This past treacherous year, my mental health plummeted. But my mother’s was more stable than I had witnessed in years. There’s a lesson here, as we emerge from the pandemic.
My mother is a true introvert, while I’m an extrovert. Books give her life. Quiet time is a requirement. Happiness looks like a day surrounded by no one other than family.
My mother also lives with major depression and anxiety. In her case, depression can exacerbate her introversion, and lead to retreat.
Some of her treatment, considered elective by the state of California, was canceled during stay-at-home orders. I feared this would plunge us into a family crisis.
Instead, what I witnessed astounded me.
While my extrovert dad and I felt restless, my mom thrived. Confinement was a revitalizing cocoon. Her depression stabilized and her anxiety subsided.
My 20-something siblings and I — living in Berlin, London and New York — found our way home to San Francisco by summer 2020. We all followed my mom’s lead, transitioning to her speed: quieter, slower, fewer plans, more family time. As adults, our family usually gets together for a few weeks a year. Last year, we spent months together; during California’s initial stay-at-home order, I ate 97 of 100 dinners with my parents.
In my home, the introvert taught the extroverts the value of the quiet. I needed this lesson. I’d been sprinting — happily — for years, spending my 20s on the move. I lived in four countries in five years. I’m a talker, a doer. People give me life. The pandemic hit right during the epicenter of a major life upheaval of my own. I read about borders shutting in the restless nights fresh off a devastating breakup. My longtime partner, for whom I had relocated to Berlin, had moved out so recently that half his belongings were still tangled with my socks.
Against the backdrop of the global lockdown, I went home. Without my normal outlets — friends, movement, adventure — I looked to my mom for how to cope. She taught me the value of sitting alone even when it hurts, of creating space to articulate and move through grief rather than distract through external stimulation. I found walking, crying, swimming and sitting with her the best way to self-soothe and to become okay with a new reality I never wanted.
Now, gratefully vaxxed, we extroverts are again rendezvousing with friends, acquaintances, strangers. But for Mom, this transition feels “gargantuan, totally overwhelming,” she told me over Mother’s Day dinner.
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t asked earlier. “You were all here and now poof: I’m losing all my babies and it’s happening so fast. This is scary for me,” she said. “This is a lot and I’m clearly not doing well. I’ll deal, but it’s really hard.” My brother and sister had already returned to their “normal” lives, three and eight time zones away. For me, there was no semblance of any return to a “before.” I was ready to start a fresh chapter, and packing for a move to New York.
It’s thrilling to start anew, but we need to acknowledge that post-vaccination life comes with different challenges for everyone. There are people like my mom in all our lives who carried us through the pandemic but quietly dread a return to the way things were. We must give them the same bumpers the extroverts were given this past year and a half.
I can’t help but think of all the support I got from all sides as we adjusted to the isolation. I was lucky to work for a company where the chief executive in San Francisco made it clear: We are going through a crisis. Go easy, be gentle, respect boundaries.
As the pendulum swings back to the dominance of the extrovert, where is the same support for those for whom the pace of the pandemic worked better?
In the professional arena, some lessons are clear: Employers must treat mental fitness like physical fitness to keep teams engaged. Flexibility to work from home when needed is here to stay.
But let’s not make the mistake of offering work from home only for the parents juggling child care and exceptional circumstances. Let’s acknowledge that for some people, water cooler chat is draining. Where it boosts morale for some, it sucks productivity from others. If businesses don’t accommodate their introverts, they’ll lose them. Look at Naomi Osaka: She won’t be the last to resist demands that come easy to extroverts, such as talking to the press.
In our personal lives, too, the coming months should be the time when all of us decide whether the pandemic will be remembered as the “lost year” or whether the lessons we learned fundamentally changed the way we live. My mom and I share a hope that instead of racing back to how things were, we can rebuild in a way that supports both the louder strengths of the extroverts and the quieter strengths of the introverts. That we will place as much value on communion with our “pod” as we do racing to network outside it.
A benefit of stay-at-home orders for my family was the opportunity to share in so much of the intimate and the mundane. That routine taught us a great deal.
For one, instead of defaulting to listening to the fastest and loudest, we take the time to solicit every voice in family decisions.
When we are together, we now really, truly, allow no phones at the table. Dinner might be the quietest part of my day, and the most stimulating in my mom’s: We respect each other’s commitment to be there, and we show up fully.
We also learned to go easier on Mom. If a guest is coming over, and she does not feel up to saying hello, because she needs some “me” time, we now appreciate the need behind that. We recognize that while the visit may rejuvenate some of us, that time to herself will nourish my mom.
As we extroverts clamor back to our loud lives, we need to mix into the go-go-go some pause and appreciation for our quiet heroes. I want my mom to thrive post-pandemic the way she was able to when we all slowed down, and the way we sprinted through the world pre-2020 was not conducive to her well-being. Crisis-no crisis. Extrovert-introvert. We live between these binaries: Let’s use this moment to build a more compassionate new normal.
Grace Fish is an MBA candidate at Stanford Business School.