How many times in your adult life have you breathed a sigh of relief that your middle or high school days are well behind you? One of the greatest pleasures of adulthood is being able to purge the people who’ve proven themselves cruel, destructive, needy or otherwise unworthy of your time. The burdens of becoming an adult are sweetened by the relief of no longer having to negotiate the treacherous thicket of school hierarchies and social strata. The freedom to create our own context of peers and friends, within which we are safe and happy, is surely one reason people are glad to see their school years in the rear-view mirror. Yet I’m learning not to celebrate prematurely, because having school age children throws you right back into the mix, engendering feelings sometimes more painful than the wretched school-era ones you thought you’d exorcised forever.
When I was a new mother in the obligatory “Mommy and Me” classes, it was pure joy to have other parents to talk to. We compared notes, complained about the indignities of parenting, and went googly-eyed over each other’s babies. Inevitably, that first group led to a spin-off meeting at someone’s house, no longer moderated by someone semi-official. I don't recall how I ended up in that first group "playdate"—none of those women were my friends before I had a baby--but it was there that the first inklings of mommy cliques began to dawn on me. As our babies gurgled on their blankets, we gossiped and joked and began, inevitably, to discuss subjects beyond our labor stories or nursing concerns. I moved away and left that group—women who’d kindly welcomed me in, based solely on the fact that I’d produced a child—but I wonder sometimes what became of them. I imagine they didn’t all stay friends, because it turns out that the commonality of having a child is ultimately not enough to sustain a true and lasting friendship.
When your children begin school, this becomes abundantly clear all over again. I became a school parent with the idealistic notion that if I were friendly to all, I would be friends with all. Of course, there were some parents—and children—to whom I gravitated, for all the indescribable reasons one prefers some people to others. The parents with similar values, backgrounds, or parenting styles were easier to hang out with. The ones who shared my sense of humor or interests were more fun. But in general, I felt we were one big happy school community, with big group playdates and mommy lunches and annual parent cocktails.
But then children grow and develop their own social dynamics and preferences, adding levels of complication to intraparent relationships. I find myself now, towards the end of lower school, in that tricky stage where children have definite ideas about who their friends are, but not the independence or wherewithal to manage their own social plans. This puts more pressure than ever on parents to be responsible monitors of their children’s friendships, yet we’ve also developed clear preferences about whom we like or trust. We approve in theory of the ideal of inclusiveness, but it’s difficult to impose it on unwilling children, and sometimes we just don’t feel like planning an afternoon with a parent or child we don’t click with.
I'm starting to realize these “tween” years (and yes, apparently they start at 9—another surprise to me) will prove the most stressful yet, in social terms, for both children and parent. Feelings will be wounded on both sides, and with greater awareness comes higher stakes. People are flawed; they make mistakes and they hurt each other, accidentally or purposely, all the time. I’m no exception: not long ago I hosted a dinner with limited seating and didn’t invite a close friend. To my horror, she discovered she’d been left out and was hurt and disappointed. Of course I apologized profusely and tried to explain, but I still feel sick about it and deeply regret my decision. And I’m sure I’ve wounded other people over the years without realizing it. But while it’s regrettable when adults hurt adults' feelings, or children hurt children, it’s different when adults mimic, condone or abet the hurtful behavior of their children. I don't know whether there's a remedy for this; some schools have policies or guidelines on birthday parties and playdates, but is this genuinely their purview? Perhaps the best case scenario is for parent associations to guide social behavior by laying out expectations and ideals that make sense for their communities. Parenting is fraught enough without our stooping to a schoolyard level ourselves, so let's utilize our parental authority—while we still have some—and encourage our children to treat each other kindly by modelling some kindness ourselves.
What I cooked this week (to soothe my wounded soul):