Not too long ago, new friends were coming over for a playdate, a woman who, like me, is homeschooling a five-year old boy. The truth is I didn’t know them at all, other than the fact that we had children who’d been born in the same calendar year, but I told my husband, after just a few interactions with the woman, I thought this was someone I could be friends with. I decided to invite them over.
Here’s the thing, though: the day they were coming was just not a good day for a playdate, let alone a first playdate, and there were many reasons why. Reason Number One. My son woke up screaming that day at 4:50 a.m. with a nightmare that I was ninja-fighting a bobcat, and, despite my squeezing into his twin-sized bed with him, he never fell back asleep. By our mid-afternoon playdate, he was tired, which meant he was testy. Things could get ugly. Two. That morning, a friend shot a deer while hunting in our woods. My son, obsessed with hunting and, well, all animals, both dead and alive, would no doubt be fixated on this event, sharing details of the whole thing. Details that might include the smells of the animal’s entrails or the impressive size of the hind quarters. Would the new friends judge us for being people who hunt and eat animals? Would they judge us for letting our five-year old participate in the harvesting of the meat?
Three. My son’s fixation as of the day before centered around the ladybugs that had descended upon the southern side of the house in great droves. He captured and then dropped them into an elixir of sand, water, and hand sanitizer, his own glorious concoction, invented during yesterday’s quiet time. As part of his preparation for the arrival of our new friends, he made an additional batch of it to share. The worry: would the new friends perceive this behavior as cruelty to animals, a sure sign that my son is gearing up to be a future sociopath? The additional worry: would they see me as being a negligent mother for allowing it to go on?
Four. One of our chickens has figured out how to escape the pen on a daily basis, and just… roams, putting and clucking, strutting around like she owns the place. The worry—yes, this actually crossed my mind more than once—what if the new friend’s nine-month old was crawling around the yard, found chicken poop, and ate it?
And five. I was a sleep-deprived, nervous wreck for a playdate, a fact that suggested that something must be very, very wrong with me.
Why? Why were these details—aspects of my life that are certainly representative of normality for me—so vexing as we awaited the arrival of our new friends? Why was I sweaty-palmed and pacing and barking at the kids? I started thinking about this, mulling over my five years of life as a mom, and I realized I’ve made mistakes in this whole playdate arena, and now I’m a little gun-shy. What I’ve found is that meeting moms, talking with them about things like which baby food their child likes or where they got that nifty roll-up changing pad, is actually pretty easy. But making real friends, forging relationships where you can know and be known—where you can admit without fear that your voice hit shameful, horrible notes earlier that morning, where you can confess that sometimes you wake up and you just don’t want to do any of this chaos called your life—that’s a different story. Growing relationships like that takes time, and that’s something that’s hard to come by when you’re parenting young kids. Throw into the mix the fact that your fellow parent has similar limitations, and you’ve pretty much got very little time at all.
The real conundrum lies in the fact that the chapter of early motherhood is a chapter where friendship is not just important; it’s essential. When I first became a mom, my friendships with women who weren’t parents became oddly strained. No matter how patient and gracious a person may be, someone who’s never had kids doesn’t—can’t—understand the position you’re in as a parent. They can’t comprehend why you have to keep halting the flow of conversation to tend to your child, why a paragraph of uninterrupted, meaningful conversation is almost nonexistent. They sort of watch in wonder and disgust as your infant sucks on your cheek or any part of you that they can get their mouth on. They certainly don’t understand that you really, really have to nurse the baby and get him to sleep by no later than 2 p.m. or the world might spin off its axis. They don’t grasp the tiny windows of alone time, or friend time, that you have, how they’re so rare, how you can’t help but want them to be restorative and perfect.
Looking back I see that I embarked on a friend-making crusade, sometimes a little desperately, seeking out any mothers who were staying at home with kids close to my own kids’ age. I wanted friends who were navigating the challenges of this chapter alongside me, who could sympathize if I fired off a text that my son had just dropped his pants and pooped in the entryway (yes, this has happened), who could call and make me laugh until I cried because her toddler had dunked a piece of bread in the toilet and continued eating it before she could intervene. I knew I needed that sense of solidarity, of mutuality—I needed to be reminded that I was not the only person who spent her days speaking to little people who sometimes threw themselves on the ground and rolled and screamed because they disagreed with what I was saying. I knew I needed those opportunities to half-step outside of my whirling toddler-baby universe and see and speak with another adult.
The truth is, though, it wasn’t so simple. Time is time. And in retrospect I wish I’d thought more about where I was spending it—and with whom. I think, in my desperation, I lowered the bar a little. I hung out with women just because our kids were close in age, or just because the person was available, or willing to make the drive. Sometimes, I’d choose to spend time with someone who eyed my wild, tumbling boys with a look of wary dismay, who shined with perfection and made me feel anxious and awkward, even in my own home. People-pleaser that I am, I didn’t cut ties like I should have. Instead, I would arrange another get-together. After all, maybe things would go better the next time. Maybe I was hormonal and overly sensitive, maybe my son was just having a bad day because surely it couldn’t be that maybe my kid didn’t like the other kid, or that maybe the mom and I just didn’t hit it off.
A wiser woman would’ve nipped those relationships in the bud, and though I’ve sort of come to a place where I’m ready to do that now, the truth is I was still nervous about the arrival of our new potential friends; I was still uneasy about the ladybugs and poop-talk and chickens and dead deer. The trouble is that in the background of it all is the same old song that has been humming in my consciousness since adolescence: the one that croons that I’m not normal enough, not likable enough, not good enough. The one that chants that with a little tweaking, I—we—could be better. Songs like that are hard to get out of your head.
But really. Isn’t time for a new tune? I am who I am. A woman who chooses writing over sleeping, who doesn’t have a smartphone, who gets housed by her five-year old at Connect Four, who hates playgrounds and fears public restrooms. My boys are who they are—beautiful, curious, strong-willed, smart, sometimes tyrannical, ever-evolving little people who are growing into determined, thoughtful bigger people. So, rather than being anxious about whether people will like us and whether the kids will get along and have fun, perhaps a more helpful mindset is this: This is who we are. If you don’t like us, don’t come back. No hard feelings, no harm done.
As it turns out, that playdate with our new friends went very well. The family has chickens and they weren’t phased by the big hen that swaggered across the porch as they arrived and stood at the front door. The husband is also a hunter, so there was no judgment on that front. And luckily, my son was having too much fun digging in the dirt and hauling his friends in the wagon to remember the Ladybug Elixir. In fact, the kids played so well that we moms actually had a conversation. Yes, hard to believe—a real conversation, like two old friends catching up and connecting, despite the fact that there were five children scuttling around.
In other words, I think—hope— those friends will be back.
About the Author
Kimi Cunningham Grant is the author of a memoir, Silver Like Dust. She is a two-time winner of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Prize in Poetry, a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship finalist, and a recipient of a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fellowship in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, RATTLE, Poet Lore, and Whitefish Review, among other venues. She lives in Pennsylvania, and she is currently at work on a novel.