Shortly after my first child was born, I heard from a friend that our kid-free group was heading out to dinner together. Neither I nor my partner was invited. I felt left out, and it sucked. Logically I knew that being a parent had changed my life; having a baby meant my time was spent differently. Spontaneous plans were more frustrating than exciting. Time with friends meant getting a sitter or deciding if I or my partner should go out while the other stayed home.
My friends’ intentions were not to hurt my feelings, but the shift in our relationship hurt. They didn’t want to place unrealistic expectations on our friendship, and I didn’t want to be left out. They didn’t want to be disappointed when I had to say no again to their invitations (because parenthood), but I still wanted to be invited.
I realize these feelings were the result of change and the need to find new ways to connect with friends, but they brought up feelings and memories from middle and high school. I always had a few friends to rely on and was generally friendly with everyone, but there were cliques and groups of kids who had a way of making you feel less-than and unworthy of their friendship. I would hear about trips to the mall or the movies. And as I got older, there were bonfires and house parties. It was one thing to be left out, but when I was at home by myself because my friends were invited and I wasn’t, it really sucked. It was painful and lonely.
My kids will come home from school sometimes and tell me about a friend or classmate who wouldn’t “let” my kid play with him or her or in a group. My first reaction is always that of mama protector. I try to tone down the thoughts of Who did this to you? Who dared to exclude you?! and instead ask what happened. I attempt to get a comprehensive story from moody five-year-old twins and a sensitive and self-conscious seven-year-old. I also try to determine if my kids were left out of a situation, game, or conversation because they were being jerks. My kids are not perfect, and it is not out of the question that any one of them could have behaved in a way that turned off the people and friends around them. On some days, I steer clear too.
The event or incident at school is usually innocent and a rite of passage every kid and adult goes through. If my kid wasn’t on the losing end of this one, they would someday be on the side of intentionally or accidently leaving someone out. Life isn’t fair. We won’t be friends with everyone. And sometimes we or our friends will make decisions that end up hurting someone.
My oldest daughter will come home and tell me her bestie wouldn’t play with her because another girl told her not to; my heart hurts because I know hers is hurting. I remind her that it’s okay to be frustrated or sad. I tell her I don’t know what made her friend choose to exclude her. I agree that it sucks. I tell her that maybe her friend just wanted to play with someone else, and that she shouldn’t take it too personally.
“But Mama. I would have included the friend she wanted to play with.” My daughter told me this, and I knew she was frustrated and confused. We often talk about being an upstander and how important it is to help someone in need, whether it is to help them leave a crappy situation or get an adult to help. No one helped my daughter in this situation. No one came up to my kid when another classmate openly denied her friendship.
UGH. I felt like my parenting had let her down somehow. Since I do my best to teach inclusion, respect, and kindness, she expects the same from other people. So when other people are jerks, the pain feels worse. It’s hard to have teachable moments when you want to strangle a kid for making your baby feel like shit.
“I know. Maybe they just wanted some time by themselves. Sometimes you want one-on-one time with a friend. That’s probably what it was. They should have explained this though. I’m sure they will play with you tomorrow.”
I felt like Daniel Tiger’s mom, but my daughter seemed okay with that answer. I knew her confidence was shaken. And I know that when kids are repeatedly left out or bullied, they can shrink or lash out. I told her I was proud of her for finding someone else to play with. I knew it would have been easy to be mean or angry. This led to talking about bullies and even though we are not always treated kindly, it’s best to treat others the way we want to be treated.
It’s a hard balance to remind our kids to be kind and inclusive while still allowing them to make decisions that feel right to them, even if those decisions are selfish. I want my kids to trust their intuition, but I also want them to be careful with other people’s feelings. I hope my kids are thoughtful and generous, but I don’t want them to feel like they have to sacrifice their emotions, time, or things to benefit someone else.
I have made peace (mostly) with not being invited to all of the parties or dinners. I am (usually) okay with not being privy to all conversations or gossip. This is a result of confidence in my relationships. One event or person doesn’t take away from my relationship with the friend I wish I was hanging with. And in comparison, my time spent with someone doesn’t make me love another friend less.
I am slowly trying to teach these lessons to my kids. But because we are humans with big and complex emotions, we are going to feel excluded and forgotten sometimes. There will be perfectly good explanations or illogical feelings that creep in, and being left out sucks, but we can learn to move on and let go.