The Parking Lot group tried, very hard, to get into it this morning. Conversations would start with, “Are you going to the meeting?” (There’s apparently going to be a meeting today.) “No, I have to read a book at my older son’s school.”
And I could see two or three moms opening their mouths to jump in. And I would access my inner Jersey Girl and talk really fast to say, “Oh, really? What are you going to read?”
I did this six or seven times.
Occasionally, two moms would break off and their voices would get really low and they would dart glances at P. (L wasn’t there yet). And I’d drag them, rather suddenly, into our conversation about pancake breakfasts.
The meeting will happen while I’m here, pretending to work. There will be a policy statement and that will be it.
It bothers me that I spend this much time and energy on the group politics of a bunch of women whose names I sometimes forget. I mentally mock, just a little bit, the women who spend so much energy worrying that a pedophile might see their son’s picture online, but I just spent almost the same amount of energy worrying about the high-school politics of the situation. Who’s nuts here? I know they are… and I’m almost certain that I am, too.
And why are moms all attacking each other instead of… I don’t know? Attacking pedophiles? That doesn’t make any sense. But I feel like a whole lotta energy and effort — mine, L’s, P’s, everyone’s — just got expended upon something useless, pointless, and divisive, where upon it could have been spent on something constructive. Why is modern motherhood all about attacking women who do it differently than I do it? Do men do this — as parents or in any other field?
I’m developing a theory, slowly, about how society can no longer use fear of sex/getting pregnant to control women, so instead, its shifted to using fear about motherhood to control women. It’s hazy, still, but I’m thinking about it. Thoughts?
So, The Rumble on the Preschool Moms List got nasty over the weekend. L. took her ball and went home.
In a fit of pique, she resigned as room parent, quit the mailing list, decided that she has “better ways to use [her] time”, and is now thinking about homeschooling next year instead of dealing with the moms.
Apparently, things got really heated on Thursday, when they were all in the tight little knot in the parking lot. (I talked to L. on IM the other day.) Basically, P. said that she was worried that a pedophile might find a FB photo of her beloved little boy and then stalk him. All the moms agreed, in a massive mental 180. (Most of them were all about putting pictures on the web at the beginning of the year.)
Now, I reiterate that parents have the right to control their child’s images.
I also agree with L’s point that they are all completely over-reacting and that every internet expert agrees that no one is going to stalk young children online. The article that P cited in an email, in fact, states as much:
“Research shows that there is virtually no risk of pedophiles coming to get kids because they found them online,” said Stephen Balkam, chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute.
However, P was citing the quotes of the paranoid moms, whose fears make up the bulk of the article. That’s a … problem with modern journalism. They play up the fear and then devote one paragraph to debunking it with one line from one expert.
So, L. is right in that P is being a fearful and ridiculous mom, and her fear is going to impact L’s son’s therapy.
However, P is right in that she has the right to control her child’s image. And L is wrong in that she could have approached this in a much more reasonable fashion, calmly and politely, without shoving “the truth” down everyone’s throats.
This is actually a lesson I’ve struggled with over the years. You can get what you want by being stupid and nice instead of being smart and logical (and not nice). I prefer being right and smart, but I’ve learned that people don’t like having their fault pointed out. Yes, I know, it shouldn’t have taken me 30+ years to learn that.
Now, my concern, the aspect of this that most directly affects me, is the conversation in the parking lot on Tuesday morning. I’m going to have to walk a fine line here — these are what I think of as “consensus moms”, the kind of woman who really wants to agree with everyone and for everyone to agree with her. They regard anyone who does not agree as a threat and an attack on their parenting styles. And I’m not quite capable of lying and agreeing with them, while throwing my friend L under the bus.
But I’m not willing to tilt at windmills with L. either. I don’t actually care about most of these women, so I don’t care if they are stupid and do stupid things. (If these were my friends, I would try to explain the facts, while still respecting their right to be crazy.) And I have a healthy fear of The Herd. If these women, en masse, decide that I’m a bad mom or a threat to their fragile sense of self, then that could impact my child significantly.
And hell, it could impact me. I’ve been on the wrong end of a herd attack way too many times to dismiss their power. (L is pretty disdainful of it, as are many geeks.) I know that when a herd of “consensus girls” turns on someone, it can get brutal — even fatal. I’m not a 15 year old girl, so I’m well past the point where getting attacked and ostracized caused me to be suicidal, but I like sending The Child to her preschool and they could make that difficult. We don’t travel in the same social circles, for which I am grateful, but Boston’s a small city and I can’t be sure that they or their husbands will never bump into me or my husband, professionally.
I’m going to go for deflection and redirection as a strategy — talk about the earthquake in Chile, mention my Aunt in Law in Hawai’i and the fact that she was in danger because of the tsunmai. The Olympics and the Closing Ceremonies are good diversion techniques, too.
I have other thoughts on this, but The Child is driving me up a wall so I’m going to stop now.
I’ve been thinking a lot about rules lately. About how The Child wants, desperately, to obey rules. She wants a strict set of rules and for them to be followed and enforced. Because that’s what my little girl needs, I’ve become a Rules Queen.
The problems with this that I’ve encountered are two-fold. First, explaining to her that it’s not her job to enforce the rules. This bugs the hell out of her. In dance class, another little girl was dancing even though it wasn’t her turn. She handled it well, didn’t freak out or anything, but she did tell the little girl to sit down during class (I heard). And she’s kept talking about it for days afterwards. Explaining that it’s the teacher’s job, not hers, to enforce the rules lead to my realization of the second problem: Almost no one follows or enforces rules.
The teacher at the dance class didn’t. Other moms often don’t. Certainly other kids don’t. What’s more, we live in a culture where the guy who follows the rules, in literature or tv or movies, is usually regarded as too uptight, a jerk, someone without humor or reason. Rule-followers are mocked, derided, and made into the bad guys. Often they finally “loosen up” and turn into OK guys at the end. (This goes double for women. Usually they wind up having sex (or finding a boyfriend) and become much more fun/sympathetic characters.)
I remember, vividly, one day when I was in first grade. It was the first week of school and we were all very excited because we got to wait by the big-kid door for class to start (as opposed to the playground, where the Kindergarten kids waited). The Principal, Mr. Scizer, came out and told us all, in his nicest, most jocular manner, that we had to wait down at the playground. It was a new rule.
The next day, I saw my best friend, Caryn, and a bunch of kids all waiting up at the door instead of at the playground. Being a bossy little miss-know-it-all (AKA, someone who followed rules), I reminded them that Mr. Scizer had said we needed to wait at the playground.
They told me that I’d misunderstood, he was joking. I said he wasn’t. Eventually he came out and told us, somewhat angrily, that we needed to go down to the playground. And everyone was angry … at me.
That was, in many ways, the start of my social isolation in grammar school. I didn’t understand the unspoken code of when it was important to follow the rules and when it was important to break the rules. I’m still not sure I get it, sometimes. In fact, a lot of geeks/nerds are the ones who somehow failed to internalize the unspoken code of when to break rules.
I worry about The Child’s love of rules. And the fact that she gets very upset when other people break the rules. I’ve tried explaining that it’s not our job to tell other kids what to do, or even other grown ups, but it’s hard since often I also want to march over to the rule breaker and read them the riot act. And sometimes I do just that — I delivered a stern lecture to the guy smoking at the toddler park, right in front of the “no smoking” sign, for instance.
A lot of the moms stared at me, laughed, or turned away with a sneer when I did. Some of them said, “That’s right!” and told me they’d wished they’d done it. So mixed results.
But when I tried to get the kid down the hall from me to stop smoking in my dorm hallway, she laughed at me and several of her friends made my life difficult. I knew, despite my handicap, that going to the RA would be over the line — despite the fact that she was breaking the rules and making me sick (I had bad asthma). What’s more, I’d be putting the RA in an awkward position because it was understood that RAs enforced certain rules but not others. And any RA who enforced ALL the rules was considered a “ball-busting uptight bitch.”
I have spent much of my life dealing with the same long-simmering anger that afflicts The Child when she sees someone breaking the rules. (And don’t get me started on The Husband!) I worry that my inability to understand this silent and shifting gray area will force her, as it did me, into the geek category.
And that’s the last thing I want for her.
Last week, bringing The Child into school, one of the morning teachers stopped me with a big cheery smile. “Hey!” she waved, calling me and the Child by name. “I met a neighbor of yours this weekend.”
“Really?” I smiled, desperatly scavanging in my brain for this woman’s name. She’s one of four teachers, the one who gave me my orientation tour, starts with an M….. “Who?”
“Oh, Amy!” she smiled.
“Which Amy?” I tried for a sheepish smile. “There are so many!”
“Oh, Hannah’s mom,” she stated, as if that wasn’t one of the most popular names for young girls right now. “I was her doula at her home birth this weekend.”
And there, I had three data points. The woman’s name. Her daughter’s name. The fact that she was recently greatly pregnant. And I had no idea. Not a single clue. It was like…. name a 13th-century fransiscian monk. Total blank.
Maria — the teacher’s name was Maria! I could remember that much! — continued blithely, “I mentioned that I was a teacher at Drumlin Farm and she said right away that she knew you and your daughter!”
I went with generic conversation. “Oh, my goodness! She’s had the baby! Everyone is happy and healthy, I hope? I’ll have to bake something for her, muffins maybe.”
Small talk. Chatter. We waved goodbye. And I’ve spent the past five days trying to figure out who the hell Amy is!? I’ve come up with exactly one candidate – a woman I’ve met a number of times who has a young daughter and was pretty pregnant when I last saw her, back in July. I thought her daughter’s name was Emma, not Hannah, but I could be wrong. I thought her name was Gretchen or Gretel or Gertrude or something else Germanic. (She looks very like a young hausfrau, with excellent bone structure, golden hair, and a striking but not pretty face.)
This is embarassing enough. But yesterday I bumped into a woman I’ve met a number of times and I like, quite a lot. She and her daughter have very very unusual names — way memorable — and I accidentally called her daughter the wrong name. What’s more, I called her daughter the name of another girl whose mother I would like to be better friend with. And, naturally, they are great friends and my gaffe will get back to her.
Way to make friends and influence people. Sigh.
Yesterday, I had a moment when I was torn between my better angels and my monster motherhood. I’m still not sure what I should have done.
I was at The Park, the park we always go to. It was morning and quite full of toddlers and infants and even an older kid or three (is it April vacation or something?). And it slowly became clear, as mothers and children, rotated around in that slow playground waltz, that there was a man without a child there.
He was pretty noticeable, regardless. Tall, taller than The Husband (6’4″), and build strongly. He was wearing an oversized white t-shirt, work boots, and a pair of — I shit you not — denim overalls. Hair brown and gray, shaved to half an inch, and a black glove on one hand. He was maybe 45. After a few moments, it became clear that he was what my mother would call “slightly slow.”
He swung on the swings, climbed on the wobbly bridge, pushed a truck around, tried to go down the slide but couldn’t fit. When The Child picked up a piece of chalk he asked, “Can I have the colored chalk?” in a perfectly clear voice and I handed it over without a word. When another little girl — a little curly haired moppet who is almost the exact same age as The Child — went to the swings, her greatly pregnant mother trailing behind slowly, he walked over, picked her up, and put her in the swing.
My better angels thought that he was harmless, he was enjoying himself, this was a public park, he had done nothing threatening or bad. I should be happy that this man — who very likely had had a hard life — was enjoying himself on a beautiful sunny spring day. I should smile at him, talk with him, make him feel welcome.
My monstrous motherhood, however, couldn’t help but notice the man’s size. I was the only woman there who was not tiny or heavily pregnant (or, in two cases, both tiny and heavily pregnant). The dads had all left for the day, damnit. And while I like to think of myself as pretty ass-kicking, I’m still an overweight middle-aged mom who hasn’t done a hip throw in a decade. And frankly, I don’t think I could have reached this man’s throat with a punch unless he let me climb on a picnic table first.
What’s more, while he seemed harmless, I had no evidence that he was harmless, only my semi-deluded self-assurances. He was an adult, with adult urges one must assume, though no adult controls. And he was on a playground — probably just because it was a safe public space, but possibly because it was populated with either A) adorable kids of both genders or B) hot moms out in their shorts and tank tops for the first time this year.
I heard or participated in a number of sotto voce conversations that were variations or fragments of:
“That man over there….?”
“Yeah, I noticed him, too.”
“He isn’t with any child then?”
“No. I didn’t notice any one else with him, either.”
“Yeah. A little slow, maybe.”
“Nice enough, though.”
“I was wondering if we should call someone?”
“I wonder if his people know he’s out here?”
“I wonder if he has any people?”
“Do you think we should call the police?”
“Why? He’s done nothing.”
“He picked up that little girl.”
“And put her in a swing, he’s harmless.”
“I hope so.” (This last bit always said with a grim voice and compressed lips.)
It was all very Yoknapatawpha County, the community whispering around an issue in half-spoken sentences and insinuations, testing out each other’s prejudices and feelings.
And so, in the end, I and every other mother made a compromise between our inner angels and our inner monsters. We let him stay, but we didn’t welcome him either. He was spoken to only when he spoke, and then in short sentences with tense smiles. Our silences and careful watchfulness made it very clear that he had no place here, among the mothers and children.
I feel like I ought to feel bad about that. But I don’t.
I was at the park yesterday with the father-in-law, his wife, The Husband, and The Child.
It was Sunday afternoon, a time I’m almost never there, and I didn’t know anyone. Mostly it was dads with older kids — 6 and 8 years old, instead of 2 or younger. And boy-howdy was it crowded! Lots of kids, lots of parents, some grandparents, just more activity than you usually get.
The only guy I even recognized was this dad — tall, tanned, kinda cute, wearing a baseball cap with the deep dome and sharply curved brim that I associate with frat boys back in college. I’ve seen him once or twice. It took me a while to remember when I’d seen him before. Twice, one afternoon, I was the one to pick up his kid after she fell down and was screaming. He didn’t notice until I pointed it out. (This came back to me when I noticed his son fallen on the ground, crying, for several moments before he finally noticed.)
He was there with two kids — a toddlery girl and an older boy, maybe 5 or 6. He was charming and played catch with my Child (we hadn’t brought a ball) for quite a while.
But later on, my step-mother-in-law said, “He’s looking for his son.” (She worked for 30 odd years as a daycare provider and spent her whole time at the park constantly scanning and monitoring the kids. It was just pure habit.)
And, sure enough, there was the tall dad with the hat, his daughter in his arms, his eyes wide, pacing back and forth across the playground. He strode across the toddler lot and out the gate and into the older kids’ section. Then out onto the street, eyes going up and down the sidewalk.
Now, I’d been sitting by the gate and I knew no child had left unaccompanied, so I called out to him, “What is he wearing?”
The father looked at me and I couldn’t read anything in his face. He said, “A blue fleece.”
My step-mother-in-law stood up, scanned for less than five seconds, then pointed, “Over there.” He’d been tucked into a corner playing with the kitchen sets.
The man nodded, walked to his son, and sat down.
Now, what strikes you as odd about my description here? Think about what you would do if you looked away from your kid and then couldn’t find her on a very busy, very crowded playground. I know what I would do. It’s what I do if I lose sight of her for even a moment in public — I would call her name. And The Child is only 2 years old. An older child, like this boy, would be expected to be even more responsive to his name.
This guy never called out.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this since it happened and I can only think of one reason he didn’t call “Matt!” or “Tom!” or whatever. He didn’t want to be embarrassed and show any sign that he had lost track of his kid in front of people.
I feel like this must just be my cynical nature kicking in — there must be some other totally logical reason for him not to have gone with the first, obvious expedient of shouting the kid’s name. (Neither he nor the boy were deaf. I’ve been around them enough to know that.) But I can’t think of one. Add to that the fact that this guy never even asked us if we’d seen him, even though he knew we’d been sitting right next to the gate the whole time, and I get angry.
He’d lost track of his kid long enough to entertain the idea that the kid was all the way out the lot, through the gates, and down the street. That’s bad. But then to put his pride ahead of getting his kid back….
Later, as we were leaving, we noticed a stroller parked outside the toddler lot, in the benches-and-water-fountain area. Now, a lot of people leave their strollers out there, especially when the play area is crowded. But this was a little different — there was an infant fast asleep in the stroller. I’d seen a man walk up pushing the stroller, with a little boy walking. I’d figured that the stroller was for the little boy and thought nothing of him leaving it out of the fence like that. But to leave a tiny infant without any supervision? I’m still wondering if we should have called the cops or said something. I could see the dad, playing with his son on the swings, but that was a good 100 feet away and he didn’t have a good view of the stroller — he couldn’t, not with all the children, adults, strollers, playsets, toy cars, bicycles, etc. in the way.
My opinion of Sunday afternoon dads has gone down drastically. My opinion of my husband’s fathering skills has always been high but has been further bolstered by comparison. Am I nuts? Is this normal? I know dads are about letting their kids have freedoms that the (overprotective) moms forbid. But this seems just outside of enough.
So I used to go to a Thursday morning playgroup at our library. There were lots of cool people there that I just never really connected with. Mostly nannies, a couple of moms, and two dads. One was a big black guy with an adorable older girl, both of whom were very very quiet, despite my best efforts to draw them out. The other was a super-hipster with twins who was polite but a little stand-off-ish. I always made a point of being really friendly to these two guys because I know stay-at-home dads get a lot of shit.
The hip guy eventually warmed up a little and we got to chatting acquaintances level. He was gay, I learned eventually. Then his twins got too old for the baby group and I stopped going to the older kids group when The Child’s nap shifted. So, no more super-hip dad.
Today, I popped in to get a book out of the library and stumbled on the Baby Group starting up. Trying to get out with two jackets, a fussy toddler, and a stack of books more than a foot high (all the Lemony Snickets), I heard a voice I recognized, looked up and lo and behold, there was Super Hip Dad.
“Hey!” I smiled. “How you doing? Aren’t your two a little old for Tuesdays?”
“they are,” he turned and pointed at a small boy, about 6 months old, “but he’s not.”
“Wow!” I smiled and then my brain did something… stupid. Please understand that all of this thought process took place in the time between two words spoken at normal speed. My brain said: He’s gay, so please don’t offend him by saying or even implying that he is married to a woman, so don’t use the word ‘had’ which has connotations of having actually given birth. That would be insensitive. Use some other appropriate verb, please.
So instead, I said, “Wow, you got another one.”
I could have run up my tongue and out of my mouth to chase down that word — got, like kids are something you pick up at a grocery store — as soon as I realized what I had said. Super Hip Dad stiffened a little.
Rather than make a big awkward fuss over it, I decided (as I so often do) to try and make up for my deficiencies with enthusiasm, good will, and cheer. “That’s so wonderful! Congradulations! I’m so happy for you! I hope the girls love their little brother!”
If I had put more exclamations marks in the sentence he would have choked on them.
He responded with a real smile and nodded. At that moment, The Child opted to tug on my arm, so I made my good byes, exiting hastily with one last “Congrats!” and slunk out, my liberal tail between my legs.
There are things to say here: Things about how language fails to keep up with the rapidly changing social mores; about the politics of family; about how even someone like me, totally okay with gay marriage and gay dads, can still trip up on an innocuous comment; about how language can get in the way sometimes. But those things are all buried, right now, under a big burning heap of embarrassment.