Thursday, January 24, 2013

When Worlds Collide: Introverted Mom/Food-Allergic Kid

I know this is going to seem crazy to a lot of you, but the supermarket deli really stresses me out.

I'm a pretty extreme introvert. I would be very happy puttering around the house by myself and never going to social events at all. For years, I worked a corporate job and found that I had to "gear up" every morning. It isn't that I don't like people. It's just that too much "people" exhausts the heck out of me and confrontation sends me back into my shell like nothing else.

So...back to the deli. We have a great deli at our local supermarket with lots of safe choices for my son. Unfortunately, I cannot remember which choices are safe from visit to visit. I'm also just paranoid enough about all this stuff, having been burned in the past, that I really want to see that label.

There's a line of people three deep at the counter. Thirty-EIGHT...thirty-NINE...FORTY?

I'm forty. "Hi. I'm really sorry about this, but can you please show me the label for the oven-roasted turkey?" Blank stare.

"I have a child with food allergies. I need to see if there is butter or soy in the flavorings." Ok, now he's following. He rifles through the top shelf (always the top), looking for a turkey breast with the label intact. Turns back to me. "Lady, I'm going to have to go in the BACK to get one." Pause.

"Well, is there any kind of turkey right there that does have a label?" He brings me what he says is the honey roasted. Looks great. I tell him to carve it.

When he brings it back, he says "you know this is the smoked, right?" Nope, I didn't. I take it anyway and slink back to my cart.

That's a pretty typical trip to the deli counter for me. I always apologize, always explain, always assume it's a big deal, am always hypersensitive to what I perceive as criticism and annoyance from others, always quick to settle. Who knows if that hypersensitivity has any basis in reality at all? But that's the view I have of the hostile outside world and it makes doing the things I need to do every day to keep my kid safe harder than they probably are for the extrovert mom.

Now that I'm watching my son grow up with many of the same characteristics, I've gotten more curious as to where this stuff all comes from. The answer seems to be: we're born with it. If you, too, recognize yourself in all of this, I highly recommend Susan Cain's book Quiet. It's been a breath of fresh air through my mostly indoor-air world.

Cain makes the point early on that, around the 1910-20s, America went from a culture that valued character to one that values primarily personality. How to Win Friends and Influence People was the name of the game. Shy went from being simply a character trait to being a detriment...and sometimes even a pathology. Shy kids today are pushed, prodded and therapied. Colleges and companies want the socially-involved extrovert.  (As the same time, we're surprised that Americans are so "me" focused, and that our schools pay for programs that teach character...as though character is something to be acquired through mimicry, just like any other social skill.)

Unfortunately, food allergies and introversion are not an easy mix. Over the years, I learned to put on my game face and make the calls to other parents about play dates, or to speak up at the planning sessions for class parties, or to ask the restaurant owner to trot out all the ingredients. But, I often wondered if my child wouldn't have been better off if he had been born into a family with a pushier mom. (And yes — I know not all extroverts are "pushy" — but my crazy mental world likes broad categorizations.)

There are a lot of recommendations in the book for living more easily as an introvert in a world geared mostly to extroverts; so many that I can't summarize here. But I think the first important step for us introverts is acknowledging the mismatch and refusing to own the "shy" label as a negative. I've learned over the years that the outgoing interactions needed to deal with food allergies are hard for me. I've found ways to make it work (including throwing my husband into the ring whenever possible). What I hadn't realized until I read this book is the toll the struggle took on my own self-esteem. For so long, I thought there was something wrong with me, rather than some explainable hard-wired temperament that was simply different than what society (currently) values.

If you, too, are an introvert constantly struggling with being Hard-Nosed Pushy Allergy Mom, I highly recommend the book. In the meantime, cut yourself some slack when you ask the man to cut your deli meat.

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