Today’s question is from a woman who is asking how to stay cordial with someone you see often without committing to a friendship. Do you have a question for Nina? Use our anonymous form. You can read Nina’s answers to past questions here.
My family and I moved to our new town in September, and very quickly I met a woman through the PTA who kindly invited me and my daughter over for a play date. We had a few more play dates after that, but by November it became apparent that our daughters were not a match. A month or so later I realized we weren’t either.
We remained friendly and even texted a bit here and there, keeping things very surface and casual. I joined the yearbook committee and we worked closely on that project, but we didn’t arrange any more play dates for the girls. Our last one was in the winter for a mom and daughter holiday party at her house (with many other children from school).
My daughter turned seven at the end of April and we discussed her birthday guest list, which had to be on the smaller side due to the venue. I asked about my acquaintance’s daughter. I felt like we should invite her because of the holiday party. My daughter considered it, but ultimately said no, because they aren’t really friends.
I felt a bit torn, wanting to invite her out of guilt, but I didn’t. Then I wondered, do I tell her ahead of time to give her a head’s up? I asked my husband, but he said to let it go.
Now I wonder if I was wrong to not disclose it ahead of time, and I wonder if I should possibly try to explain things now, after the fact. I initially wanted to be up front with her (despite my anxiety about confrontations!) and maybe even joke lightly about the fact that it’s okay that our girls aren’t BFFs, but I didn’t.
Now I wonder if that was a mistake. What would you think should be my next step, if any?
Final background on my acquaintance: she is kind of gossipy and I’ve heard her speak quite a bit about other moms in unfavorable ways. I suspect she is doing the same to me. I’d like to remain on cordial even friendly terms because our girls will be in school together for many years and we will be in contact via the PTA, but not because I foresee a genuine friendship.
Wondering If I Made The Right Call
Dear Wondering If I Made The Right Call,
While your question is seemingly about whether it was okay to leave this woman’s daughter off the invite list, I think the bigger question asks how to stay on friendly terms with someone you see often without committing to a friendship. Of course I love dissecting every aspect of a friendship dilemma, so I will cover both the direct and the indirect matters at hand.
Let’s start with the birthday party. I’ve discussed birthday parties in this column before so without going into too much detail, I will restate my general policy. Go big or go very small. Once you start considering a position in the middle, things get sticky.
The definition of “small” depends on how many kids are in your kid’s grade. If your daughter’s grade has 40 girls, then it’s okay to invite 10. But if there are 20 girls in the grade, inviting 10 would for sure make the other girls feel left out. I think you get the idea, and only you know the numbers so only you can answer the question about not inviting everybody.
Your real question was about not inviting this particular woman’s daughter. Is it okay that this woman invited your daughter to her kid’s party and you did not reciprocate? In an Emily Post world, the answer might be no. But practically speaking, I think you did the right thing considering the girls truly have no chemistry, you have no chemistry with the mom, and you truly do not intend to further the relationships between any of you. Somebody had to draw the line somewhere, and it’s always better to nip things in the bud quickly as opposed to letting a relationship drag on further than what feels natural for either person.
Consider this: perhaps the other mom is relieved you made that call so that she can take your daughter off the list next year. Life is too short to make all of our decisions based on obligation alone. Yes, there are plenty of cases where we have to do things we don’t want to do and spend time with people we don’t want to spend time with. It’s called being an adult, and it’s also called having an extended family. With friends, however, we do have choices.
Did you make the right call by not explaining your reasoning to the other mom? YES. I don’t blame you for the desire to smooth over the situation by explaining the small party venue and that the girls do not seem to click and how that’s okay and yadda yadda yadda. I understand because I suffer from Over-Explainer Syndrome. (I made that term up, but the suffering is real.) If I just explain my point of view, my reasoning goes, then person X will not feel offended.
Sometimes it’s true that an explanation helps, but it’s also true that people make up their minds about you no matter what you say after the fact. In all cases, it’s really better (as your husband wisely advised) to let it go and give her the benefit of the doubt that she, like you, gets that you can all stay on friendly terms without actually being friends outside of school activities.
So what about the next step? This is not terribly exciting, but I’m suggesting more of what you’re already doing. You can be chatty with her and helpful as a fellow member of the PTA and as a fellow parent of a kid in the same school and same grade. (Just like she was helpful to you when you were new to town.) I understand your reservation about being close to her because of the way you’ve heard her talk about others. But on the flip side, it’s (sadly) a rare bird who not only says, “I’d love to have you and your daughter over,” but who follows through with an honest-to-goodness legit invitation. Most people say all the right things to new people but fail to open their homes and their lives. (Trust me, I have questions sitting in my inbox expressing those exact issues.)
My point is not that you should make a friendship work. On the contrary, I’m just reminding you that nobody is all good or all bad so as far as an acquaintanceship goes with this woman, come at it from a place of gratitude for how she welcomed you rather than a place of fear about how she might discuss you with others. You won’t be able to control the latter anyway.
My biggest tip for staying friendly without committing to a friendship is this: Never say things you don’t mean such as, “We should have lunch.” Keep your intentions in mind and you two should be able to continue operating in concentric social circles.
By the way, it’s exciting that you’re at the end of the first school year in a new town. I bet it only gets easier from here.
Best of luck,
Nina is a contributing writer for Tcjewfolk.com, Kveller.com, and Great New Books. Her essays have appeared regularly at Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, The Jewish Daily Forward, and have been syndicated in The Times of Israel as well as Jewish newspapers across the country. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four children. Contact her on Twitter @ninabadzin and on her blog.