The women sitting next to me are immersed in an animated conversation. I'm not trying to eavesdrop, but, well, they're right there, it's hard not to overhear. Not that they're talking about anything super personal, they veer from mom-topic to mom-topic: how the swimming lessons are going, what their kids' teachers are like, their plans for the summer. Although they seem to have met each other only moments before, these women have the semi-tentative yet excitable air of two people with a great deal in common. Like people on a second or third date.
I'm shifting in my seat, eyes scanning the pool to find my kids. There's Dylan, happily dunking his head. There's Riley, shivering but determined on the diving board. I have the sense I've been here a hundred times before: the uncomfortable bench, the sneaking glances at my watch, the shrinking -- yet painfully conspicuous! -- feeling of being excluded.
What is it about being thrust into the parent-choked sidelines of a kid activity that sends me right back to the most socially awkward years of my life? Okay, fine, there haven't really been any non-socially awkward years, but I'm thinking of, say, middle school, and the organ-dissolving embarrassment of not fitting in. That's how I feel when I'm waiting at a swimming/soccer/whatever lesson, and I'm surrounded by chatty moms who seem magnetically drawn to one another. Like I'm circling the cafeteria in sixth grade, wondering where in the hell to sit.
I realize I'm not the most approachable person in the world. I have the kind of face that looks grumpy unless I'm smiling, I'm horribly shy and have a hard time looking people in the eye. Still, I can't be the only shy mom with Chronic Resting Bitchface, can I? Why can I never find my fellow flatworms amongst the perky social butterflies in every group?
There is a special sort of awfulness that seeps over you when you're sitting next to people who have just struck up a wonderful temporary friendship. It's like being invisible and sticking out like a sore thumb at the very same time. The longer it goes on -- them chatting, me sitting there in silence -- the more I feel like I'm sort of ... intruding.
I hate that it seems so perfectly easy for some people to strike up a conversation, whereas for me it feels like quantum physics. Parenting involves a lot of forced social interactions -- Playdates! Sports! Birthday parties! School activities! -- and god knows I haven't gotten any better at it over the years. What can I do but keep trying, squash the temptation to escape into my phone, and do my best to smile and be friendly. Even when I'm mired in self-doubt and at a complete loss for words, even when that middle-school feeling is so strong I half expect to find myself sporting a spiral perm and an oversized Benetton sweatshirt.
Do me a favor, though, if you happen to be one of those talkative butterflies: toss a quick hello to the quiet mom who looks like she wants to crawl under a rock. Because being an outsider isn't any more fun at 40 than it was at 14.
Do you struggle with making small talk with other parents?
Image via spree2010/Flickr