Wednesday, 5 August 2015

On the outside looking in

I've had a couple of conversations in the last few days about being isolated as a parent. About a mother who arrived at a Nursery School orientation and was relieved to finally meet other parents after three years of solitude. About a mother who has found that having a second child distanced her from some of her one-child friends. About going to toddler groups and finding that you know no-one there even though you've lived in the same place for nearly twenty years and gone to the same group every week for nearly three years. And this statement has been playing over and over again in my head since hearing it...
"The problem isn't whether the children know each other before they go to school, it's whether the parents do..."
And obviously, my default position is to start worrying about all this. I mean, I don't think I'm particularly isolated, but I am very aware that because LittleBear attends his pre-school in WorkTown, which is 15 miles from HomeVillage, not only does he not socialise with many children in HomeVillage, but I don't socialise with the parents of those children.

And all the time that I'm not getting to know any parents in HomeVillage, all those parents are getting to know each other. Friendships and cliques are forming that I am on the outside of, and being me, I assume that I will always be on the outside of. I feel as though I've spent my life forever being on the outside of a clique. A comment from a school "friend" has remained etched on my memory for all time...
"Maybe if you changed the way you acted, people would like you more."
I have never been one of the cool kids, or one of the beautiful people, or the popular gang. Never been the kind who can effortlessly make friends, always assumed that anyone I meet would really rather be talking to someone else. And maybe that's a self-fulfilling prophecy, because I hesitate from engaging with people, I don't pursue friendships. I meet nice, interesting, funny people, but they invariable remain friend-of-a-friend, or a passing acquaintance.  And when new, free-standing friendships don't magically materialise from these encounters I feel vindicated that I was right - people don't want to be friends with me.

Even when I was on maternity leave and going to all the baby clubs and Early Years groups, I'd find myself sitting alone with LittleBear and watching small groups form around the room as other people gossiped and chattered as though they'd known each other for years. Even when I could have been making friends... I wasn't. I'm just not very good at it. I don't know how to start a conversation. I don't know how to move from those first halting comments to actual, real friendship. I'm not too bad at getting to the point of vaguely knowing someone, and if I push on rapidly enough I can even make acquaintances, but making friends? Putting myself on the line to the level of inviting someone to my home risks rejection. It risks discovering that where I thought there was shared experience, humour or interest there was actually just polite tolerance. And trying to join a conversation amongst people who already know each other? I actually feel my stomach tying itself in knots even thinking about doing so.

I've come up with some categories of People I Know...

Vaguely Knows - these are people who I know well enough to nod and smile and say hello to. Chances are I know your child's name and not yours. It's nice to live in a village where there's quite a few of these, but it's really hard to move to the next step, after all, how do you ask someone their name when you've been nodding, smiling and chatting to them for the best part of four years?

Acquaintances - I actually know your name! There's a chance you know my name! This is good, and makes me feel you might not actually despise me. But on the off-chance that we're still in the category of polite tolerance and you do actually despise me, I will find it almost impossible to make any further overtures of friendship.

Friend - I know your husband's name as well! If you're lucky I know your surname! I've either been to your house, or you've been to mine, and we actually have some conversations that aren't only about children. All the signs are there that you might actually like me. From here onwards I can cope with the evolution of a friendship, give or take some crippling bouts of self-doubt.

Real Friend - we've discovered that we actually like each other as independent human beings and are interested in socialising together without our children. Pubs and curry nights beckon!

So, how am I faring at actually making friends in HomeVillage?
  • Eight weeks of ante-natal classes - 7 Real Friends, though technically only one of them lives in HomeVillage and therefore qualifies under the rules of the current assessment.
  • One year of attending the Early Years Centre baby group - 1 Real Friend and a handful of Vaguely Knows.
  • Six months of Baby Club followed by 2.5 years of Toddler Group - 2 Real Friends, 1 Friend, 5 Acquaintances and a raft of Vaguely Knows.
  • Three years of swimming lessons - 2 Acquaintances.
So I reckon that makes 4 Real Friends that I've made in as many years. And only three of those have a child who will be in the same school year as LittleBear. Out of an intake of approximately 80 children, I genuinely know 3 of their mothers. Way to go PhysicsBear.

And meanwhile, naturally, the Nursery School that LittleBear isn't going to in HomeVillage, where I was assured that it wouldn't matter at all if he didn't go before joining the Infant School, already has all those little cliquey setups like closed Facebook Groups, and email lists, and parents' associations. And I'm already not part of them. And I already don't know the other parents, or children. I already don't know the gossip and infighting and politics that goes on. I already don't know whose toes to avoid stepping on, or who isn't speaking to whom, or who's upset about the restructuring of the Infant School and who is in favour of it. I'm already not the mother who's on the playgroup committee, or organising the cake sale, or volunteering to listen to the Year 1 children reading, or making art installations for the Reception class, or organising the Harvest Festival, or making costumes for the School Play, or doing the accounts for the School Fete.

Because I can't. Not that I can't read, or listen, of make cakes, or sew costumes, or run a stall, or sit on a committee. But I can't volunteer. I can't try and fail. I can't offer and not be wanted. I can't attend and be forever on the peripherary, the spare limb that nobody knows what it's for, but nobody wants to amputate. I just can't.

And so it goes... on the outside looking in... again...

Postscript for my Real Friends
You, my real friends, parents and non-parents, are the most incredibly lovely, supportive, funny, amazing people, and I consider myself lucky and blessed to be able to call you friends. I'd rather have you in my life than be part of any number of superficial cliques. But one day, just once, I'd quite like to be on the inside looking out, just for a change of scenery.

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