Reading through the 300+ hilarious and mind-bending comments readers have given in response to these posts unfortunately reminds me of a different sort of commentary I get daily: silence.
I’ve written before about my experiences with the other parents in Ethan’s school and during our daily jaunts, and I think none are more hurtful than the feeling that I personally am unwanted or don’t exist. Ethan is a delightful child (if you ask me) and no one I am aware of have ever penalized him for being the son of incredibly young, unmarried parents (yet), but I and E’s dad have experienced social isolation and distancing for our family situation. As of yet, the only parent friends I have made (but for one who recently moved away) are of strikingly different economic situations (which usually means we have different schedules and little common time and funds to spend together, making the friendships short but pleasurable) or are parents I read on parenting blogs. This does not make for a tangible parenting culture for me to draw from, something I rely on for my parental skills.
I try to relate to other parents with whom we have contact every day. Ethan is always invited to his peers’ birthdays. I tag along, as parents are usually expected to stick around and help supervise. Though I try to start up conversations with other parents, they tend to be short. I find myself wandering about alone or playing with the children, which sometimes seems to amplify my youth. The only time a considerable conversation was raised was when I prepared for a lonely afternoon at a birthday party by bringing my knitting along and several of the mothers commented on my hobby. They then wandered off dicussing crafts amongst themselves and I was left literally mid-sentence to myself. It was a lonely and disappointing day. At least E had fun.
In talking to others, I have had several reasons posed as to why this might be. It might be the high socio-economic class culture of the school. It might be plain prejudice. It might be fear that premarital compulsions are contagious. It might be the lingering discomfort after being asked by several at the school whether or not I was Ethan’s nanny and my rather irritated responses. Relations have improved since these first painful months, but I am always aware of my difference.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me and some sort of over-sensitized self-flagellation, but that doesn’t erase the silence.
The most reasonable explanation I have been given so far is that the other parents simply assume that because of my youth we will have nothing in common. My first response to this is that we have one binding thing in common: our kids spend 5-8 hours a day together every single day. Surely there is some talking point.
The most painful afternoon took place last summer. We live right around the corner from a great BBQ joint and walked over one afternoon for some lemonade and sweet potato pie. A little girl from Ethan’s school was sitting at the outdoor cafe with her parents after their lunch, chatting away while they enjoyed the sun. She has always been friendly with the two of us, but her parents never seemed quite comfortable with my presence. When Ethan ran over to say hello, he was greeted warmly. I walked to the table with a smile and a greeting, and held out my hand to formally introduce myself. Her parents just looked at me and didn’t say much of anything. I retracted my empty hand after several excruciating seconds and we said good-bye, leaving with our lemonade and pie.
I don’t anticipate as much of this kind of silence when Ethan begins public school next year. I don’t expect it to cease either. I don’t expect the assumptions about our lifestyle or values or efficency to taper off until I become a less visible presence in Ethan’s public life. It isn’t hard to pick me out of a crowd when my parental peers look old enough to be their children’s grandparents. Over time I’ve learned to care a bit less and focus on making sure Ethan is getting the education that he deserves, but I wonder if his educational experience could be brightened if I felt comfortable enough to participate in the school’s culture to my capacity, if I felt like our family, warts and all, was valued in the school community.
Do me a favor. If there is another parent in your child’s school who appears markedly different, strain your comfort zone and say hello. Think of me.