If you ask me how to measure the amount of space you take up in someone’s life, I will tell you this.
When it comes to navigating friends and interpreting friendships, you and I are similar in many ways. You lean toward wanting just a small number of very close friends that do everything together, but right now you fight against that preference and tend to a number of friendships of varying degree. It’s a survival tactic, if nothing else, and one I recommended early in your school years, knowing full well how fickle friends and friendships can be during these and the coming years.
And yet I realized something the other day, a design flaw of sorts in some of these more tenuous relationships. More surprisingly, you did too. I heard it because my ears were pricked by something you said in passing. I was probably already primed because I’d recently experienced something very similar myself. I think you are on the cusp of calling bullshit on this notion of being “good enough” to fill a room for someone’s party but not much else.
It hurts to feel used and not otherwise regarded as important enough to connect on more regular, intimate levels. Some people really are satisfied with just being invited in the first place and are happy to go. Does this happen because of some fear of missing out or a deep need to feel liked? I’m not sure. But I am not like those people and so right or wrong—and despite knowing that life is always full of people along the spectrum between acquaintance and confidant—I bristle when it happens to me. I don’t just want to fill a room. I want to fill someone’s life.
You seem to be walking in this direction too, and whether that’s because of nature or nurture, I am not sure. But the difference here is that I am forty-two and you are not yet even nine years old. I know how to manage my feelings of being “good enough” for some things but not others. I can measure the long-term impact of me saying yes or saying no. I can reconcile my own relationship preferences with the set of realistic expectations that society (or someone else) has implicitly written. You are not quite there yet.
The truth is, I’m uncertain how to navigate this terrain with you. There is a narrow path on the map of raising a child that all parents must traverse, and on either side are sharp objects ready to stab and pierce the tenderness of the children we love. Do I just cut to the chase and tell you life’s lessons or do I let you figure things out for yourself? Do I hand you jagged slabs of jade or stand by helplessly and watch the scars form on your heart? I know that at best I can only give you the tools you might need as we steady on together, with me sometimes veering too close to one side or another or falling off altogether.
With that in mind, I give you another tool. Envision a two-pan balance scale. Use it to measure the space you fill in someone else’s life and how much they fill yours. Then listen. If you hear clanging on the other side, heavy and banging the table with all that you’ve offered or given while your pan silently sways high off the table near empty, you might need to adjust the weights in the other pan. Only you will know how much noise you can bear to hear, how much balance you need. Over time, friendships can sometimes become unbalanced and need to be recalibrated. But perhaps the most difficult thing to discover, the part you are now starting to learn, is that sometimes it was never balanced to begin with. So here’s the key to remember: you can only control what you put in or take out of the other side. Don’t expect the sides to be perfectly even and level, but neither should it hurt your ears. Or your heart.
A relevant aside: I wrote this post a few days ago, and I just now finished reading the chapter “The Shifting Sands of Friendship” in Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s new book, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. It was so completely enlightening to me in several ways, both in how friends and friendships apply to me personally right now in my early 40s, as well as some sobering news that is likely very relevant to some people close to me. I am still reading the book (not in order) and will report on it in my usual end-of-the-month fashion, but if you are in midlife, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of this book and zeroing in on that particular chapter.
Copyright (c) 2016 Kristen M. Ploetz
For a few months now, M has been preoccupied with two things on her preschool days: 1) how she looks and 2) whether her “best” friend is going to be there. Her “best” friend (let’s call her Besty) only attends two of the four days that M goes to school. And I’ve noticed that it is more important to M how she looks or what she wears on the Besty days. This may be because right now her classroom is very boy heavy, and M and Besty are the only two girls over the age of 4 in her section. So I wonder if this is just where M finds some common ground in a way that she can’t with the boys, who look at her like she has three heads when she announces a new pair of pink, sparkly sneakers.
But I think there’s slightly more to it than that. It seems as though M’s using her appearance as a means to acceptance. There have been tears occasionally if certain outfits (always the pink ones, of course) of M’s are not clean on a Besty day. M usually asks me if she looks beautiful after she gets dressed. She came home wailing when another girl (not Besty) told her that she was ugly. I have to admit that I did not expect to enter this kind of territory so early. And after reading this article about how some teens are turning to the Internet to ask for public opinion about whether they are ugly, I can’t help but be at least mildly concerned that we, as a society, still place way too much importance on looks, especially for girls. I’m not entirely sure where it’s coming from since we’ve kept her from media that makes these suggestions, and I am certainly no fashion dynasty. But somehow it has creeped in.
Perhaps it’s just been my own experience, but I do seem to notice adults referencing how little girls look more so than they do with boys. I know I have to make a conscious effort to give alternative types of compliments, like if she tells a funny joke or asks an interesting question while we’re reading a book. But then other times, well, sometimes she and other kids just are really cute or pretty or handsome. Like when her blue eyes are just really stunning in certain light. How can I not say that, or expect others not to? Tightrope conundrum.
The funny thing is, Besty does not seem to be a girl all that concerned about fashion or it being a benchmark for friendship or acceptance. In fact, she’s just a down to earth and outgoing young girl. I think the attraction for M is that Besty has personality traits that M is struggling to bring out in herself and finds confidence in being around her. But M attaches herself to Besty like velcro, and I have heard tales of woe on days where Besty just wants to play with someone else for a bit. I try to explain to M that sometimes people just need a break or want to try new things with other people, and that’s OK. But for a young girl who clearly idolizes Besty, I’m not sure that that’s any good advice.
The school is doing a good job of teaching all of the kids that there’s no “best” friends and that they can all be friends and play with many kids. They’ve had to resort to this because there were a couple little mini-cliques forming, and it was creating problems on days where one kid’s “best” friend was absent or when kids (including M—I never said she was a saint) were excluding other kids from playing something because they were not one of the “best” friends. While on some level I think it’s unfair to require mandatory friendships (as opposed to learning how to coexist peacefully) because sometimes Billy would rather not play with Johnny in the water table because he just doesn’t click with him, in a class of ten very young students, their “no besties” approach is probably the only way to keep the peace and not let certain kids become marginalized. So, we talked to M about why it’s not nice to exclude people, that there’s usually always a way to include an additional person to play, and used examples of how it feels to be rejected from her own classroom dramas that she tells us about. From what we’ve heard from her teachers, our talk with her worked and M’s already making strides and has helped to bridge gaps between various groups in the classroom and making sure everyone is included.
Needless to say I think M is ready for the pitfalls of high school. Or the United Nations.
I guess it is the looks part of it all that has me the most preoccupied. I am not sure at what age, if ever, kids really understand that it is not what is on the outside that makes someone worthy of friendship, but I suspect it’s much later than what I’d like it to be. And while I want her to feel like she fits in, I don’t think buying 500 sparkly pink shirts and skirts is the answer because that cuts against the grain of some other core family values we have. I just have to keep telling myself that it’s just preschool, and that as she goes on through the years she will have more opportunities to develop more friendships that are based on cultivated relationships with a wider variety of people, no matter what she’s wearing.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved.
Today we marked the wall to record how tall M is on her 4th birthday.
40 and 3/8 inches.
It’s deceiving, really, to think that she’s only grown just over 3 inches since her third birthday. When I think back over the past year and recall all that she has learned, heard, seen and felt, I know she’s grown so much more.
There are so many examples to choose from, but one of my favorites is the appreciation that I think she now has for what neighbors do for each other and what community means. She knows that it involves an unconditional give and take, one that has prevented our garden from wilting or trash cans from blowing down the street when we’ve been away on vacation. It’s meant receiving a surprise batch of chocolate chip cookies and exchanges of too abundant vegetables. And, in turn, we’ve taken care of some neighbors’ plants and checked their sump pumps when they’re out of town. Though M seems to like having a “job” to do, as evidenced by her constantly reminding us that we need to go check L & J’s basement when she wakes up at the crack of dawn, I think what she really likes is the adventure of going down into their mysterious basement. Perhaps the best gig though, was when we were asked to feed our other neighbors’ cat because that meant some much anticipated free access to her little friends’ pairs of princess shoes. Who knew that preschooler shoe heaven was just a stone’s throw away.
Of course it also meant, unfortunately, that she has had to experience a low, lonely feeling since these same cherished neighborhood pals (and their shoes) have moved on to another place. I’m sure she misses “the girls” way more than the shoes. The gift of two pairs of princess shoes from these beloved pals at M’s birthday party this past weekend seemed to soften the blow, at least a little bit…though I think she’s still reeling from their move as she’s discovering it’s just not much fun to have such shoes if there is no one else to dance around with you.
But despite the moving of her pals, she also seems to understand her value among all the remaining neighbors, despite being the youngest one in the bunch. Whether it be a quick visit from our next door neighbor who wants to see what color I’m painting M’s toes (pink, of course) or being included among the neighborhood grumbling and camaraderie during this year’s blizzards and last week’s power outage, she is given a sense of importance. Her affection for cats is well-known, and so she was treated to a sneak peek of two neighborhood kittens as they arrived home. With these neighbors being three doors down, they could have easily just gone inside unnoticed, yet they didn’t and instead went out of their way to show M their fuzzy new additions.
She now waves to people first and they wave back to her. She knows all of the neighborhood cats, and dutifully scares them away if they’re getting too close to the bird feeders. She knows the rhythms and sounds of our neighborhood, from E’s loud truck and the sirens from the hospital ambulances, to the distant laughter of some older neighborhood kids and that B must almost be finished siding his garage since we don’t hear the “‘struction” too much anymore. She prances around in the yard in her latest tulle fashions–currently, fairy wings, wand and headband–hoping that someone will stop and say hello. She enjoys the post-dinner bike rides around the block with Daddy, hoping that someone might still be outside to see her mad skills.
She knows that there is a little old lady, easily 100 years old, who sits at the back of the elder services van that drops off our elderly neighbor each afternoon right after M comes home from preschool. And that that same woman always looks for M in the front door window or in the driveway, hoping for a wave. M makes her smile every time. Although it’s fleeting, they make a connection, on the street, in our neighborhood.
I think she knows that we plan to be here a while, that this neighborhood is just as much her home as this house is. I suppose each year the circle beyond our house will grow wider and wider, with next year taking her to meet more new faces further down the road. But for M I think this past year in particular has been about solidifying her sense of place and coming to understand how a community works, something that could not really be appreciated until reaching this age. That, like all neighborhoods, we have our cast of characters, from the ones we only see on trash day to the ones who are forever working on their yards, cars or gardens, from the guy with the loud truck to the lady who hardly ever says hello. But that we all have our place here, even the shortest folks among us.
Happy Birthday, M. Four looks great on you.
Copyright (c) 2011-2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved.
Ever since M was born and she’s come to form bonds with other young children during her three short years, I’ve been thinking more and more of how one makes friends and maintains friendships over time. And why some friendships last, and some peter out over time (and trying to accept that that’s OK). And why some people have a lot of friends and some only have one or two. And why it sometimes seems so easy to make new friends yet other times it feels all awkward and clunky like you’re back in high school, even though that might even be more than half a lifetime ago. And why some friendships can be so deep that nothing goes unsaid, yet others seem only to scratch the surface. My guess is that social media sites like Facebook have changed the dynamics a bit too, with long lost friends suddenly reappearing in one’s life (for good or for bad) and a newfound daily dialogue where there was once largely comfortable silence, save for the random birth announcement or holiday greeting.
It’s been interesting to watch M form what can now probably be called true friendships. We’re lucky to live on a street where there are a few other girls (yes, they happen to all be girls, strangely enough) for M to pal around with. But two in particular, A and E (who are sisters), are M’s favorites by far–proximity in age is likely the reason why. M gets genuinely excited whenever she hears A or E outside playing and looks for her friends often from the window. It’s been fun to watch all of them start to grow up together and navigate touchy toddler/preschooler issues like taking turns or sharing or acceptable boundaries of personal space and simultaneously generate pure joy and giddiness over talking about things like poop and flip flops. M will get excited to try and remember to tell E something that happened earlier that day or show her something that she thinks is cool on the block. And A and E reciprocate these things in kind. I hope that they have many years of hanging out on the corner and sharing giggles and watermelon.
In many ways, seeing M form these friendships reminds me of my grade school years growing up in upstate New York. I had really neat friendships (until we moved to Massachusetts when I was in sixth grade) with my next door neighbor (A) and another close friend (L) who lived up the road. I was truly heartbroken that we had to leave those friends behind. Those were the ancient days of yore where the only hope of maintaining a friendship was by (gasp!) paper and pen, and even though there were some well-intentioned attempts at keeping things going, middle school life and geography ultimately got in the way. But a funny thing happened after I reluctantly (but now thankfully!) joined Facebook–I was able to reconnect with several elementary school friends, AND my old next door neighbor A!! How incredible! And wouldn’t you know that A and I still have things to chat about from time to time. Not just the fun things we remember about growing up in the 80s (the music, rollerskating, video games) but other bigger things, like our stances on religion in particular. We happen to have the same views on these things, so that makes it more awesome (at least from my perspective). But in many ways I don’t even know that it would have mattered how we turned out politically because the nucleus of the friendship seemed to come from a more organic place. I wonder whether M will have a similar experience as she and A and E eventually go their separate ways…(she may not know it yet, but eventually M WILL be moving out!)
I can see how it is easy to form friendships with people who literally grow up with and around you. They’re like family–even if you don’t like them one day, ultimately you love them for all that you have experienced together, the good, the bad and the not taking turns. And a separation of time and space doesn’t diminish or erase those kinds of friendships, so even if it takes 20+ years to reconnect, it still feels totally natural to be yourself when you do. Since M, at least at this point, tends to be more timid and not overly extroverted until she is comfortable in the presence of others, she takes a long time to warm up to anyone else before they might be considered a “friend”. It will be interesting to see how she forms new friendships in places like school or sports as she gets older. Maybe she will grow out of it, but at this point at least, she does not go out of her way to meet new people or approach groups of more than 2 kids.
And this is what made me wonder about my own friendships and how or why they formed. In all my life, I have not been one to have very many friends–I am happy with a close handful or so. But on the depth scale, I’d say that most of them have hovered around a 7 or 8, with 1 being “I’ll tell you my name and we can talk about the weather” and a 10 being “I have a very dark secret to tell you and no one else, not even my mom or husband knows but you” (I don’t, by the way). Why is that? Sometimes it gets me down when I see other folks who seem to have that one true best friend that is based on a very deep bond, and I don’t. Jealous perhaps. But overall I have generally been more of the introverted, solitary type over my life (by choice) so I wonder what it is that I think I am missing. Certainly I have family and a fortunately a husband that if needed, I could always turn to in moments of despair. But there is something about having a friend who you can share your most personal thoughts with and they really are there for you not because of blood or marital ties. Almost like a third party seal of approval that, yes, you are worthy of such things.
But as to how any friendship forms, I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of it really seems to be about time and place. If I scan the catalog of friends that I have now, it is certainly a healthy mix of “work friends”, “college/law school friends”, “friends that I met because of M” (preschool, neighborhood), and a few other categories. Some definitely were strong friendships in their own right, but often later strengthened by parallel experiences we both had in common throughout the years (getting married, having children, changing jobs). I suppose that it’s no big surprise that having things in common with someone leads to friendships, but there also needs to be a bit of personality alignment as well for it to work. We could both love reading about gardening or breaking down last night’s Patriots game, but if you’re a condescending jerk (or I am) chances are that one or both of us is not going to invest much time or effort in maintaining the friendship.
Except kids are different. They often seem really not to care about any of that, or at least get over it fairly quickly, because all they care about is being silly and who has the coolest toys out in the yard at the moment. I think adults need to be more like that (present company included). Why does it get harder to make friends over time as you get older? Why not just go knock on your neighbors’ doors and see if they want to share a brew or some veggies from your garden or catch up on whose quarterback rating is falling this week? Does it really matter that they might not have the same world view as you? No, it doesn’t (except if they’re bigots–that’s nonstarter for me). I have been trying to do more of this now that we are bona fide homeowners in a community. Yes, this is way outside of my comfort range given my own hang-ups and tendencies to gravitate toward people who are just like me, but it is the example that I am trying to set for M because sooner or later, and subconsciously or not, she will see how I make and maintain friendships and may use that as her guide. I want her to learn that it is OK to seek out friendships, even with people that are not your carbon copy, and not just wait for the right time and place for a new friendship to form. Life is too short to wait for that to happen and you might miss meeting someone really interesting.
To wit, as a result of what have been surprisingly minimal efforts, I have a nice handful of what I like to call “cuppa sugar friends” — you know, the ones that you can comfortably knock on their door in the middle of making cookies because you ran out of sugar (or, ahem, gas for the grill during a family BBQ). And they’re not just the parents of M’s little friends. They are other neighbors who don’t even have children (or least not young ones). Until about a year or so ago, I didn’t know that I lived a stone’s throw from a retired geologist who is now repairing antique clocks and goes birdwatching in his spare time, and who happily takes our extra zucchinis and cucumbers. Awesome! If it were not for M’s lead in getting outside to chat it up with the neighborhood gang, I would not have come out of my shell and into the community to make more friends myself.
Copyright (c) 2010-2014 Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved. Personal theme was created in WordPress by Obox Themes.