I’m writing on my bed, my usual working space. Out the window, instead of trees I see brick and windows, white sky. But it’s okay because I have delicious soundscapes in my ears, Fionn Regan, Savoir Adore, and I am writing daily. I feel like a desert cactus that’s finally been replenished. Able to bloom.
Since I last posted, a year ago, I have moved house twice, stopped home educating – Jude started school last week – ended a ten-month relationship, and discovered that I am, after all, an introvert.. Well, I knew I was one, but I also thought I was kind of an extrovert because I’m sociable and outgoing. Then I started to experience such profound fatigue that I wondered if I had M.E. or depression. The gap between what I wanted to get out of my life and what I was, in fact, able to enjoy and achieve, became larger and larger. But depression didn’t make sense, because although I had a low mood for much of the time, and often felt a sense of pointlessness about life, I would still come alive when I had time to engage with things that interest me. M.E. didn’t really either because I slept less than ever when at Dance Camp East in July, yet was full of energy, fed deeply into thriving again by the music, fire-lit companionship and soul celebration.
Then I typed into Google the words ‘Why is small talk so exhausting’ after yet another utterly wearying experience with talking about the surface of life for a couple of hours. I discovered a world of people blogging and writing about introversion. Being an introvert means that you get your energy from being alone, and from ‘deep’ and meaningful conversations and interactions with substance – small talk is very often draining for introverts. I felt a huge sense of relief: I’d found my home. My favourite so far is Space to Live, by Brenda Knowles. It’s a treasure trove of articles about introversion and how it impacts on parenting, relationships, work and self-esteem. I found myself identifying with every one.
The tiredness I’ve been suffering from for years, most acutely in the past few months, is, I believe, directly related to living a life of extraversion when I am really an introvert. For years, but particularly the past year since Jude finished nursery and I made the decision not to send him to school – to take the full responsibility of Jude’s education and socialisation into my hands.
- When I need a rest, I prefer time alone or with one or two close people rather than a group (yes).
- When I work on projects, I like to have larger uninterrupted time periods rather than smaller chunks (this is why having Jude at home with me all the time, and therefore being constantly interrupted, was so draining for me, and why I became more and more unproductive in the little time I did have – because there was such a backlog of brain-drain that I had to spend most of that time resting,.then when I finally did get some energy back to do some work, it was time to be back on mommy-duty again).
- I can zone out if too much is going on (yes. I can be an absent parent for this reason, at times. The constant chatter of small children, as delightful as it can be for a couple of hours, is impossible for my brain to process after a series of consecutive 13 hour days of it).
- I don’t like to interrupt others; I don’t like to be interrupted (yes…)
- I can become grouchy if I am around people or activities too long (even as a child, my mom tells me I used to ask to go home after a while at a party or a friend’s house, and nowadays I can’t take more than a couple of hours in social situations without starting to feel a strain, which can come out as being a bit distant and irritable).
- I often dread returning phone calls (sometimes)
- I am creative/imaginative (yes, I’ve been writing books from a young age and always invented elaborate games with dolls and anything to hand!)
- I form lasting relationships (I have several friendships that span more than a decade)
- I usually need to think before I respond or speak (this one I don’t relate to as well, as I’m quite quick-talking).
A while ago I read Elaine Aron’s ‘The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You’, and related to it completely. Highly Sensitive People, or HSP’s, have a vivid imagination, are labelled too shy or too sensitive (as a child I was painfully shy), who perform poorly when being observed even though they are usually competent, have vivid dreams, find time alone each day essential, and are quickly overwhelmed by noise and confusion, crowded parties, hectic office life. HSP’s make up some 20 percent of the population, (while some estimates have introverts as up to 50 %), and have a finely tuned nervous system, often sensing things that others ignore such as strong smells, bright lights, and the crush of crowds.
Although I recognised myself in all this, I didn’t really put much of Aron’s advice into action. I felt resistance at the idea that I’d have to miss out on lots of things I wanted to do, in order to prevent sensory over-stimulation (a point which HSP’s reach much more quickly than others). I figured I’d survived so far. I love many different things, and have always had an active and busy life. When I wasn’t looking after Jude – who is, I believe, a ‘high needs’ child – I was very often seeing friends, travelling up and down the country doing courses, and juggling many different commitments and activities. Pre-motherhood, I typically juggled two jobs and studies and went out several nights a week. It took me getting so tired that I was dragging myself like a weight of concrete through my days, and feeling exhausted by bedtime despite an hour-long nap each day, to be willing to change what I’m doing.
I realised that giving up home education, at least for now, was a matter of survival. Home education is still something I believe in on principle – but the reality was that each day of it involved so.much.stimulation, and was ultimately unsustainable for me as a Highly Sensitive introverted mom with an extroverted yet Highly Sensitive child. Four to five days a week we spent most of the day at groups or playdates – forest school, the home ed co-operative – which involved being around lots of noise, conflicting personalities’ needs, and often chaos – and even my ‘days off’, when I was working, involved two to three hours of travel a day as Jude and I bus-ed it around to childminders and to his dad.
Now, Jude is full-time at a lovely, very small community rural school, is loving it so far, and I wake up with a feeling of eagerness and purpose rather than flatness and tiredness each day, as I know that my day will be mostly full of activities that restore rather than deplete my energy – writing, time in nature, reading, connection with like-minded people when I choose it – and that when I pick up Jude, I will have the energy to relate to him from a state of wholeness, presence, and fun (something that fled me during my exhausted days), instead of counting the minutes till bedtime and becoming snappy and absent. My tiredness has fled, and I feel the energy to do things I’ve not been able to do for some time. I spend most of my time while Jude is at school, alone, working on my writing projects and planning for my writing workshops, and this is the way I like it right now.
One of the sticks I beat myself with when I was still soldiering on with home education, was ‘but other moms are doing it’ – even a couple of other single moms. Why couldn’t I? I felt guilty and inadequate, and resolved to just try harder. I tried to rest when I could. But what Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in Women who Run with the Wolves, calls the ‘call of the wild soul’ would not go away. I was literally like a plant without water, trying to squeeze the days worth of headspace and solitude that I needed, into the paltry hour before I went to bed, too exhausted to enjoy it. I now see that it was pointless to compare myself with other moms – I needed to listen to what my particular temperament and tolerance levels were telling me. My ‘comparison disease’ also played out in the endless reading of blogs depicting happy fulfilled home educating lives – where the parents seemed somehow able to put aside their own need for headspace, solitude and quiet – let alone self-actualisation through realising their creative dreams – and simply enjoy their children and their lives together. I kept waiting for my life to start to resemble these blogs, but it never did. I just felt increasingly isolated and overwhelmed.
It has not been without sadness, of course, that I’ve let go of my plans to home educate long term, and I reserve the right to re-evaluate state school for Jude at any point should it not be working out. I’ve chosen to celebrate the fact that we did it for a year, that Jude had that extra year at home, which has prepared him to deal with school from a stronger more confident and secure position. And I couldn’t have known what home education was really like without trying it. I learned what my limits are, and now I intend to respect them.