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June 21, 2012

When I was in sixth grade, a new girl moved to my small town in the Kootenays from Toronto.  She was into boys, and liked talking about who should hook up with whom.  She brought Roots clothing and an appreciation for George Michael to our school.  I remember feeling suddenly immature and insignificant around her.  I liked to go to my best friend’s house at lunchtime and make cheese sandwiches and look at her Sassy magazines.  We played with the next-door neighbor’s dog’s puppies, even though we were afraid of how the neighbor lady smoked and swore.

For some reason this new girl decided that my best friend and I weren’t cool. With another boy, she started spreading rumours that my best friend and I were lesbians, and that we’d been caught kissing in the girls’ change room after PE.  I hadn’t even kissed a boy, but I was pretty sure I would someday, and I wasn’t even remotely attracted to my friend, except that I loved how independent she was, and that I could be myself around her.

I’d like to say I reacted by ignoring the rumours and this new cool pack of mean kids.  Instead I did something I’m still ashamed of:  I picked on someone else.  There was another girl in our class, who wore her long hair in front of her face, and walked around with shoulders rounded as if she wished she was invisible.  She whispered answers to the teacher’s questions, and hid out on the playground during recess.  She had been homeschooled for most of her elementary years, and she was woefully out of touch with pop culture.  She had once admitted that her family didn’t own a TV, and kids liked to ask her if she’d watched the Cosby Show the night before, just to watch her turn red and whisper, “No.”  Her personal hygiene was lacking; I don’t think her parents had talked to her about puberty, or showering, and she usually smelled like b.o.  One day, as she walked by my desk, I made a big show to the cool girl of holding my nose and waving my hand in front of my face, exaggerating how much the shy girl smelled.  To make it worse, I wrote a note that said, “She stinks!” and passed it to the cool girl. 

Two awful things happened.  First, the teacher saw me pass the note, read it, and kept me after school to reprimand me.  Second, it worked!  The cool kids started to treat me differently.  A few days later I walked past them to get into class and the cool girl said, “Doesn’t she look good today? I really like that shirt.”  I didn’t get invited to hang out with them or anything, but I stopped being the brunt of jokes, having moved myself up a notch in the pecking order.

Many years have passed, and I’ve found healthier ways of fitting in.  When my first child was born, the loneliness of being at home forced me out to new-mom drop-in sessions at the Health Unit.  When another mom mentioned that she had a labrador retriever that she walked every day, I got up the nerve to ask if we could take our dogs and babies hiking together.  It turned out we didn’t have much more than that in common, but through her I met another mom, who’s a teacher, whose friendship I value to this day.  When my second baby was born, I built on my small success making friends and started chatting to moms at a drop-in playgroup who also had a toddler and a newborn.  Two of those ladies are still close friends today.  When I think back on that time, it was the happiest, richest time of my life.  I was included in a social group.  I had friends that got me, and we supported each other through all the tough stuff that goes with having new babies at home and a changing identity once you stop working full-time outside the home.

But separating from my ex took a real toll on my social life, then and now.  Friends that we had know as couples were divided in their loyalties, which put enough strain on our friendships that I stopped getting invited to do things as a family.  I meet new people now through school or extra-curricular activities, but when the invitations to get together don’t fit with my shared-custody arrangement, I’m reluctant to spill the beans about why, and lay all the sordid details on the table for analysis (What happened?  How did you cope?  How are the kids?  And those looks of pity framed by incomprehension.)   There have been so many missed birthday parties and dinner invitations.  When the other moms go to an exercise class once a week, or go out for dinner as a group, I don’t feel like I can expect the Big Guy to handle all three kids by himself, so I decline these invitations, too.  These opportunities to make connections with new friends go by, and the phone stops ringing, and time goes on, and I feel like we are on the periphery of a network of social connections that I can’t link up to.

So, when my marriage ended, I knew it would be hard financially, and I knew single-parenting would leave me tired and with little time for myself, but I didn’t  know it would be so lonely!  I’ve neither figured out how to hold my head high around the cool crowd of intact families, nor how to make friends that understand my current situation and accept me for who I am.  I haven’t been able to walk away from my responsibility to my Big Kids and leave the Big Guy in charge, when he finds them so difficult.  There must be a lesson in here somewhere, maybe about accepting who I am first, and letting go of expectations and the need to protect my kids.

I don’t know if you’ve read the Poppleton books, by Cynthia Rylant, but they are excellent.  In one story, Poppleton learns that eating grapefruit helps you live a long life, so he goes out and buys a bag of grapefruit, but he hates eating them because they’re so sour. Poppleton’s friend Hudson (a mouse) takes Poppleton to meet his uncle, who is over one hundred years old.  The uncle tells Poppleton the secret to a long, happy, life:  friends.  Brings me to tears every time.  Now if only I could learn this lesson of how to make friends all over again.

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