There’s a water gun playdate in the park. In my worry, I have overpacked. There’s the standard blanket and chair and water and snacks. Then the towels, one for each kid and one for me in case they get a wild hair up their asses and attack me with Super Soakers. All the water guns in the house, from the teensy piddly plastic shooters to the equivalent of water semiautomatics. I have brought the minnow trap for the creek. The kids are in carefully chosen bathing suits, long-sleeve rash guards to prevent burning. Water shoes to keep glass from their feet. Dog food to bait the minnow trap. This is what happens when I’m anxious. I overpack. I overthink.
Because this playdate will be filled with moms I don’t know, and I am terrified. And it will be peppered with moms I should know but can’t remember because I have bad facial recognition and name recall. I will not be able to tell the difference between the two categories, which is even more terrifying.
I am here to make mom friends. But the playdate hasn’t started, and my anxiety is already getting in the way.
Anxiety makes it hard to do a lot of things — have a romantic relationship, for example, or not rage out at your family because you’re so terrified. But making friends is one of the scariest things we anxious people can do. This is partially because we assume that we’re inherently unlikeable to general society, even if we like ourselves, and partially because we assume everyone is judging us at all times. Everyone is staring at us. Every choice we make is probably all wrong. All comments related to parenting must be weighed and measured against the general tenor of the group before being spoken, lest we be ostracized.
Oh, we can put up a good front. We can fake it real well. But inside, we’re nervous as hell. Panicky, even.
On a basic level: Will you be able to make normal conversation without sounding stupid? Like most women with anxiety, I think I sound stupid most of the time. I’m told I don’t, but the feeling, a mixture of my imbalanced brain chemicals and childhood ridicule, lingers painfully. Anxiety makes you terrified of talking for too long, talking about yourself too much, talking about the wrong thing, talking about something someone will inadvertently find deeply offensive.
Like, what if I make an offhand anti-Trump comment, only to find out the other mom’s a diehard Steve Bannon groupie? So I do not talk about politics, religion, Jesus, the best methods of teaching, Jesus, current news of all stripes, Jesus, my writing, Jesus, vaccination, race relations in America, or Jesus. This kills just about every interesting conversation possible. Anxiety drains the life out of social interaction that way.
You’re left with the basic where-are-you-from, how-old-are-your-kids, aren’t-they-cute. I am terrified I will be called upon to recall their names or ages and fail the test. You can’t get to know other moms very well: What if you ask her what she’s reading, and she doesn’t read? What if you bring up music, and she finds your tastes absolutely execrable and Hamilton mildly Satanic (it’s happened, people). So you stick to the here and now. It’s hot outside. Next week is supposed to be cooler. Would you like a water? You wonder if it would be weird to ask if she wants to sit down on your blanket or share the park bench.
So you have to size her up, but stealthily. Not because you need to know if she’s good enough for you, but because you need to know you’re going to seem good enough for her. I’ve had enough heartbreak with mommy friends (I swear, it’s like high school) to know that I have to guard my heart a bit.
I evaluate parenting attitudes — the more liberal and less judgy, the better. If everything seems to be working out, I let my hopes rise a little bit. Maybe she could be a friend. Maybe we could be buddies. Or maybe she could wait ’til I leave, then turn around and tell everyone how weird I am, how wild my kids are.
That’s the problem with making mom friends when you’re anxious. Even once you make them, you’re never quite sure they’re your friends. We anxious moms are the ones who live in isolation, without babysitters or friends come over and help clean, because we don’t trust that if we ask, they’ll actually show up. We can’t fathom that they would perform the basic offices of friendship, and we’re too scared to see if they would rise to the occasion, because if they didn’t, the heartbreak would be devastating.
Basically, when you’re anxious, it’s hard as fuck to make friends. And once you make them, it’s hard to believe they actually like you. You need lots of reassurance. You need a long time because you’re slow to trust. You need some spontaneous gestures of love: an offer to babysit, a nonjudgmental listen about your parents’ divorce. You need to be able to shout at your friend’s kids to stop picking on yours and be comfortable with her doing the same. Then maybe you’re on the right track. Maybe you can begin to relax.
And maybe, one day, she’ll be the kind of person who’ll come over and help you clean your bathrooms. Not because she has to. But because she’s your friend.
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