 study. She confirmed that "one does not become more introverted by having children.” For those who perceive otherwise, burnout could play a role: “We don’t have empirical data,” she emailed, but “because of their irritability, it seems obvious to me that these parents are more sensitive to noise (from the children, in particular).” So it’s possible feeling more introverted could be a red flag for the condition.
But it might be far simpler than that. A few years ago, I chatted with Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, whose books taught me most of what I know about extroversion. I told her that parenting had made me feel more introverted. She drew a parallel to celebrities, describing them as “extremely high-powered, in-the-spotlight extroverts who would be happy with a normal extroverted calendar, but they’re so on all the time that even they feel like, ‘Oh my God, this is too much.’” They’ll say, “I’m an extrovert, but sometimes I feel more introverted.” Cain added, “I guess everybody has their limits. It’s just a question of where they are.”
If even extroverts become overstimulated when surrounded by kids hour after hour, day after day, year after year, that could help explain “mom wine culture.” In researching Quiet, Cain talked to personality psychologist Brian R. Little, who told her, “When you go to a football game and someone offers you a beer, they’re really saying, ‘Hi, have a glass of extroversion.’” Alcohol raises our stimulation ceiling, allowing us to handle more — more people jostling onto our lap, more awkward socializing at soccer pickup, more PTA meetings. It’s no wonder parents turn to it in the age of intensive parenting.
In her funny book, Vick offers a few coping mechanisms less likely to be habit-forming. “I find that pumping gas is an effective way to gain a few minutes of time to recharge. I can see my kid in their car seat the whole time, but I can’t hear them yelling when a cracker just broke in half,” she writes. And, on a more consequential note, Vick suggests, “Go back to work. As long as you don’t work as a Walmart greeter or door-to-door salesperson, your job is likely to provide you a few moments of reprieve from people at least some of the time.”
And that’s basically what I did. Some parents have gotten their kids to leave them be, but having raised little extroverts my salvation was more structural. With all five back in school, I started to feel like myself again, excited to conduct Zoom interviews, make the rounds at birthday parties and even play misnomered rounds of 20 Questions, the ones that drag on to 60 or 70 queries. You can call it stimulation management or burnout abated. As I brace myself for the holiday break, I’ll call the hours spent typing these words in my empty house “bubble space.”
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