Words: Sarah Bones
Next week marks the big return to school for millions of children across the UK after the lengthy coronavirus lockdown. Parents are understandably anxious about sending their children back to school, and for introverted people like me, there is the added pressure of returning to social interactions which may have been lacking during the last few months.
My anxiety can be debilitating at the best of times, but worries about how my two boys will cope with the changes they’ll face at school and the constant threat of them catching COVID is sending it through the roof. I think a lot of the anxiety centres around not being able to control their environment as much as I’ve been able to recently. I know I’m not alone in my concerns though.
Like many parents I’ve been preparing my kids for the return to school, whilst also bracing myself for both coping with these worries and interacting regularly with people again.
The pre-coronavirus school run
On a normal day, let alone during a global pandemic, the school run is fraught with anxiety for me. Come 7.30am, I’m already feeling anxious. My heart is racing and I’m hot and sweaty. Time to wake my two boys up and face the hour of chaos that is getting them fed and dressed, teeth brushed, bags packed, shoes on, and leaving the house on time. That’s when the real panic sets in as I remember that I have to face people and perhaps even talk to them, them being the other parents also hurriedly rushing their kids to school who I’m afraid to talk to.
I try to chat to the kids during the five-minute walk to school, in an effort not to look as anxious as I feel. They largely ignore me though which doesn’t help! Sometimes that most dreaded of things happens and they spot a friend ahead of us or across the road. My stomach lurches – I will have to talk to the friend’s mum or dad, as I don’t think it’s socially acceptable to follow behind the kids in silence.
When we hit the playground my anxiety spirals. If the doors are still closed I have a choice of either standing on my own awkwardly whilst the boys run off with their friends, or sidling up to one of the already-formed groups of parents and trying to join in the conversation whilst feeling like an intruder.
The days when the doors are already open are heavenly and we’re in and out before anyone notices me amidst the cacophony of the classroom. Then I’m off like a greyhound back down the road before anyone else. Sometimes I jog ever so slightly, hoping to look as if I’m rushing to get somewhere and can’t possibly stop to talk. I breathe a sigh of relief when I get through the door, feeling the overwhelming need for a nap at 9am.
What is introversion?
Before we go any further, I think it’s important to clarify here that I don’t dislike people, especially other parents. The truth is, I’m just very shy and self-conscious, and I always think I’m saying or doing the wrong thing. Conversations, particularly small talk, are a real struggle. Other people seem to converse so effortlessly, and I feel like I’m alone in feeling this way. So I tend to just avoid talking to people wherever possible to minimise the chance of embarrassing myself by saying something out of place.
Introversion is characterised by “a preference for the inner life of the mind over the outer world of other people.” Social interactions can leave us feeling mentally and physically drained, and we need to recharge our batteries afterwards with quiet and isolation. There are other traits that signal introversion, such as sensitivity, being curious and thinking about things a lot. In contrast, extroverts tend to thrive on social interaction and in busy environments.
How the coronavirus pandemic has impacted me and other introvert parents
Next week, my boys will be going back to school after months of lockdown, like many other children across the country. They feel understandably anxious, and I’ve been trying to prepare them for the big return as well as I can. But I’ve also been trying to prepare my introverted self for facing people again.
This introversion has thrived on the smallness of the last few months, during which I haven’t had to force a smile or a conversation, and could just be myself within my little family cocoon. But I’ve been wondering – is that a bad thing? For someone like myself who does want to try and put myself out into the world more and connect with others, not having to or even being able to do that recently probably hasn’t helped me.
The thought of having to navigate the school run again with all the added complications of not really knowing how to physically respond to people fills me with dread. We won’t be able to congregate in the playground thankfully, but figuring out how far apart to stand from people and whether it’s even okay to linger outside the gates and talk if needed is an additional hurdle to face.
It’s been widely reported that the lengthy lockdown we’ve experienced has adversely affected people’s mental health, and exacerbated existing mental illnesses for a variety of reasons. There have been suggestions that introverts have actually been enjoying lockdown as it suits our quiet and solitary nature, and we’ve therefore found it easier to adjust to a lack of social interaction.
Personally, although my introverted nature has only been reinforced during lockdown, I’ve also experienced a great longing for connection at times. I’ve actually missed the other parents and the familiarity of their harassed faces which remind me that we’re all the same in trying to balance our multifaceted lives. I’m not happy missing out on connections due to my introversion and would like to be more open to people and experiences. It would be nice not to dread the school run and actually enjoy chatting before returning to the solitude of working at home.
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One thing I have enjoyed is hearing people confess that they’ve forgotten the art of conversation during lockdown. That makes me feel like those people and I might be on more of an even keel come next week. If anything good has come from the pandemic, I think it’s a feeling of unity amongst us. For once I think I might actually have something to say to people when we return to the school run – if they start the conversation first of course.
How to cope if you’re introverted and anxious about the return to school
If you’re introverted and struggle to make conversation it can help to have prepared answers to questions you’re likely to be asked by people you haven’t seen for a while. For example, you might want to recall what you’ve been doing over the last few months in case people ask, and have a clear answer to how it’s affected yourself and loved ones. That way you won’t be struggling to remember things or articulate your thoughts.
After I’ve seen my boys off at the school gates in a couple of days and got home I know I’ll feel an initial sense of relief, at having both navigated the school run and finally getting some time to myself. Then the anxious thoughts will start and I’ll wonder how the kids are getting on. But here’s how I’ll be attempting to control the situation as much as I can, thereby reducing my anxiety levels; hopefully this might help other anxious mums:
1.Having a strong coffee!
2.Taking some me-time to try and relax, such as reading a book (in daylight for a change!) or going for a walk (without having to listen to one child or another complaining that they hate walks).
3.Doing some work that’s not too taxing but will give me a sense of accomplishment at having achieved something, even if it’s something small.
4.Making sure the boys wash their hands thoroughly when they get home and learning as much as I can about their day and how things went.
5.Communicating with the teachers if I’ve got any questions or concerns.
If we can regain a sense of control over things, I think all of us, especially those of us who are introverted or anxious, will feel a lot better about the big return to school.