“I can’t believe you didn’t check in to Facebook!” a low-lighted, business casual forty-something called across the drug store to a lady who looked like mid-2000s Kate Gosslin– graduated bob, swooped up bangs, silver hoops, dressed in black and gray.
“Yeah, I know! I check in everywhere!” she called back.
I smiled. I’m on my best behavior because I’m visiting the post office satellite office blocks away from my work. I work in the most conservative part of my valley. Everyone drives big trucks, and in my honors English class out of 120 argumentative essays on gun control, a mere two were in favor of moderate gun control. The rest were little Charleton Hestons, painting pathos-laden scenarios:
Imagine you’re in your bed after guns have been taken away by the government. You got a new Xbox but then a robber breaks into your house. You reach under your pillow to grab your gun but it’s gone. The robber still has his gun because criminals don’t follow laws anyway. If it wasn’t for gun control, you would still have your Xbox and you would still be alive.
Now I realize that this paints a very vivid picture, and if the intended audience was fellow 15 year old boys, this would be damned effective. But the red pen twitches at the over-use of 2nd person point-of-view and the heart wonders what 15 year old boy actually 1) has his own gun 2) actually sleeps with it under his pillow. 3) would kill someone over an Xbox. But luckily I’m not grading on content, so I just put my signature, “!!!” next to the introduction, which nebulously means, “That’s pretty intense.”
So this is the environment these elite, top-of-their-class students are raised in. Not to belabor the point, but when I returned their essays, I asked them how many have a gun in their house and how many of them feel safer because there is a gun in their house. Pretty much a hair-raising majority. I keep silent about the fact that I live in a part of town infinitely more dangerous, that it literally is “on the wrong side of the tracks.” That the valley community FB has numerous posts about how “scary” my neighborhood is, and that one poster even claimed he will only visit my part of town on Google Earth, and that’s “as close” as he “feels comfortable.” So I get in hollering matches with high-as-a-kite profanity-muttering gangsters tagging up the wash by my house, they’re clad in classic gangster uniforms—the ubiquitous white t-shirt, the patchy facial hair—and I am infinitely more afraid that my son would stumble into someone’s closet and find their loaded gun and shoot himself with it, or shoot someone else, than I am afraid of home invasion or a mugging, even walking through the dark streets to the liquor store that features sullen paranoid owners scowling at the customers like a mid 90’s G-funk video.
Back in the old neighborhood, they post screenshots from their home surveillance systems, looking for teenage hoodlums who stole their Amazon Prime packages off their porches. They crow about how they “never answer the door” to salespeople and solicitors and if the person keeps knocking, they open the door and point a gun in their face “and they never come back! LOL!” While we answer the door to Girl Scouts and candy bar salesmen and the local evangelists looking for people who speak “Spanish? Spanish?” and window weather-proofers and anyone else. We open the door with a smile and politely decline, and they move on to the next house. Maybe a little defeated but at least we gave them the time of day because not everyone is a scam-artist, a criminal, a rapist, or an evil master-mind.
I smile to myself as I watch the lady weigh my media mail package on the post office scale. I love Facebook but I have to keep my posts under strict scrutiny. I used to be freer with liking my sex worker friends’ wry commentary and sharing hyperbolic political memes, but now my friends from high school have high schoolers of their own, and I know that despite my “Friends Only” status, a student told me her mom shares my FB posts with her. So as has become my new motto: “Don’t post anything you don’t want printed out and sitting on your boss’ desk Monday morning,” I try to stay pretty mild. But I am tempted, like all overly-wired suburban mothers, to check in everywhere, to post everything, and to like every post.
“Yeah, I gave up Facebook for Lent!”
I look over,delighted and surprised, and nod approvingly. She smiles back at me and we nod at each other. What a cool idea—not white sugar or cursing, but Facebook. That’s a brilliant sacrifice.
“I know!” the friend is closer now, not yelling quite as loud. “It must be so hard for you! You were always checking in everywhere!”
I turn back to the postal clerk as I know how the next step of this mom dance plays out. She’s going to ask me what I gave up for Lent, and I’m going to have to figure out if I need to just vague away or if I need to take a stand.
The bottoms of my feet begin to sweat as I play out my options. “Nothing.” But that seems laconically rude.
“I’m not Catholic,” would be accurate but a little snippy. The fact that I actually ask people, when they walk around with an ash cross on their foreheads, what they have given up means maybe I’m more connected to that community than I really am. Anthropology is just my hobby, though, and I am enamored of most rituals and customs, no matter how seemingly innocuous.
“Actually, I’m Buddhist,” I consider saying and instantly, I get dizzy. Am I Buddhist? I identify with so many tenets of Buddhism that it’s the religion I identify closest with. But then I think how smug that sounds, “Actually, I’m Buddhist…” *wry hipster yogi smile* A wrist tattoo suddenly manifests…I already drink my coffee with almond milk and consider kale one of the main foodgroups. But then I’m not full-fledged Buddhist. I actually identify as Christian. It was the way I was raised, yet I’m not “that kind” of Christian. Whatever that means. I believe in some things, ignore the rest, and wish I really could just say, “I believe in God, and I really love aspects of Buddhism and Sikhism but I really ascribe to hypothetical Christianity, like Christ’s teachings of the New Testament but Christianity in practice in the last 2,000 years makes me angry and turns me off. I feel the same way about Islam. What I’ve read of the Quran, I really like but then I see orthodoxy in practice and it’s ugly. So yeah, I think the smartest people I know are atheists but I’ve had too many unexplainable spiritual experiences to not believe in God, so basically I just believe in God and I’m waiting for a religion that I can believe whole-heartedly in, and I haven’t found it yet.”
She doesn’t ask me, though. I think she knows that my fervent nodding and smile, then abrupt removal of eye contact, my hands clutching the edge of the postal clerk’s desk, means I don’t want to take the conversation to the next step, whereas a gel manicured hand on hip, and a knee turned out of my cargo pants, means I want to talk more about faith as we are surrounded by bedazzled fleur de lys and crosses, and black boxes with jolly sayings in all white capital letters: “DON’T TALK TO ME UNTIL AFTER I’VE HAD MY MORNING WINE!”
“GERMS AND JESUS ARE EVERYWHERE!” was chalked on the blackboard. I had to stifle a choke. The English teacher in me did not approve of that compound subject. It implies well, you know… but I was a guest in this mid70s tract home. Our sons were on a soccer team together, and we were attempting to patch up a budding friendship. My husband uttered an explicative at my son when he wasn’t following directions, and this mom told our ABA provider. The ABA provider informed us, anonymously, and laughed. And the coaches laughed as I cried because it is So Hard to raise and nurture a special needs child. Sometimes you need to fucking cuss at him when he’s spitting at his teammates, head banging his tutor’s arm, and running in the opposite direction, on purpose, for task avoidance. I asked if Child Services would be involved and they all hugged me, and they told me we are human and we all say and do things that we might regret but that the blond boy laughing and spinning on the freshly cut grass is absolutely undamaged and unphased.
She still doesn’t know we figured out it was she who complained about us, thanks to the Starbucks drive-through gossip grapevine, but we decided to kill her with kindness. We were on our best behavior as she invited us over and we watched our only child attempt to mingle and blend with her extended brood in the garage turned playroom. He formed a particular attachment to a Wonder Pets toy, and she let him borrow it. And I like to think it was her way of apologizing for judging us. Either that, or she was showing him some kindness that his egregiously messed up parents couldn’t fathom.
I wonder about that sometimes. I feel like my son is uniformly accepted by moms everywhere. He’s handsome, out-going, affectionate, and kind. But I feel like I’m being judged as his mother—I let him eat too much junk food, I let him watch ipad for hours on the weekend, I respond to his hypotactile seeking needs by wrestling with him, and I let him cuss when he asks permission. “Mom, can I say a naughty word?” he asks a few times a day. “Which one?” “B word.” “Okay.” “Summa bitch!” The release is achieved, and nothing got headbutted. But I feel like moms are quietly judging, watching, keeping score. “If he was my kid, I wouldn’t xyz,” I think they’re saying, especially the ones who have neurotypical kids. I feel like they think they can cure his autism by their far-superior parenting skills, and they are watching us like a hit-and-run accident. “Should I get involved?” they think, fists clenched, ready to jump in with SuperMom powers gleaned from hours of internet research and practical application on their own children. “No,” they think, “I wouldn’t want someone to tell me how to parent!” And they watch us stumble through parenting with tears brimming. But I notice. I see them. I smile at them. I appreciate their concern, but they’re right. I may not be the perfect mom but I am damned proud of the job my husband and I have done so far. And sorry to be a jerk, but unless your kid is special needs and is a teenager, I’ll only half-listen to your advice anyway. If you have come out on the other side of parenting and are a success, I will respect you, and I will thank you for your words of wisdom.
Growing up, I relished my individualism. Nonconformity was my by-line for everything. I got good grades and was a punk. I was a punk who didn’t drink. I was a terrible flirt who didn’t put out. I wore dresses but paired them with orange tights and fishnets. I wore glasses but they were granny bifocals or tinted John Lennon specs. I did horn-rimmed and cat-eye glasses before I knew anyone else who wore them. I drove a huge car and was a kick-ass driver. I dated boys from Hollywood but lived in a 4 bedroom two-story house with a pool. But I had my community. I had my best friends—girls who wore all black, who fell in love with men 5 to 10 years older than we. We drove weird cars and ate at McDonald’s. We sat on the ground no matter where we were. We wore dark eye make-up and striped tights. Maybe one girl was more into glam rock than the rest of us, another couldn’t get out of bed due to depression, and me, I wanted to go to college and become a famous writer. But we had each other, and if the rest of the world yelled “FREAK!” and “NICE HAIR!” and threw food at us, we would just laugh and scream some obscenity back. We had each other, we had our scene, and we had our community.
But now I find myself in that exact same environment 25 years later. I married the boy I dated in 10th grade. I teach at the school I used to attend. My classroom is right next to the spot we used to sit at freshman year. I have a season pass to Magic Mountain again. And now the old bullies have grown up and want to make amends on Facebook. They send me friend requests although I haven’t forgotten that they tried to beat me up next to the lockers adjacent to the library. “Don’t hold on to old grudges!” they say. “Maybe they’re cool now!” they say, and I get it but when the guy who humiliated me every day for three years, drives by on a golf cart and calls my real name, not that annoying epithet he spat at me every day, with a smile and wants to hand me his business card for his booming real estate company, I just want to shake him out of his chinos and remind me how miserable and insecure he and his 6th grade and 8th grade friends made me (I had that year of reprieve when I was in sixth grade and they were mercifully at the junior high, where I actually had a slight, wonderful break from the constant bullying I experienced from 4th grade to 11th grade).
I look around me, and I see well-meaning women, trying to balance career and family. Or others who stay home but try to keep busy by making their lives a living Pinterest experiment. They are trying paleo, they want to learn to sew curtains, they love to take control of their changing bodies through exercise. They are learning to support each other in a world that fosters competition between women. But then, they mention the C word. “Where do you go to church?” And then it always gets awkward. The phone calls cease, the friendly propositions for a playdate, the liking of the Facebook posts. I am never rude even though inwardly I’m screaming, “WHY CAN’T WE JUST BE FRIENDS? WHY DID YOU HAVE TO BRING RELIGION INTO IT?!” Because I know, so many women get grounded through religion. They struggle with depression and anxiety, but they “give it up to God.” They sare tempted by cynicism and nihilism but then are buoyed up with the question, “What does God want to me do with my life? Is this what God intended for me?” And I just…can’t. You can say “vegan,” you can even say “conservative values,” and I will only slightly waver, but the minute someone says, “The Lord” or “at my church, you should come,” I feel estranged and put on the spot. That I have to defend my beliefs, that I have the opportunity to become someone’s “progressive” liberal friend with weird ideas about religion, but I don’t want that. And I know, I know, that my religious friends will say, “I accept you for who you are! It doesn’t matter that you’re going to burn in hell for not proclaiming Jesus Christ is your lord and savior from the rooftops! I’ll still be your friend!” But I long for that sense of community and camaraderie of old.
Why do we suburban moms all look the same? How are we following trends on point without consulting each other? There is a mom zeitgeist. And I get swept into this tide of momconformity but then I struggle against the current. I do not want my child playing team sports because he doesn’t like to and I feel betrayed by the experiences of judginess we’ve had on the field. I want to grow my hair long because my whole life, I keep chopping it short and bleaching it out, so I want to see what it looks like long and semi-natural looking, but as I sit in the salon chair, my stylist with a little pink curly bob framing her face and I see all the other women in their 40s with hair mid-back, dark in the back, light in the front with just enough interplay of low-lights and highlights to make it look like your hair did in third grade before it all went dark and sad, I realize I’m a dime a dozen. I feel like a rebel subverting gender norms when I pull on my tired old day-off pants and my flip-flops but all the other moms are reclaiming loungewear because they’re so busy during the week. I wear my dark circles under my eyes, no concealer, my jeans, my BJJ t-shirt as I bump into no less than two other tired old moms with thinning ponytails, wrinkled faces, and faded Gracie Barra shirts. What are the odds at Costco on a Saturday morning that three middle-aged women who practice Brazilian jiujitsu are all in the same line somehow? Buying bananas and Kirkland conditioner. I pride myself on my box of delivered box of organic vegetables that I make my homemade soup from, and the other moms post recipes—no gluten, no dairy, all organic! “Yeah, I’m doing #whole30 too!”
I embrace this momconformity to an extent. You are a product of your environment. And when you’re 15, you get a certain sense of pride of bucking the system, of embracing your so-called individualism, but when you get older, you just wanna do what you wanna do, and sometimes that goes along with everyone else who is just doing their own thing and your tastes are formed by the aesthetics around you instead of a reaction against the aesthetics around you.
I wonder how life would be different if we lived in the city. Would the momconformity be short, chopped hair, hand-knit sweaters and raw veganism? Are there atheist mom groups where they squint with concern when you say you believe in a higher power? Forget Pascal’s wager, these women think your brain is rotting if you believe in the supernatural. Would I continue to feel alienated because I don’t ride my bike to work and I don’t grow my own vegetables in a small box on my window sill?
Undoubtedly it’s hard to make friends, no matter your age, your politics, your scene. And the older you get, the more you accept yourself but also, it seems, the more you accept that other people and their perceptions of you don’t matter. So when I attempt to connect to some mom who looks cool or seems to have common interests or hell, who is just in the same room as me, and they don’t acknowledge, they don’t smile, they don’t even register a flicker of recognition that you have verbalized a greeting, you have to think, “ Well, alright then.” Everyone has their family, their friend, their church, their little box. They don’t need anyone else, and you’re the oddball because you try to nudge your way into acknowledgement. Maybe our kids would like to play with each other? Maybe we can share ideas and learn from each other? Maybe we can just make each other laugh for a minute instead of being so tunnel-visioned on what’s doing wrong in the world, in our lives. But it’s true, I have given up. I will drop the smile, the salutation,the acknowledgement and will leave it there for a minute to see if it’s reciprocated. If it’s not, I’m too jaded in this mom game to care anymore. I’ve been snubbed more times at Scooter’s Jungle than I ever was at a keg party, and I can live with that.
Sometimes I like to think that someone will smile back, say hi, acknowledge a budding connection, and that we might go out for high tea at the tea place or I can invite her to roll around for some amateur mom jitsu, but then the opportunity presents itself, and it’s just easier to turn away and focus on completing my errands and return to what Huxely sardonically called a “rabbit hole, a midden, hot with the frictions of tightly packed life, reeking with emotion.”
Our family sustains us and gives us unconditional love and acceptance but every once in a while, wouldn’t it be nice, just on the weekends, or maybe once a month, to have a person, not legally bound to you by any means, to call a friend?