Saturday, April 16, 2011

Building Community: One Egg at a Time

When I was about to go on maternity leave with Simon, one of our neighbors said she would invite me to the neighborhood playgroup. I thought it sounded like a great idea. Now, every Wednesday, before we head out to meet the other mothers and children, I have to walk through a fair amount of fear about getting together with other mothers whom I do not know well. As one of my friends said when agreeing that playgroups can bring up lots of feelings: "Mothers are scary." With all the pressure and guilt surrounding motherhood and the myriad choices each of us faces, it's not surprising that one of the scariest parts for me about being a mom is being around other mothers. Maybe if I were a more self-confident person or maybe if my children fit the perfect image I had in my head before they were actually flesh and blood, none of this would be so frightening. I want the moms in playgroup to like me. I want them to like Sadie and Simon. I want the warm intimacy with them that I have with the friends I have loved and known for years. I want our hour and a half together on Wednesday to be like a sacred ritual of love and support-- a place for tips on sleeping or where to get a good (quick) manicure in the neighborhood or how to deal with letting go of working. Maybe that is how some people experience our time together. I, however, am full of nerves and insecurities about all of it. I wonder if I seem warm and available for new friends. (I wonder if I actually am too.) I wonder if they practice "attachment parenting" or let their babies Cry It Out. I wonder about their politices, their histories and their cooking skills, which no doubt are sharper than mine. I wonder about their marriages and their free time and what secret thoughts about their kids they will never tell anyone. You can see that I am very busy during play group trying to get a handle on each person's biography so that I will "understand" them. And, then there's the children, one of the primary reasons we are all there. The first time at playgroup, I took Sadie 3 weeks after Simon was born and spend the whole time worrying if my post-partum bleeding was soaking through my stretch pants. Nothing says available like a giant blood stain. The second time I went Sadie accidentally stomped on the head of the little girl whose mother scares me the most. The injured little girl cried and cried and then I felt like I am THAT mother. You know, the one who lets her 18 month old run roughshod over infants. I skipped the next week. I couldn't deal with my fears and self-consciousness. I couldn't help wondering if Sadie's little idiosyncracies were "my fault," because I worked too much or didn't have the right job or because we swaddled her for too long. Everyone was a better mother. Every kid was better behaved. It didn't seem fair to subject Sadie to my critical gaze that intensified during playgroup. I tried again. There was a toy swap organized by the mother who scared me. By god, I was going to participate and bring some toys to swap (temporarily to be returned the next week) and I was going to show these women how warm and humble and human I am. We swapped toys. Sadie fell on the same little girl again while trying to walk around the play space with a cowboy hat on. The next week I forgot to bring the toys to return to their owner and the subsequent email that Scary Mom sent out included an admonishment: "Remember, we swap the toys for ONE WEEK ONLY. Please return them the following week." My cheeks burned. She was talking to me. Being a playgroup participant was worse than doing an oral argument before Judge Easterbrook. The next week I hosted: my house was clean, the toys were laid out, I served Jeff's banana bread and gave him full credit. (After all, it's almost better to have a husband who cooks than to actually be able to cook.) I connected with several moms. The kids were adorable. Sadie managed not to commit any batteries, though she did try to ride little Ben as if he was a pony. ("All in good fun, ladies. Who wants banana bread?") A few days later I even emailed one of the mothers to see if she wanted to go to the Lincoln Park Zoo for a singing event hosted by the creatively named, Mr. Singer. I was taking initative. I was being the warm and open person I wanted to be. It wasn't that hard. Turns out that Mr. Singer took that week off, and the other mother and her son didn't make it, but I had tried to build a social connection for me and Sadie and hell, we still got to see some cows and chickens at the farm section of the zoo. During one of these playgroups, the mothers were talking about the Easter Egg Hunt. I asked about it and decided we would go. It was held at Maplewood Park this morning and we packed up the kids and headed over there. We saw families huddled at the entrance to the park and eggs scattered all over the field. I felt a surge of happiness about being part of the community. "All these people are our neighbors. All these children are our future." Sadie and I approached first and saw some of the playgroup moms. I took a breath, I said their names, I asked about their kids, their health, their recent trips. I introduced Jeff and Simon. I made jokes about the shitty Chicago weather. I smiled. I showed up. 28 minutes later we were back in the car headed to Jewel for groceries. Jeff and I wondered if it was a lame event. Sadie and Simon are bothh too young to really get the purpose of an Easter egg hunt and Jeff's a little religiously challenged around Easter. I declared those 28 minutes a success. Showing up for small talk is not enough to create community, but if we don't start somewhere, we will never have the intimacy and friendships we would like. Hell, maybe we never will, but it wasn't too hard to show up for less than half an hour to claim our spot in our neighborhood and see Sadie completely freaked out by the man dressed up as the Easter bunny. We have to start somewhere. Deep down, I know the moms in my playgroup probably struggle with exactly what I struggle with, including fears about joining other mothers. Raising children is hard and there are so many messages to tune into or tune out and so many paths to follow or eschew. I am going to keep showing up on Wednesdays because I think it's good for me to face these fears and these messages. Maybe my new best friend is there just waiting for me to show up and stop obsessing long enough to start a friendship. Maybe Sadie and Simon will meet their very first best friends there. The point is I will never know what treasures exist if I am too scared to show up to the places where there are treasure chests.

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