Nick came out of school yesterday fighting back tears. I asked what was wrong.
“[Pseudonymous] Billy says his mommy doesn’t like you so he can’t come to our house for a playdate, we can only have a playdate if I go to his house. Is that true, mommy?”
* * * * *
Billy and Nick have been friends ever since they met. They play well together and laugh and get along. Nick has occasionally referred to Billy as one of his best friends. Billy has been to my house a number of times, including just a month ago, right before school started. Billy’s mom came too on that last occasion, when I threw a back-to-school kid bash, with slime-making and tie-dye. She hung out and sat on my porch and drank the champagne I offered parents as their kids trashed my house and yard.
When I first met Billy’s mom, she complained about being lonely, because she was new to the area and wasn’t sure how to meet people. I invited her to get involved in the PTO. Several other parents and I, who loosely hang out together after school on the playground, invited her variously to join in playdates and get-togethers. I invited her family over for Thanksgiving, and they came. I listened when she told me about why her kids are unvaccinated and how she distrusts the medical profession. I pushed back about the non-existent link between autism and vaccines, but I saw quickly that she was unreceptive to the science, so I let it go. I try not to judge individuals, though I’m happy to mock trends. People come from a lot of different places and have a lot of reasons for ending up where they do in their heads.
There were signs, Anthony tells me, that Billy’s mom maybe isn’t a good fit for me. She tends to complain a lot. A lot, about a lot of things, and not in a laughing, eye-rolling way but a judging, negative way. But also, she doesn’t like it when people are negative and complain. She complains about how people treat her, but she’s also kind of rude. I’m okay with rude, but there’s that whole problem of two-way streets. She complains about toxicity in the world around her, she complains about teachers and schools and doctors and materialism, she just complains a lot. In one strange and unprovoked moment (at least, not in any way I observed), she told me my blog isn’t funny. Which is fine, but it was kind of a weird thing to say to me on a playground. She also seems really, really uncomfortable when the issue of Jesse’s mental health disabilities comes up.
Billy’s mom started flipping visibly to somewhere negative some time last spring, I think. She started being extra rude to me. She would walk away from me on the playground when I ambled over to say hi. Sometimes she would respond, but more with a smirk than anything else. She would avoid me in a catty, middle-schooler sort of way, like “I’m glancing over my shoulder at you, person who is beneath my coolness and dignity.” I’m okay with that. I’m strong cheese, and very direct, and I’m sure some people can’t stand the stench of me. But also, I noticed it wasn’t just me she was doing it to. So I was thinking maybe something’s going wrong with her, like she’s depressed or having some kind of difficulty, and she’s struggling to find space to engage in banal chatter.
But then once in a while she’d show up, like she did just last month at my house. Dropping her kids off for a couple hours so they could trash my house, coming back to drink my champagne after she got her time off. I didn’t think anything of it. I was glad to offer her some respite, to offer her kids some fun, and to give Nick a chance to spend quality time with his dear buddy.
* * * * *
All of which rattled quickly through my head as I held Nick’s hand and walked to the playground after school yesterday. Billy’s message was news to me. My home was no longer acceptable for playdates because his mommy doesn’t like me. Huh.
I didn’t really know what to say to Nick. I just saw that he was so upset — embarrassed and hurt, and feeling awkward. What do you say to a friend who offers you a message like that?
All that came out of me at first was, “I’m sorry, Nick.” Then, as he continued to sniffle, I added, “We’ll figure it out.”
Sometimes, meaningless phrases come in handy.
Nick ran off to play. Billy’s mom was standing with another mom, a friend of mine, on the playground. As I approached to within 10 feet, she literally turned her back to me. I said hello by name. She ignored me and said something to the other mom about needing to go check on something and walked away. Being me, I said a little loudly to her back, “IT’S NICE TO SEE YOU TOO, [insert billy’s mom’s name].”
She ignored me and kept walking. She spent the next 20 minutes on the playground talking to other people and pretending I didn’t exist.
Nick spent most of the time acting a little unsettled and avoiding Billy. And anyway, Billy seemed to be busy and completely unaware of how his words had rattled Nick. Or maybe he was feeling just as weird and awkward as Nick.
As we were preparing to leave, Nick came over and asked if I had spoken with Billy’s mommy. I told him no, but if he wanted a playdate with Billy, he could ask. Maybe that was wrong, but I always encourage my kids to speak up for themselves, and I wasn’t prepared to approach her on the playground because I didn’t know what would happen.
So my little boy did what I suggested. As I headed for the car, he trotted nervously over to Billy’s mom to ask if they could have a playdate. He ran back to me a moment later, fighting back tears again. I asked what happened. He choked the words out. “She just said, ‘we’ll see.'”
I kept walking. I grabbed Nick’s hand. I tried to suck some of his kind, gentle sweetness into my body. I used it to help fight off my feral instinct to march over to Billy’s mom, confront her, smack her upside the head, and teach her a mighty harsh lesson about messing with other people’s children. I made it to the car without doing anything I would later be ashamed of.
* * * * *
Billy’s mom tends to talk and post facebook memes about toxicity in people and systems around her. She seems to think it’s everywhere. I don’t know if it has ever occurred to her that the toxicity might be oozing from her, and not at her. Which might help explain why she finds it wherever she goes.
Me, I know I’m toxic. I know it in my bones. Most of my friends think I’m too hard on myself, but the truth is, we’re all toxic in the right time and place, the same way gluten is fine for most of us but will slowly kill someone with Celiac disease, or bees are essential to life on earth but their stings will kill someone with an allergy.
So when I look at something that’s gone wrong, mostly I look to myself first, and anyway that’s the only thing I can control. I walked off that playground blaming myself for letting my dear Nick get his feelings hurt. When I wasn’t having to answer questions and engage in conversations with the kids about this painful situation, my head was filled with my own questions about what I could and should have done differently over the past few months to not end up here.
Also I was thinking awful things. Things like, I hate people. This is why, during long stretches of my life, I’ve avoided trying to make friends. You just never know when people are going to suddenly suck. I’d rather play with power tools in a room by myself than have to deal with difficult people. Power tools don’t say stupid things, and when they hurt you, you can fix it with stitches or bandaids. Very simple, and no judgey-ness.
* * * * *
But here I was, stuck with two kids in the car, two kids who needed very much to process this painful situation. Jesse was pretty angry and disturbed. Why, she wanted to know. Why would Billy’s mom say that? Nick was, age appropriately, focused on the issue of when and how he would have a playdate with his friend. But also he admitted he was upset about what Billy had said about me.
We debriefed the best we could, occasionally touching on the subject through the evening. I think I said mostly the right things. I asked my kids not to judge. I reminded them that people have all sorts of differences, and they have all sorts of reasons we don’t know about for acting the way they do, and we’re not required to like each other. On the other hand, we are kind of required to try to be kind to each other. Me? I make every effort to never let my kids hear me saying anything about their friends’ parents, and over the years we’ve had many conversations about how to speak kindly to friends about their families. I guess Billy’s family doesn’t share these values, or maybe Billy’s mom just didn’t think through the realities of children and their big, open, innocent pie-holes.
Nick expressed a hope that at least he could go to Billy’s house. I asked him a question, with some doubts in my heart about whether I should. Do you want to go play at a house where the mommy says she dislikes your mommy so much that her kids can’t come to your house anymore?
It was a brutal question, I know. But I also know Nick. Like his dad, he holds a lot of stuff in, a lot of rage and anger, and if it ever comes out… Everybody better watch out, because it won’t be pretty. Nick considered the question and groaned out an answer. “Yeeeeah, maybe not…”
We practiced some strategies for how Nick might respond to Billy if he brings this up again. “Please don’t say that about my mom.” “You hurt my feelings when you talk about my mom that way.” “Stop. I don’t like it when you talk bad about my mom.” “We can be friends even if your mom doesn’t like mine, can’t we?”
It all made him uncomfortable, but the situation had been forced on us and we needed to confront it.
* * * * *
I give myself no credit for taking the high road in this story. When Nick came out of school and shared his little vignette and his snuffly tears, I was so angry that my hands were shaking and I was near tears myself. I outed Billy’s mom. I told my friends on the playground what had been said. I called one of my dear friends later in the day to debrief and ask for her advice. Was I over-reacting? How could I find my way to a place where I responded with compassion and not anger? I texted a couple other friends for more support and advice, and received the positive encouragement and love I needed.
I eventually calmed down. After Nick and Anthony went to taekwondo, I sent Billy’s mom this email (I couldn’t use messenger because she apparently unfriended me on facebook):
Nick came out of school today in near tears. He explained why he was upset: [Billy] told him, my mom said she doesn’t like your mom so I can’t come to your house for a playdate, we can only have a playdate if you come to my house.
Nick was obviously very hurt and embarrassed, and sad because he really likes [Billy]. I was sad as well, particularly because I really don’t think [Billy] intentionally hurt Nick’s feelings.
Nick is one of the sweetest, kindest people I know. Whatever issues you have with me, he doesn’t deserve to have them placed on him. Please take a moment to speak with [Billy], and ask him not to repeat to Nick whatever denigrating things you’re saying to him (or within his earshot) about me. Whatever issues you have with me should be between you and me, in an adult world. They definitely shouldn’t be unloaded on Nick.
For my part, I simply don’t share with my kids any issues I might have with parents of their friends, for the very reason that [Billy] illustrated today. You can be sure that I have never said anything to my kids about any concerns I might have with you. I would never want to hurt a sweet child like [Billy], however unintentionally, in the way that you have hurt Nick. I did have to answer questions today about why you would bad mouth me to Justin. You deserve to know what I told my kids: [Billy’s] mom is entitled to her opinion, and she has the right to choose her friends, just like me. She’s also entitled to say whatever she wants to her kids, but I think it’s incredibly unkind to make their friendships subject to her adult dramas.
I have tried my best since we met to reach out to you with good intentions, especially because you expressed such loneliness. I’ve welcomed you into my home and holidays, I’ve invited you into my very open circle of friends, and I’ve tried repeatedly to build whatever connections we can. You are welcome to reject my friendship, with whatever judgments you want to impose, but I would ask that you try at least to show basic courtesy on the playground and in school settings, as a example to the children who observe and wonder about the adults in their world. Your ongoing behavior since last spring — refusing to even look at me or to respond to my greetings except when absolutely forced — is immature at best, and at worst smacks of the kind of bullying we work hard to eliminate from our schools. It doesn’t hurt me in the least, but it will end up hurting your kids if and when they model your behavior.
I wish you well and hope you find answers to the things that are hurting you.
I re-read it this morning and thought to myself that it captures a nice balance of direct, passive aggressive, smug, kind, and also slightly threatening. Classy.
I mean, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Let everything go? Let a mom unload her emotional needs on her kid, and let that come land smack on my kid’s head?
Not for me. I don’t generally stand down in the face of bullying. So I vented my spleen and hit the send button, with some (but not many) reservations. Jesse had just proudly — so proudly! — finished her homework without too much of a struggle. Anthony and Nick weren’t back from martial arts yet, so we headed out to Baskin Robbins for a treat.
* * * * *
Jesse still wanted to talk about the situation with Billy’s mom, as we chowed on milk fat and sugar. When she raised it, though, I found my heart tacking hard against that storyline. It was really weird. I answered her in a way that even surprised me (since I hate people). I asked her to stop thinking about Billy’s mom, who’s just one person in our lives, and to think about all the thoughtful, kind, wonderful people in our world who fill our cups every day and make life better. We talked about families, parents, and kids who’ve lent us a hand when we need it, without hesitation; who’ve supported us emotionally through Jesse’s mental health crises, without judgment; who’ve showered attention on Nick when mine was diverted by Jesse’s needs; who’ve accepted us with all our flaws (and lord knows I’m full of them), with open and accepting hearts; who have become our dear friends, our village, our Wisconsin family.
That is just… so…
Anthony spent the evening showering me with kindness and love. There was almost a desperate quality to it. He doesn’t like it when I get down on myself, and he knows I tend to look at situations like these and spend a lot of time thinking about what I could have done better and differently. Billy’s mom can’t bully me down into hating myself, but my own inner bully can.
I woke up this morning still thinking about the situation loosely, and worrying about Nick. But as the morning passed, I realized that Jesse was taking care of things, just like the best kind of big sister and daughter. She and Nick hung out in bed for a while together, talking about whatever they were talking about. She shared with him and made him laugh and tolerated him patiently. He was his usual cheerful self by the time she was done.
After breakfast, Jesse worked quietly on something for a while, and then brought me a hand-made sticker to put on my shirt.
Moms are aw[e]some.
So are sons and daughters and husbands and friends, I thought, as I planted that sticker right in the middle of my shirt. I’m going to wear it all day. I was proud of Jesse for showing Nick and me such kindness, for having so much empathy for the uneasiness and sadness around her – even as she struggles every day herself. It occurred to me that Jesse is already more mature and self-aware than Billy’s mom. She doesn’t blame other people for her own misery, and she already knows that lifting others up is one of the best ways to ride the hard tides that her mental health challenges throw at her.
She’s a good role model for the mean girl in me.