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Interview | Nan

Nan is my mother. She’s also highly sensitive, but she raised me in a time before the term or trait of high sensitivity had been popularized. We had a conversation about my childhood – what it was like to be highly sensitive with each other in the days before the current knowledge and tools about highly sensitive people (HSPs) were readily available.


What was it like having a baby with a head the size of a watermelon? I mean, what was it like having a highly sensitive child?


I didn’t think of you as highly sensitive. The term I would have used back then would have been “independent.” I used to joke about the fact that you were born screaming. After I knew more about you, I figured you’d been complaining about your lack of control over the induced labour because you’d have prefered to have chosen the date of your birth for yourself.

The next thing that really made me aware of what I called your “independence” was the ongoing ordeal with socks, which started when you were about two. We had to put them on and take them off about four or five times every time you got dressed because the bump at the toe always bugged you and I had to keep readjusting them until it didn’t bug you.


What if you’d said, “Never mind. Let’s go.”?


You’d yell and refuse to have your shoes put on. No negotiation. No make-do. It had to be your way or nothing.

And then there was the day of the dress. I was getting you ready to go to pre-school when you were four. I had one dress washed and ironed and in the closet, but you absolutely refused to wear it. I didn’t know why. While you were at school that day I washed and ironed all the dresses you owned, and from then on you could choose for yourself every day.


Does knowing now about high sensitivity alter your view of early incidents like that?


Yes. It’s interesting to try and adjust those memories, basing the causes more on high sensitivity than thinking of it only as stubbornness and independence. You always had such strong opinions about what you liked and didn’t like (and you still do).

I remember telling my own mother once (and I don’t remember how old you were at the time) that you were so independent but that I couldn’t imagine where you’d gotten it from. She looked at me, rolled her eyes, and said, “You don’t know?” Looking back, I think I must have been the only highly sensitive person in my whole large family. I can see how the strong needs and the hyper-awareness of highly sensitive children, like you and I both were, get interpreted as being so unique as to be weird.


As challenging as it must have been sometimes, you handled things pretty well. Whatever you thought at the time was the cause of my “independence,” my memory is that you did things that helped me.


Well, I couldn’t think of what else to do. I didn’t know how to find socks that didn’t have bumps, so I kept on rearranging them until you were satisfied. It was probably a very good thing that you were stubborn since things like bumps in your socks mattered so much to you.

There were other things that stood out about you which I now think were part of your high sensitivity, like your creativity. I was always delighted about that.


You were always quite creative yourself [as an aside, Nan graduated at the top of her class in May from a two-year production weaving course – at the age of 73]. I completely loved all the art classes you found for me, through public parks or wherever. They can’t have cost much because we didn’t have much money, but you found a way and those experiences provided me with so much pure bliss. I totally loved them. Thank you for that.

And thanks for the library experiences, too. My memory is that every time we moved to a new town [which was often] one of the first things you’d do was take me and David [my brother] to the library to get us all library cards. And there were never any limits about the library. We were never, ever told we couldn’t check something out, and you never put limits on how much we could check out. I remember leaving libraries all across the southern United States with stacks of books up to my chin, giddy with the bounty.

Also, you’d often offer interesting, creative suggestions whenever I’d tell you I was bored. You’d say things like, “Go read the dictionary,” or, “Write a poem in your mind – that’s what I do.” [Mom’s graduation project from the production weaving course involved weaving her poetry.]


Thank you, Sweetie. But you’re forgetting the teenage years, when I cowered in my room.


Right. But remember that I didn’t know what was going on then either. I only knew that so many things felt so wrong, and it all made me feel very angry. I had no idea how to get a grip on things, on myself.


I know. Neither did I. And I wasn’t in the most healthy of places then either. Most of the time it was dreadful, but along the way I figured out that things were easier when I didn’t try to argue with you. It was easier to simply let you do what you wanted to do.

For instance, when you were in high school I used to wake you up in the mornings, but you’d be so upset with me that I decided I wasn’t going to do it anymore and bought an alarm clock for you. It was a simple solution, but it made my mornings much more enjoyable! Now, knowing about HSPs, I suspect you desperately needed sleep to stay grounded or balanced, and when you hadn’t gotten enough you woke up cranky.

Another interesting thing was that you’d sometimes announce in the morning on a school day that you needed to go back to bed. At some point I realized that if I made you go to school on one of those days, you’d get sick, but if I let you stay home and rest, you’d be ready to go back to school the next day. You seemed to know when your body needed to rest, and you didn’t abuse the option to stay home.


Seriously, I can’t thank you enough for those things. They really made a difference.


Well, if I’d known then about high sensitivity and if I’d had any resources about it to call upon, it would have been easier to know how to be your mom.

Although maybe there were some things I was doing right … I just thought of something else. Do you remember when we lived in Hawaii, in that duplex? You and David had found a tree branch that you really liked. You asked me for help with making it stand up, and I gave you a jar you could put rocks in so it would be heavy enough to support the branch. You put it on the stoop between the two doors of the duplex and had a great time decorating it. I was inside the house, but I could hear you through the screen door. At some point our new neighbour came out of the other side of the duplex. She must have seen your branch then because she said in a scornful voice, “What in the world is this?” I knew you well enough to picture you pulling yourself up to your full second-grade height and looking the woman right in the eye as I heard you say very clearly and firmly, “My mother says it’s interesting.”


What a great thing it was to grow up with a champion (well, with two champions, since Dad was no slouch in that department, either). Now that you know about the trait of high sensitivity, what advice would you give to yourself back then and to other parents who are raising HSP kids now?


The biggest and most important advice would be to listen to your HSP children. If, as a parent, you know about high sensitivity, you definitely have a big advantage because you know to listen when an HSP child says they’re too hot or too cold or whatever. You know that the child is probably not just being irritating. If you’re not highly sensitive yourselves, you ought to read all you can about the trait so you can better understand it. But the primary thing is to trust your highly sensitive children when they tell you about themselves.


Is there anything you’d like to add?


I sometimes still feel like a kid myself when I’m surrounded by adults and I’m having an HSP need that I’m having trouble getting met. It’s frustrating to tell people that the light is too bright for me so I need to turn it off, or that I need the background music to be turned off so I can hear what people are saying, and to get a response that clearly shows they don’t believe it should be a problem. They may go along with the adjustment I need if they like me well enough, but I’m amazed I need to say the same things every single time. It’s frustrating.

So, I’m glad to have this conversation with you, Grace, to add my one voice, however soft, to the growing awareness about highly sensitive people, in the hopes that more education will continue to result in more tolerance and understanding for us all.


Thanks, Mom. I love you.


You’re welcome, Sweetie. I love you, too.

Nan shares three of her favourite books:

The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems, by Billy Collins. His poems are simple, accessible, and moving.

Findus and Pettson children’s books, by Sven Nordqvist, like Pancakes for Findus. I love the illustrations, with all the secret and strange things to be found in them, and the relationship between the old man, Pettson, and the feisty cat, Findus, makes me happy.

Bad Cat: 244 Not-So-Pretty Kitties And Cats Gone Bad, by Jim Edgar. This book’s ability to make me laugh is off the charts.


  1. I just loved reading this interview. Grace, how lucky you were to have a Mom who listened to you! And Nan, it helps me (as a Mom) to hear your point of view and the struggles you experienced. . It is hard to know if I am spoling my child or respecting her needs. It is such a delicate balance! Grace turned out to be such an amazing person. I wish I had been there to see her tell the neighbor “My mother says it’s interesting!”

    Tuesday, September 2, 2008 at 8:42 am | Permalink
  2. Thank you, Andrea. And in case you or anyone else reading the interview is wondering, the conversation as reported here was not the whole conversation. Mom and I had a lot of laughs remembering things that were more along the lines of what a BRAT I was in my “opinionated and independent” glory, particularly compared to my brother, who was a gentle, saintly fellow.

    I love living a long time – it provides time for long relationships (like with parents) to purify and flourish and grow way beyond what could have been imagined in the beginning.

    Tuesday, September 2, 2008 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

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