She walks into the party. Her patent leather shoes shine, stockings are straight and sleek. Her hair is in a perfectly high ponytail with red grosgrain ribbon to hold it in place. When she arrives, she is happily greeted by the other children attending. They surround her. Two grab her hands and lead her to the awaiting bouncy houses. She scurries up the ramp and begins to bounce. Her laughter mixes with the laughter of her friends.
Her mother is greeted by the other moms. She knows them all by their first name. She is gloriously adept at making small talk; remembering to ask about this one’s son and that one’s husband, commenting on the fierce cold, and sharing recipes for perfect Valentine treats. She is pulled together perfectly; jeans, boots, and long sweater. Her hair, in a high pony tail, matches her daughter. She nods her head in sympathetic agreement as she listens intently to one of the other mothers exclaiming how she would just PERISH if she wasn’t able to go out every weekend “just to get away for a bit.”
Can you picture it? I can…but that’s it. I can only PICTURE it. None of this scene has ever really happened in this girl’s world; not last year, not last month, and not at a party last weekend…
Instead of being “mother and daughter extraordinaire”, we, Ila and I, tend to be “mother and daughter solitaire.” In contrast, our birthday party scene looks something more like this:
She walks into the party, legs clad in cotton leggings with a grape jelly stain, bangs pulled back out of her eyes by two clips that clash with her outfit. Her eyes scan the room. She sees all of the children on one bouncy house and so chooses the empty one on which to play. A couple of children see her and they slide out of their bouncy house to join her in hers. As soon as they enter the structure, she leaves to search for the solitude of another empty structure. After a while, she joins some of her friends on another structure. It’s a climbing one—fairly complicated, and although she’s the first one on, the other children quickly scurry by her because navigating the climb is difficult at best for her. But she doesn’t give up. She continues the climb. All the other children have reached the top and gone down the slide by the time she is half way…but no matter. She gets there in her own time and slides down squealing with joy.
Train ride time: the kids all clamor to pair up so they can sit together. She seems oblivious to this concept and happily wanders in taking the first empty seat she can find. She smiles at an unknown child who sits across from her and then looks out waving to whoever is standing on the perimeter as the train goes around and around.
Cake time: she finds a seat. It doesn’t matter where. While all the other children around her are holding in-depth preschooly conversations, she eats her cake and drinks her juice box, and even though the bouncy houses are now without children, she asks if it’s ok to go and play some more—a solitary bouncer.
Her mom is instantly filled with anxiety as she walks into the party. While she has met all of the moms at other events, she cannot remember their names because her mind no longer hold onto details that don’t seem essential. She has on a pair of shabby denim jeans, her trusty black cardigan and a pashmina around her neck to hide behind. Why hide you ask? Well, perhaps it is because she is perfectly awful at small talk for more reasons than there’s room in this column. She has learned the hard way in the past that speaking about things that interest her; a column she read in the NY Times, a novel she is part way through, the state of education; make eyes glaze over and legs start to slide in one direction or another taking the human they belong to far away from her. She has the distinct feeling that who she is, the way she thinks, how she speaks is somehow wrong or misunderstood. She has no compass to point her toward the “right way” to act in social gatherings, and so, over the years, in order to avoid feeling like an outcast she found it was just easier to keep to herself and not speak to the other moms. The problem with her silence is that quite often it is seen as haughtiness or that perhaps she’s a woman with an “I’m better than you” kind of attitude. If they only knew how self-conscious she felt, how unsure she was of the hidden “rules” that made one a girl worth speaking to. But no matter, she has books and a couple of close confidantes in her world, and truly that is all she has ever needed.
Had I written this column two weeks ago, I would have ended with a resolve to change myself solely because my inability to fit in and Ila’s seemingly same genetic disposition made me feel ashamed and so envious of others who could command a room. My awkwardness with humans that I don’t know well was such a source of anxiety because I was sure that it somehow made me less than. And in that same venue, watching Ila choose solitude over camaraderie made me agonize further that something had to be done so that she didn’t end up “shameful” like her loner-mother.
But that was before last weekend’s party when something happened that made me realize how absolutely ludicrous I was being. You’ll laugh, but it actually happened during one of those dreaded mom-small talk thingies that I loathe so much. I will admit that the other mom approached me (You probably guessed that didn’t you?). Anywhoo…she stood next to me while Ila was riding the train and said, “I envy you.” I, of course, did a double take making sure that it was ME she was talking about.
“Why?” I managed to eke out.
“Because your daughter is so content. I have been watching her and she isn’t caught up in all that girl drama. Nothing seems to bother her much. She’s happy when she’s with others but she’s just as happy when she’s alone.”
Taking her words in, I responded, “Yes. She is pretty happy isn’t she?”
“What have you said to her to help her be so confident in any situation? I mean my daughter is so unhappy all the time if this one didn’t play with her or that one played with someone else. I can’t believe at 4 years old the girl histrionics have already started. I wish she could be more like your Ila.”
Of course, I had tapped out my mom small talk and wasn’t sure how to answer that, or if she really wanted an answer, or if I was supposed to act like Ila wasn’t as easy going as she was… (Where IS that rule book when you need it?) So she soon walked away to talk with another mom, but what she left was a nugget of truth, a way of seeing Ila’s solitude and my solitude as an asset not a liability. So I watched my daughter through a different lens—one that wasn’t clouded by preconceived notions of socialization. And what I saw was a four year old who was thoroughly enjoying herself. No matter where she was, who she was with or who wasn’t with her, she was truly joyful. It didn’t bother my daughter one iota who was with who, or how they were acting or whether or not she was invited to interact with them. The only person who was bothered by it was me. More importantly, I realized that if Ila wasn’t bothered by her solitude, if in fact SHE could accept it as an integral part of what makes her happy, then I certainly could too. And all at once that all-encompassing shame that I had carried with me since my mother had first pointed it out to me, (Why are you always sitting by yourself. Don’t you have any friends?”) disappeared. The only shame I felt was how very long I allowed myself to believe that the only kind of worthy women are the social butterflies of the world.
Ila has an innate ability to do what makes her happy and not care one iota that it may not be the norm. Playing tangentially makes her happy. Singing at the top of her lungs in public makes her happy. Jumping in puddles makes her happy. Acting out scenes from Disney princess movies makes her happy. She just doesn’t NEED to be around lots of people to enjoy herself. And so, if she, my wise daughter, can be perfectly happy in her own skin, then darn-it so can her mother. So, I may not sparkle and glitter, but I have value. I am happy with my nose in a book. I am happy when I am learning something new. I am happy to spend a couple hours with another friend who shares my passions for the written word. I am happy in my solitude.
Ila and I—we are extraordinary and solitary.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Logan has lived in Glens Falls, NY all her life. By day, she is an educator with 20 years experience, a mom to Aidan and Gannan, her two teenage boys, a new mommy to a beautiful daughter, Ila, and wife to the love of her life, Jeffrey. By night, weekends and any spare time she can find, Logan writes. She loves memoir and also adores writing essays about the challenges of parenthood. This year she started a parenting blog called A Muddled Mother, an honest place where mothers aren’t afraid to speak of the complications and difficulties that we all inevitably experience. Logan has been published in various children’s and parenting magazines including Today’s Motherhood, Eye on Education, Faces, and Appleseed. Logan’s previous column for Hilltown Families, Snakes and Snails: Teenage Boys Tales ran bi-monthly from June 2010-Feb. 2011, sharing stories of her first time around as a parent of two teenage boys. — Check out Hindsight Parenting: Raising Kids the Second Time Around every first and third Tuesday of the month.