This past Sunday I took Theo to the park, hoping to score a little mother-and-son quality time. We went to the “Secret Park”, so-called because of the way it’s tucked behind our local high level pumping station, an Art Deco monstrosity that’s designed to fit in with the rest of the gorgeous early 20th century architecture in our neighbourhood (rich people: even their municipal pumping stations are pretty). My plan was for Theo and I to spend the morning chilling out on the climber, engaging in some witty banter and maybe taking turns pushing each other on the swings.
I hadn’t counted on my toddler totally ditching me for a new-found friend.
This other kid was already at the Secret Park when we got there, running around like a madman, waving a huge stick in the air and screaming. Theo was immediately entranced. He watched, shyly, as this boy tore around the grassy slopes, and I could tell that he wanted to join in but wasn’t quite sure how to achieve that. I suggested that we could go play on the climber or on the swings, thinking that doing some park-type stuff might make him feel a little more at ease and thus help put him into the right frame of mind to make friends. He shook his head, though, his eyes never leaving the other boy. Finally, still not looking at me, he said with a great deal of seriousness,
“I need a stick.”
So I found him a stick, and that was all it took for him to feel comfortable enough to start playing with the other boy (whose name, it turned out, was Duncan). Once Theo had that stick in his hand, he and Duncan were running around shrieking delightedly together. Then they played in the sand doing something at once precise and elaborate and yet totally mystifying with a plastic cup and a Christmas tree ornament shaped like a chilli pepper. Then they buried Duncan’s extensive collection of dinky cars, then dug them all up again and started racing them up and down the trunk of a nearby tree.
I was hella jealous.
I’ve been thinking about how that situation would have played out had it involved myself and some other adult who just happened to be doing something that I found incredibly intriguing. Would I have been able to just jump right in and befriend them, without even so much as an introduction? Oh, fuck, no. Here’s how it would have gone if I’d been in Theo’s place:
Anne’s internal monologue: Whoa, that person seems amazing. I really want to run around and wave sticks with her! But probably she’s way better at waving sticks than me. I mean, I guess I could ask her to teach me, but isn’t that a little pathetic? And anyway, I’m sure that she has more than enough friends. I’m sure that she doesn’t want to talk to me. Maybe if I google “how to wave sticks and scream” I could just do it by myself? Maybe it’ll turn out that I’m really great at it? Maybe if I do it awesomely enough, she’ll come over and try to make friends with me? Do I even really want to make friends with her, though? I mean, she seems great now, but she’s probably not as awesome as she seems. I have a lot of great friends – I don’t need this not-as-awesome-as-she-seems stick waver!
Anne (out loud): Guhhh nice stick!
At what age does the ability to instantly click with someone over something like screaming and waving sticks end? At what age do all these stupid, tangled thoughts take over and prevent people (and by people I mean me) from taking any kind of initiative from befriending others? My kid is (currently, at least) the kind of person who can just jump right in and assume that his awesomeness will be evident enough that he can make friends with anyone he wants to. Or, going even further, he doesn’t even bother to wonder about the state of his awesomeness. He just does his thing and goes from there. And I’m kind of jealous. I fucking want that personality trait so badly, like, you don’t even know.
I really, really want to be the type of person who sees someone cool and is like, “Hey, let’s hang out sometime.” But I’m not, and I never have been.
Instead, I am the type of person who, when I went camping as a little kid, would get my father to visit the campsites of families with kids and act as a sort of friendship matchmaker.
I am the type of person who daily descends into the bottomless black hole of saying too much and then trying to correct that by saying even more.
I am the type of person who goes out for dinner with a writer that she particularly admires and brings cue cards full of things to say in case the conversation lags.
I really, really want to be the kind of person who says, fuck cue cards, but you guys? I actually love cue cards. And I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with loving cue cards, except that maybe it’s a problem when you come to depend on them as a sort of social crutch.
I don’t want to be the type of person who, in the middle of a nice dinner, whips out a list of interesting conversation topics, but what the fuck else am I supposed to do? Think thoughts and say words in real time? As Barney Stinson would say: please. Putting my thoughts down in a blog post is fairly easy, because I can edit and then re-edit until I’m sure that I’ve got it right. But having an actual, un-plannable, give-and-take conversation with another person is a different beast entirely.
I mean, seriously, how does anyone ever figure out the right thing to say? Because this must be something that other people are capable of doing, unless everyone else has somehow learned to be extremely stealthy with their cue cards. And how do people not only manage to say the right thing, but also avoid saying exactly the wrong thing? And how do you come to accept that it’s not actually a binary, that there is a wide gulf between right and wrong, a deep valley full of conversational material that’s perfectly fine, but for whatever reason isn’t particularly scintillating or thought-provoking.
And that’s just the basics of general small talk. That’s just beginner’s stuff. What about all the crap that comes later, once you’ve managed to become friends with someone and actually establish some kind of relationship? Then comes the really tricky stuff – carefully cultivating that relationship, making sure that you make time for that person, learning how to deal with any conflict that arises with them.
Ugh, conflict. Oh, conflict. My old nemesis.
On Sunday, I watched my kid get into an argument with Duncan over who got to hold which car. It didn’t quite come to blows, but there were definitely angry words and hurt feelings involved. Then, miraculously, two minutes later they were firm friends again, discussing the various merits of blue race cars versus red race cars as if nothing at all had happened. Meanwhile, when I get into a fight with someone, I end up spending days, sometimes even weeks, treading and retreading the same mental ground over and over and over again. I I spend ages trying to figure out what I could have done differently, as if I’m ever going to be presented with the exact same set of circumstances at some point in the future. Worst of all, I need an incredibly amount of reassurance that yes, I am a still good, yes, I am still loved.
This last one has been killing me lately. I’ve realized that a huge part of it is because when you take up residence in anxiety-town, you lose any ability to trust your own senses. So you end up feeling like you have to sort of crowdsource your thoughts and feelings, constantly asking, “Is this okay? Is this a normal reaction? Am I right to respond this way or am I going overboard? Do you still love me? Is it okay for me to love myself?” And yes, sometimes this way of coping is super helpful, but sometimes it can be totally toxic as well. Even when all of your neurons are misfiring in exactly the right way to make you feel like you are a terrible person, it’s dangerous to think that someone else can give you an accurate read on what you’re doing or how you should feel about yourself. On top of that, you might not get the answer that you want, and at the end of the day constantly demanding feedback and reassurance can make you feel pretty pathetic.
So what’s the answer? I’m not sure, to be honest. Lately I’ve been making a lot of checklists for myself (for whatever reason I find list-making to be very soothing). After a couple of days of trying to unsnarl this mess in my head that I call my brain, I now have a bunch of easily-accessible documents that I can refer to whenever I start to doubt any given situation. These lists are full of reminders about all of the empirical evidence that I have that yes, people do love me, and yes, there is value in the things that I say and do. I’ve also made lists that help me to remember that conflict isn’t the end of the world (even if it sometimes feels that way), and that it’s totally possible to have a horrible fight with someone and then move past it and maybe not exactly forget that it ever happened but also not let it be what defines your relationship from that moment forward.
All of this is to say: I really want to be the kid who one minute is screaming about how it’s my fucking turn to hold the red car, and then the next minute is fine. I want to be the kid who jumps right in without a single thought. I want to be that goddamn kid who runs around waving a stick and screaming without first having to google how and why I should do this so as to prevent myself from looking like an idiot.
Because that kid? That kid seems really fucking rad.