I grew up in a decidedly “the more the merrier” environment. For starters, at the very heart, my family of four was sort of a family of sixteen. The other three families were a part of our daily life in the loose, everyday way that I understand now reflects true intimacy. Each of those six other children is stitched through my childhood memories so tightly as to be a part of the very fabric. Each of them remains a part of my life today.
Moving outward in concentric circles from this center, there were always lots and lots of people around. Hilary and I used to joke that it wasn’t Thanksgiving without a foreign student or two whom we’d never met around the table. My memory of my family (and my continuing experience of it, actually) is of a roving, magnanimous extroversion that manifests itself in a million friends, a phone that’s always ringing, a lot of plans, dinner parties, coffees, and people stopping by just because. One of my mother’s many gifts is her immediate and expansive warmth, the genuine way she welcomes everyone into her life. She has always attracted people to her, and, like a sun, is surrounded by more orbiting planets than I can count.
I am not that kind of mother. It’s no secret that I am an introvert. I am also very sensitive and also shy (two traits that Susan Cain’s marvelous Quiet helped me understand are separate from, though highly correlated with, introversion) Perhaps because of this trifecta of qualities, I am much more closed-off with our family time. I treasure and guard fiercely our time the four of us (or the three of us, as in the case of Legoland or Storyland). I worry often about what impact this will have on Grace and Whit. It is vitally important to me that they grow up firm in their knowledge that I view our foursome, our nuclear family, as holy. I am fairly sure they get this message.
What I can’t stop thinking about lately is the shadow of my instinct, the dark side of this particular aspect of my nature. What do they lose without the extended net of people coming and going, without the example of constantly welcoming friends new and old? Will they grow up to be exclusive, or clannish, or closed-minded?
We do have “family friends,” about whom I’ve written a lot, and other friends too. Certainly. It would be inaccurate to paint a picture of the four of us alone in a dark room, never going out. But when I took Grace and Whit on an outing to celebrate the end of school, we bumped into legions of their classmates, all there together, herded around by a few parents who had clearly organized this outing. I had not heard anything about it. And when there’s a random day off of school, or an open weekend date, I admit that my immediate and powerful instinct is that we do something as a family. It’s not: hey, let’s bring some friends along. These are just examples, but that day after school did make me fret.
Am I protecting something that I cherish – time as a nuclear family – to a point that harms Grace and Whit? I don’t know. There are so very many ways I wish I was more like my own mother, and this is surely one of them. I think I was on to something when I noted earlier this year that the fact that most my closest friends are strong, sparkly extroverts must reflect a deep-seated desire to surround myself with models of my mother. I wish I could take on some of that confidence, that inclusion, that warmth.