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Why Does Being Social Have to Involve Other People?

Photograph by Twenty20

Like most children her age, my 13-month-old daughter, Evyn, is adorable as all get out. She's curious about her surroundings and loves to people watch. She also gives out smiles like they're mini-Reese's on Halloween.

That's great when she's home and we're goofing around. It's quite another thing when we're out in public. If she throws her four-toothed grin towards someone at the supermarket or the park, or while we're at a restaurant, I cringe a little inside. Because all this effusiveness means I'm going to have to talk to a stranger.

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See, I'm an ambivert . I'm a person with two public personas: if I'm comfortable with my surroundings and am among friends, I'm chatty and outgoing—sometimes even injecting a funny line or two. When I am interviewing people for my job, I'm personable and do my best to make people comfortable. Amongst the rest of the world, however, I'm pretty quiet. It doesn't matter if it's a kids' party, where parents are talking about schools and activities, or just out for a walk with my daughter. Pretty much 90 percent of the time, I'd rather keep to myself.

The stilting, awkward, silence-filled conversation with other parents, though. That fills me with fear.

Before my wife, Rachel, and I adopted Evy it was no problem. No one wanted to talk to me, and I didn't want to talk to them. But contact with strangers has been unavoidable since we've become parents. Rachel, in her capacity as a public-sector attorney, has the ability to screw on a smile and speak to anyone who's curious about the bundle of giggles sitting in our shopping cart. By myself, though, most of the exchanges I have with strangers about Evy goes the same way:

Stranger: Oh, she's so cute!

Me (smiling, looking at Evy): We think so.

Stranger: How old is she?

Me (still looking at Evy): Uh, 13 months.

Stranger: She's so small, though!

Me (still looking at Evy): Uh, well, she was three months premature, but she's catching up quick.

Stranger: Is she crawling yet?

Me (still looking at Evy, pretending to adjust her tiny glasses): Yep.

Sometimes, I'll engage. But most of the time, I try to wrap things up as quickly as possible so I can continue with my day. I appreciate that all of these people find my daughter adorable enough to come over and talk to her (and, in a lot of cases, touch her without asking—which is a topic for a whole other essay), so I try to feign interest. But the whole time I'm about as comfortable as a person sitting in traffic who needs to go to the bathroom.

I'm not sure why, but small talk makes my spine clench. It's not because I feel I'm above it. Like I said, among friends I can get so talkative that people have turned up TVs and joked, "It doesn't go louder than Joel."

I think it's more that, in the moment, I'm focused on going about my business and I don't want to be bothered. It's not the fault of the people talking to me that I want to run away, but that doesn't make me hate it any less.

However. This antisocial bent isn't good for Evy, and I know it.

She's at an age where she needs to be around other kids, but the idea of going on a "playdate" makes me anxious. Watching Evy and some other toddler crawl around and smash toys on the ground is the easy part. The stilting, awkward, silence-filled conversation with other parents, though. That fills me with fear. I'd rather fill time with Evy in the comfort of my own living room than try to talk to someone about diaper brands or the amount of screentime their little one is getting.

Evy needs to start making friends, and our neighbor's son is a ready-made buddy who can carry her into her preschool years.

This applies to everyone, whether I know them or not. Our downstairs neighbors are lovely people who talk about parenting in the same realistic, barely-have-our-crap-together way we do. Their son, who is 11 months old, is adorable and seems to like Evy. All I need to do is go downstairs, sit and watch them play. His mother has been wanting to set up a playdate with us for months.

It still hasn't happened.

It took all the energy I could muster to finally send my neighbor a text and ask when they'd be around (I watch Evy two days per week. She's with her grandmother the other three days, so I can write stuff like this). That was before Thanksgiving, and now we're well into 2016, and I'm in no rush to watch the two of them play, mainly because of my selfish tendencies.

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Evy needs to start making friends, and our neighbor's son is a ready-made buddy who can carry her into her preschool years. Once she feels comfortable with him, the idea of bringing her to a music class or daycare feels more feasible. So I need to suck it up and just do it.

I just wish it didn't feel like doing so would be akin to a red hot poker shoved under my fingernails.

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