We are sitting together at a birthday party, one to which I am supremely grateful that my son has been invited, given that we’ve been in town for all of two months. The only thing worse than attending a birthday party with Zachary would be the anguish he would feel if he weren’t invited. Zachary has not yet spontaneously combusted, which he will undoubtedly do, due to the amorphous activity of the party and the social anxiety that attends trying to ingratiate himself into this group of children. He is clearly trying to strategize how to insert himself into the little social groups forming within the play space, and I can see the tension rising. While I wait for him to fall apart, I have a little time to talk with some of the mothers.
One of the women I have taken a liking to. There’s something about her that runs on the right speed for me. I’d like to call her to go out for coffee, but I have been spending every spare moment working and haven’t had time to sneeze let alone make plans with people. “There are Alpha families here,” she tells me. “The parents are all friends, and the kids are all ‘popular.’”
I hear what she is saying. In fact, I have heard what she is saying many times before, in many places before. Hell, I’ve been the one saying it before. Maryland. Virginia. North Carolina. Massachusetts. London. Los Angeles. It’s the same everywhere, even Philadelphia. Cliques are nothing new to me. I wince when I see them. And then I remind myself to relax. We are not in high school anymore, and I don’t have to worry about whether the popular kids like me. Some will and some won’t.
We chat some more, and then Zachary has his meltdown, whereupon I do my thing and talk him off the ledge. He calms down, has some cake, comes back with me to get his coat on. “I hate birthday parties,” I whisper to her.
She is sympathetic. One of her children has similar issues getting overstimulated. She even knows terms like “sensory integration” and “highly sensitive.” I am grateful to have another adult take a tiny portion of my worry and share it simply by acknowledging its presence. “I can’t talk about it much, though,” she says. “I’ve found people don’t want to hear about it. They don’t want to be my friends if I talk about serious issues with my kids. Like it’s contagious.”
“I don’t really care if people want to be my friend,” I tell her, clearly astonishing her. But it’s true. I try to be nice to people out of respect for their feelings and enjoy getting to know people. But I am not staying up nights worrying about whether this or that mom at drop-off wants to hang out with me while I darn my socks. I figure I’ll find people I like who like me. Some of them may even surprise me and be in the popular clique. Or they may be thirty years older than I am. Who the hell knows?
I am as nice as I can be and I reach out to some people and I try to make the playdates my kids want me to make. Yet I’ve lived too many places and seen too many things to think that social politics amounts to much more than so much rye bread. It’s just what people do to entertain themselves on long winter evenings.
I didn’t always feel this way. I once wrung my hands over fitting in and making friends. It took me thirty-six years to come to realize that friendship needs to be organic, not strategized. I hope it doesn’t take Zach that long.
Zachary has returned to a semblance of a child, and we prepare to leave. I squeeze her on the arm and thank her for listening. I like her. I resolve to try to find some time for that cup of coffee.