friendship

  • Embracing Being the Odd (Wo)Man Out

    by Jennifer McCue

     

    “Oh look, the commie has arrived.” “Hey, let me introduce you to my one lefty buddy.” “Here comes the snowflake, we have to watch what we say now!” These are just a few of the comments that have been directed at me from some of my more—how shall I put it?—slightly-right-of-the-Kaiser family, friends, and acquaintances. Most of the time, I take the ribbing with a grin and let it roll off my back, but occasionally it strikes a nerve; that’s when inner-Jenn—the rebel, the actual social justice warrior, the little girl inside me who still wants to change the world—flares to life like a Molotov cocktail exploding in an alcohol-soaked bar.

    Sometimes I wonder how I find myself being friends with people whose beliefs are so fundamentally different from my own, and who are so unaccepting of the beliefs I hold dear.

    And to be clear, I’m not talking about differences of opinion on, say, the deficit, or the electoral college process. I’m talking about humanism, the very embodiment of the Three Musketeers’ rallying cry “all for one and one for all,” and how we treat the least among us, regardless of how they got that way. This leads me to wondering if and/or why any of these differences of opinion matter, but also wondering how I got to be the way I am, and why I think and feel the way I do.

    In the current era of President Trump, political affiliation does seem to matter, even among the closest of friends and family, with supporters and opponents arguing virulently and sometimes violently, with relationships ending or being fraught with tension. In part, this seems exceptionally foolish to me – a relationship should be based on more than politics, no? On the other hand, if the people you’re closest to do not accept, or worse, intentionally insult your values and the way you live your life, why on earth would one continue in such an unhealthy relationship?

    Emotionally, it feels like we are living in the most polarized generation ever.

    I don’t know if that’s true, but it surely feels that way.

    From my earliest days, I can remember learning the lesson that there will always be somebody worse off than us, somebody who needs our help, and that it’s our duty—as Catholics, and as humans—to do what was in our power to help these people. I grew up poor, but my mom still found money to put in our church envelopes each week, and we still donated our gently used clothing and linens and such, first to a group of nuns who lived in a “bad” neighborhood and worked with the residents therein, and later to an agency which operated halfway houses and a shelter that aided the homeless, recovering addicts, and domestic violence survivors.

    I can recall driving there to the agency with my mom on countless occasions. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, their headquarters were in an old building in a run-down neighborhood not far from where we lived, and it was always dark and dank and intimidating. My mom would tell me not to be nervous, that these people were grateful for the help and would not harm me. I mean, she was right, but when you’re a kid? It’s still a little overwhelming.

    Always though, when we would pull up, we’d have our minivan loaded with boxes or bags, and a few grizzled, scraggly-looking men would come over to help us carry our donation inside. I was the picture of naiveté, and was always a bit wide-eyed during these excursions, but looking back on them now, I’m so grateful for having had these lessons driven home. In hindsight, I can see how integral these experiences were toward creating my worldview.

    Add in decades of living and working in some seriously depressed neighborhoods, seeing some of the truly awful things humans can do to each other, losing my faith, finding it again, going to church, abandoning organized religion, and reading extensively about the human condition and the history of “civilized” man as an adult with life experience behind me, and you get present-day me: wanting to feed all the world’s hungry, and house the homeless, and save the addicted, and educate and rehabilitate those behind bars, and provide an education to anyone who wants one, and  give people who need it the medicine they need at no cost, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

    Because my desire to help includes people around the world, I have been called a communist, a socialist, a globalist, a libtard, un-American, a dirty hippie, and many, many other meant-to-be-unflattering terms, both online and to my face.

    For the most part, I grin and bear it. If such remarks come online, that’s pretty much an instant “unfollow” or “unfriend,” meriting no further response from me, with a “block” if it comes from someone aggressive and threatening. In real life though? There is virtually no point in arguing—it makes me upset, and in very few of these cases do I care enough about the other person to want to bother attempting to change their mind. Do I let these differences come between family and myself? Not intentionally, no, but I do tend to gravitate towards people who aren’t going to insult me.

    As Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” so I do my best to live each day in a way that betters someone other than myself. It’s a small act in most cases, but it’s what I can do, my contribution to improving this earth we all share. Imagine if everyone who could did just one small thing for someone else, with no strings attached?

    Can you imagine the positivity and progress that might bring about? I’ll do what I can, and continue to be the best example I can for my children, and hope that those who disagree with me someday see me with love and not disdain.

     

    A Staten Island girl living in a suburban New Jersey world, Jennifer is a stay at home mom to two young boys, but she is also a historian, a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, a genealogist, and the ringmaster of the circus she calls her life. She survives, without a doubt, on coffee and laughter.

  • What To Do When Friends Have Inconsistent Birthday Traditions

    This month Nina addresses inconsistencies in birthday “traditions” between friends. Do you give gifts if you’re also taking friends out for a meal? What if some friends in a group get taken out for a meal and others don’t? And in the case of this month’s letter writer, what if the group does gifts for some friends, but not others?

    Nina is always taking anonymous questions here. And catch up on all the other letters Nina has answered here.

    birthday traditions

    Dear Nina,

    My birthday was in July and a small group of my friends took me out to dinner. It’s the first time they have ever done this. I missed someone’s birthday from the group in August and then in September. I took those two women out separately, since I couldn’t make it to the group dinner.

    However, the next birthday was in October, so I showed up at the restaurant and everyone else had a gift. I was so embarrassed because I was empty handed. I didn’t get the memo that gifts were now included in these outings. Isn’t taking the birthday girl out for dinner enough? Apparently at the one birthday dinner in August, gifts were given, but at the September dinner—no gifts. Why one and not the other?

    Recently there were two more birthdays. I refused to show up empty-handed, so I got both women some cute, fun jewelry—nothing too expensive, around $20 each.

    But why must we give gifts? How do we stop the gift giving without hurting others’ feelings? I didn’t get gifts at my birthday dinner, so I never thought to buy a gift for anyone else. I told my friend who sort of arranges these dinners that after our friend’s birthday in Dec, we should say no more gifts unless it’s a big birthday ending in zero or five. Not all the women in this group are super close, so it’s all awkward. I don’t know what the right thing to do is.  Any advice you can lend would be appreciated.

    Thanks,

    Let’s Knock It Off With All These Gifts

    Dear Let’s Knock It Off With All These Gifts,

    You’ve come to the right person. Some may find this particular issue ridiculous to consider a friendship “dilemma” since it means you’ve mastered a question often asked here: How to make and keep a solid group of friends in the first place or at least a few friends close enough for birthday celebrations.

    Friends who take you out! Friends who give gifts! What’s to complain about?

    Let’s call this advanced friendship advice then. These etiquette conundrums and inner drives for practical living fascinate me endlessly. How can any sane and functioning crew of friends give gifts off the zero and five years with such randomness? You are absolutely right that this madness must end.

    Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I think a meal can be gift enough in the off years. Now, if the birthday girl is throwing her own party and you’re attending as her guest, then a gift is proper. If she says no gifts, however, I try to respect that except in cases when I truly can’t help myself.

    I asked my mom what people in her social life do for birthdays, and she said it’s a gift or a meal, not both, even for the big birthdays. Of course each person gets to make her own decision and just because a group of friends has decided not to do gifts, that doesn’t mean closer friends within the group or those for whom gift gifting is their go-to way of expressing closeness cannot privately hand over a present. Maybe those friends can consider not bringing the present to dinner in front of everyone else.

    As for expressing closeness to friends, we each have our methods, whether we’re aware of them or not. Your letter made me think about how my friends know that I love them. I’m not the best about bringing a gift in the non-zero years or even initiating the birthday outings, but I make old-fashioned phone calls and leave all kinds of voice memos, too. I also answer calls, ask for advice, and give advice when asked. I also introduce my friends to everyone I know both to help them professionally and socially. So yes, my gift giving could stand to improve, yet I’ve managed to keep most of my friends.

    My point is, I’m with you that gifts, while nice, are not the only way to “give” to a friend. And I agree that it’s immensely awkward the way your group of friends is giving gifts for some of the birthdays and not others with no discernible pattern. I like your idea of getting the woman who arranges these outings to announce before the January get together that it’s a new year and from now on, people should only bring gifts to dinner for the zero and five years. If she won’t bring up the topic, then you will have to decide if you’re up for doing it yourself. I noted you said this is the first year they’ve taken you out for your birthday. I’m not sure how long this group has been getting together and whether you feel it’s the right time to step in that way. Only you know!

    Or, and this is advice I probably couldn’t take myself, you can also get comfortable with doing things your way (no gift) even when others bring gifts for a friend’s 43rd birthday dinner.

    Good luck! Let us know what happens in 2019!

    Nina

     

  • Talking to Friends About Money

    This month’s topic is MONEY MONEY MONEY. Does it bother you when friends ask what you spent on something? Does it bother you when a friend avoids answering a financial question? Please read the situation described in the letter below and help Nina guide this month’s letter writer past all the awkwardness.

    Nina is always accepting anonymous questions here. See the questions she’s already covered, here.

    hertake nina badzin

     

    Dear Nina,

    I would love some advice about navigating the subject of money among friends for the midlife set, whether those friends have more OR less, to minimize awkwardness on both sides.

    Here’s what prompts my request. The other day a neighbor (someone we’re fairly close with, e.g. we help each other with dog walking needs, vacation mail, etc.) was asking me about a recent stay we had in a local beach community. We’d rented a house for the week and she asked, “Do you mind if I ask if it was expensive?” That was her exact phrasing, not “Do you mind if I ask how much it costs?”

    Now, I happen to know from previous conversations a hint of her financial situation that we are in a much, much stronger financial position than she is right now. Which is to say, to *her* I knew this would be expensive, and, like any vacation travel, there are ways to do it cheaper. I also knew that the pricing is available online if she were to ever ask where we stayed, so I didn’t want to lie either. My answer to her was “Well, I don’t like characterizing anything as expensive or not because I think that’s relative, but it cost $XXX.” And, as I expected, her eyes widened. And then I felt guilty, finding myself qualifying my response with things like “but this is the only vacation we take . . . we rented a bigger house so we could have more privacy . . . etc.” I guess I felt I had to justify the amount we spent to make it sound less…fancy? After she left I felt badly, almost guilty.

    I know never to assume anyone’s financial status, and yet these kinds of things come up once in a while, on either side of the coin, for all of us. And when socializing in mixed financial circles it can get awkward. For me, what I want to minimize most is resentment or any whiff of “showing off” or “missing out” for anyone. Like if we go out with a group of friends . . . sometimes some are happy splitting the bill evenly, and others you can sense it’s not what they wanted to do. Or how for many of us, family size (big or small) directly impacts ability to pay in some situations. You get the gist. Any pointers for our midlife generation who have things like college, parent care, mortgages, retirement plans, etc. that we all might be better or less equipped to finance than our peers? How do we talk about these things honestly without hurt feelings?

    Thank you!

    Need Help With The Money Talk

    Dear Need Help With The Money Talk,

    First, I’m taking the “midlife” angle out of the question because awkwardness about money is an ageless concern. Second, I want to assure you that you’re not alone in finding this subject tricky.

    I use Facebook occasionally to get a feel for which friendship topics piling up in my “HerTake” inbox will interest readers. When I brought up a more general version of your question, the post attracted more conversation than any other I’d attempted in four years of writing this column. Do I say that because everyone who responded agreed that friends shouldn’t ask what things cost or whether they’re expensive? No. I say it because the comments varied widely:

    “It’s tacky to ask what someone spent.”

    “It doesn’t matter if someone asks. Friends should be able to talk about it openly.”

    “We can look anything up these days so no reason to be private.”

    “It’s nobody’s business.”

    Yikes! What to do?

    Many agreed they didn’t mind discussing what things cost as long as they felt the person asking wasn’t judging the answer. There was also consensus, which doesn’t make it scientific, but I’m mentioning it anyway, that women over-explain and apologize for their purchases more than men do. “It was a deal.” “It was a gift.” “I bought it at a resale shop.” You reacted this way, too when your friend’s eyes got wide at the price of your beach vacation. There was also agreement that context matters. If someone is looking for a similar deal on a similar item, that is entirely different from outright nosiness.

    One Facebook friend, Kate, summarized the issue well: “I do think it can be awkward when there are differences in economics among friends. But then, the truth is the truth, and neither bragging about it nor lying about spending money seems to be a modern approach. If someone resents a person for how much they spend on something, whatever it is, well then that’s on the resent-er. We must all be able to be ourselves among friends!”

    I agree with Kate’s point, especially the part about being ourselves. And you’re right, too, that we can never count someone else’s dollars. Maybe one person cares about the car she drives more than going on a certain kind of a vacation. Maybe another friend is spending her extra money on childcare during the week, which means she can’t afford to go out as much on the weekend. Maybe another friend seemingly has everything—new clothes all the time, a new car every few years, fancy vacations, three kids in private colleges—but she’s in debt. Maybe another friend never seems to stress about money, but she panics privately about saving for retirement, helping her parents, or dealing with medical bills.

    And as you said, what’s expensive to one person may not be to another. I would just stick to the facts. It’s presumptuous anyway to think you know how anyone will react to the information you provide. And as Kate said, the reaction is on the other person, not on you.

    That said, I think there is still nuance to every situation involving money and it all depends on the relationship. But even with my closest friends, I’d find it unusual for anyone to expect me to provide exact numbers on hotels, clothes, or anything for that matter.

    Now to be fair, my view comes directly from my childhood as evidenced by my mother’s reaction. “Because your grandmother was a stickler for manners and appropriate behavior in various situations, I learned at a young age it is gauche to discuss money in a social situation. This means you never ask someone what they paid for something, and you do not volunteer the cost of things you purchased. Clearly there are nuances to this rule. For example, you might tell a friend you hired a great computer person. Obviously your friend will want to know what the computer expert charges. That is a different question from asking what you paid for your vacation. The latter is an intrusive question and no one else’s business.”

    (I enjoyed my mom’s use of the word gauche.)

    I wish I could give you one specific rule to follow, but my mom is right that helping a friend make sure she’s not overpaying (or underpaying) for a service is quite different from providing dollar amounts about more personal purchases. And as my mom says, “There are some topics that are fine to talk about with some friends and other issues to avoid.” It depends on the relationship.

    In the case with your neighbor, I might have said, “We stayed at [name of place], but the prices depend on the availability or deals going on. Take a look.” This removes any opinion on your part about what she can afford and helps you avoid feeling defensive about how you spend your money. You’re not lying about where you stayed, but the exact price you paid for the place is truly not her business. Sure, she will see a ballpark of what you spent, but that will happen on her own time, which means you don’t have to get into an uncomfortable conversation about it. Perhaps this type of approach will help you the next time she asks a similar question. Does that mean you should never reveal the price of something? No. Like I said, nuance.

    The question you asked at the end about the bill at the restaurant is a good one, too. But the idea that you can sense some of your friends didn’t want to split the bill. . . I don’t know. I think you put too much pressure on yourself to know others’ financial issues and desires. You’re obviously a sensitive and caring friend, but you can’t single-handedly eliminate these uncomfortable moments. These fellow adults can speak up. Someone who does not want to split should ask the server from the get-go for separate checks. Sure, it would be a considerate gesture to offer to ask the server for separate checks yourself if you spent significantly more, but for a typical meal where people spent around the same amount, I think it’s fine to assume you’re all splitting unless the person who doesn’t want to says otherwise.

    I know this doesn’t cover every instance, but hopefully reading about the topic here (and in the comments below) will help you see you’re not alone and also encourages you to give yourself a break from having to mitigate everyone else’s money issues. That’s not your responsibility!

    Best of luck,

    Nina

  • When a Mean Girl Excludes You From a Group of Friends

    What should you do when you’re being excluded by friends?

    UPDATE (2019): FIND NINA AND HER COLUMN AT HER NEW FRIENDSHIP ADVICE SITE

     

    Our advice columnist Nina Badzin is back with a dilemma from a woman who moved to her husband’s hometown and inherited his less-than-friendly group of friends. She likes some of them, but one “mean girl” in particular seems determined to exclude our letter writer.

    Nina is always accepting anonymous questions here.  

    her take mean girl

     

    Dear Nina,

    When my husband and I moved to his hometown, I knew nobody here. His group is generally very welcoming to all newcomers. I’ve seen strong friendships form among other newcomers and “old timers.” But as one of the first women in the group to have a baby, I was quickly left out. This was understandable (sadly) until other women also became mothers and still left me out.

    For nearly a year, a “powerful” or at least “controlling,” woman in my husband’s friend group has been excluding me, pretty blatantly, since she too became a mother. My husband and I have no idea why. It is pretty clear to us that she’s trying to engineer the social group to exclude me. She plans things without including me and without my husband now too, by extension. They used to be good friends.

    I do not feel I’m missing out on her friendship, but what upsets me (and my husband very much), is that she is trying to close the whole group off from us. My husband’s best friend has a fiancée, and naturally we two couples have grown closer as a group of four. The excluder is now becoming very buddy-buddy with this new fiancée, excluding me. It seems very deliberate. The fiancée is “new” and doesn’t realize this, of course. It is not her problem, but I can see how it will get awkward fast.

    There is so much more detail, but it is too difficult to explain in writing. Basically, our group dynamic is getting messed up by a self-centered person who fancies herself an “influencer.” Having no other family or friends around and the reality of how difficult it is to start from scratch making friends as new parents who are busy with our children, this situation is really harmful to us. My husband is so angry and upset and has tried to find out what the deal is, but it’s a mystery. I am not close enough to Excluder to ask her directly. What should we do?

    Tired of Getting Excluded

    Dear Tired of Getting Excluded,

    The Allure of His Friendship Group

    The temptation to make your husband’s group your group makes perfect sense. Almost 18 years ago when I moved to my husband’s hometown, I was distraught when I realized he had no such group to make for an easy transition to my new town.

    Although my husband (fiancée at the time) and I had spoken about that reality of starting over before we arrived in Minneapolis, I guess I thought he was being hyperbolic—as if by “no group” he meant, “only a few of them moved back to town or never left.”

    Nope. He meant no friendship group, not even a small one. He had been living away from Minneapolis for a decade already, and although he had a few friends from the old days, I really did have to create my own social life. And it was hard. On the positive side, I can tell you now, 18 years later, I feel very much at home in Minnesota. And it did not take more than a few years. I promise.

    I used to tell my new-to-town story with a “woe is me” slant, but now that I’ve read your letter, I’m going to stop telling it that way. Maybe it’s easier and better to start from zero; you get to make your own way with no expectations to be friends with people your significant other met at some point in childhood or adolescence.

    Mean Girls and Being Excluded By Friends

    I am thrilled you put “powerful” and “controlling” in quotes because in these cases of friend-group power plays, people only have the influence over us we hand them on a platter. Her power isn’t real. Her control also isn’t real unless you allow this situation to control you. She might control others’ actions, but you get to make your own decisions.

    It’s time to stop hoping your husband’s group will become your inner circle. Excluder sounds awful, but what are we to make of these women who are following Excluder? I also think it’s time your husband make some new friends, but as I said, you can only control YOU.

    I’m not even going to bother arming you with tips on dealing directly with Excluder. She’s a classic mean girl. I agree that it seems as though she doesn’t like you. We don’t know why. I want you to decide not to care. There’s no way you can ask her what her problem is without sounding paranoid or insecure. I want you to rise above needing an explantation from her. She would not likely tell you the truth anyway. She has her reasons and those reasons are her business. I am willing to bet those reasons are more about her than you anyway.

    Listen, not everyone has good chemistry. There were all kinds of women who didn’t care for me when I moved to town. Some still don’t, I’m sure. I learned to make peace with the fact that chemistry is mysterious and things don’t always work out as we hope. Friend plates get full. We say the wrong thing one time and people don’t forget. Haven’t there been people you didn’t want to pursue a friendship with for reasons you could hardly articulate? I know that has been true for me. We have to allow others the same space. The worst thing you can do for your social life is overly focus on this one group of friends. It’s time to let this crew go, and start your search for real connections.

    Your New Friends Do Not Need To Fall Into One Friendship Group

    This was a great question to run by mom who is often-quoted in this column. She met my father when she was a junior at Northwestern and he was a grad student. While my mom had come to Northwestern from Rochester, New York, my dad was raised in the Chicago suburbs. She, like me and like you, ended up in her husband’s hometown. Here’s her advice:

    “When I graduated from Northwestern, I had been married for a year. Suddenly my college friends left for other parts of the country, and I felt like I had no one left other than my husband—-no family and no friends. Tired of Getting Excluded needs to find new friends, and they don’t need to be in one particular group. She can join “mom and tot” groups. If she likes to exercise, she should join an exercise class. In other words, she should look for friends outside the “group.”  She can have a variety of friends who don’t know each other. She should pursue her interests and find others with similar interests. It takes a long time to form friendships. She needs to be patient and keep working at it. And she needs to be the initiator sometimes. Through the years, I often times was the one to pick up the phone and make dates. She shouldn’t wait for others to take the initiative. I still do that. If there is someone I want to be with, I make the call or email.”

    Be The Initiator

    My mom and I have The Initiator trait in common. If I waited for every friend to schedule a walk or a lunch or a couples’ outing with me, I would be waiting FOREVER. I actually think the key to a happy social life is adopting the initiator mentality and not keeping score—within reason. Meaning, if you’re making the plans with any particular person more than, say, four times, it may be worth letting that person know you’d love to be on the receiving end of the call (text, email, etc.) sometimes.

    I hope this all helps. I wish you the best in your new friend making endeavor. It’s like dating, but better, because you get to keep as many of the good relationships as you want. I have a good feeling that some new close friends are out there waiting for you to find them.

    Good luck and let me know how it goes,

    Nina

  • Just This I Cannot Share

    Today’s guest post is from Meagan Schultz, who writes about the times when pain cannot be shared, even during the closest friendship.

     

    just like I cannot share

    By Meagan Schultz

    I never would have thought there were things I would not share with my best friend. I would have called bullshit if you’d tried to tell me that in my twenties. We were BFFs before BFFs were a thing. If we’d believed in the sisterhood of blood, we would have poked our fingers a thousand times over for each other. Ours was a fierce love.

    It was like new romance when we met. I was twenty-four, she was twenty-three. I was the American in London, trying on adulthood like an oversized sweater with sleeves that hung to my knees. She studied English Literature at Cambridge, read voraciously, and worked in politics. I had a liberal arts degree that left me with keen observational skills and a gift for description, but little else. Working as a travel agent, I helped young affluent American students circle European capital cities again and again. It wasn’t a dream job, but I was living in London with a house full of Brits, one of whom was my boyfriend, and a sink full of dirty dishes. I was happy.

    She and I giggled like children and devoured each other’s stories over hummus and white wine at a Turkish restaurant in Soho on our first “date.” It was an unusually warm spring night and we sat outside on the corner, oblivious to the throngs of passersby on their way home from work, or to the theaters, or on their own first dates. We stayed as late as we could and hugged tightly when we parted ways at the bottom of Brixton Hill, both recognizing the intensity of the friendship we had just birthed together over grape leaves and pinot grigio.

    The next decade would see us growing into ourselves and each other like winding wisteria, inextricably bound by the vines of shared experience and reckless love.

    There was no secret safe between us. The boyfriend who brought me to the UK would later become the husband, but when he left me, it would be she who would pick up the pieces. She would knock on my door, soak up my tears and then take me out, knowing I did not want to go, but also knowing I did not know where else to be. She knew me better than I knew myself. And I loved her for that.

    So when she said to me, “I’m sorry, but you just cannot understand what I’m going through right now,” after the deaths of her twin boys, minutes outside of utero at twenty-six weeks, I nodded, but was quite certain she was wrong.

    I wanted so much to understand her. She had been my best friend for eight years. I wanted to carry her through this grief the way she’d carried me through mine. I tried with all my heart to understand, to feel her pain, as if she were my own twin. I read books, scoured the internet for hours reading stories of other mothers who had lost the children growing inside them, and tried to imagine what it must’ve felt like to wake with an empty womb once stretched for two.

    “It’s unbelievable how physical it is, the sense of loss,” she would tell me. “I can’t get used to the fact that this huge bump has gone but there is nothing, and I keep having this overwhelming physical urge to hold something against my chest.”

    I listened; I heard what she was saying, though I had nothing to compare it to then. I had no children of my own and could not yet comprehend the ache of a full breast and a broken heart. I had only lost a great-grandmother to old age, a natural death. I wanted with all of my being to slip into her shoes, to take some of the pain.

    At first I blamed her. It was her fault, I thought, that I could not understand. If she would only let me in, share her pain, unleash her sorrow, I could lift her up and out of the fog that was suffocating her, like I always had. If she would only let me try to make her smile, I could help dissipate the anger she clung to so desperately in order to make sense of her new childless existence. But I could not make her share and our friendship wordlessly shifted shape.

    It would scare me when she would not smile. I wondered if my old friend would return and whether we would ever share secrets late at night, lying in her bed, losing ourselves in fits of giggles under the duvet. If the sleeves of adulthood that once hung down my sides were inching their way up my arm as I grew into them, hers had been thrust into a hot water cycle and now threatened to choke her. She understood adulthood all too well, strangled by the impermanence of life, crushed under the weight of misfortune.

    Eventually life brought me back to the United States, and a new love kept me there. Three years later, when I suffered my first miscarriage, I would begin to understand why it was impossible for her to share. Though I couldn’t articulate it then, I understood that death is the great divider, keeping us apart and alone, even if we are still very much together.

    She understood well before I did, that some things cannot be shared.  

    I wish I had learned that lesson when she tried to teach me. Instead, I learned it when I had become the teacher, after my own losses. I could tell friends about my grief, as she had tried to tell me, but it was mine alone to hold. I see that now. Perhaps this is the one lesson in life we must learn by ourselves; the experience that we share only because we cannot share, until eventually, we can. But even then, the grief is our own, each of us coping differently, needing our own personal recovery plan, on the path towards a new normal.

    Though we are miles apart these days, my friend and I still share what we can. We’ve both found our new normal in our respective cities, with our own families, sending birthday cards when we remember and stealing late night glimpses of each other mothering on Instagram. Life continues to move forward as we knew it would. Where we once wished it would hurry along to move us away from the pain, we now hope it will slow down. Winter has come and gone, and we have finally grown comfortable in the bulky sweaters that once hung to our knees.

     

    meagan SchultzMeagan Schultz is a mother and writer living in Milwaukee with her husband and three young children. She’s been a contributing writer for MKE Moms Blog and WUWM’s Lake Effect Program. Her work has been published on Brain, Child, Literary Mama, Mamalode, and in several anthologies. She is also the creator of the 21-day E-Course “An Invitation to Grieve” for women who’ve experienced miscarriage(s). Between naps with reheated coffee, she occasionally blogs at http://www.meaganschultz.com

  • Learning a New Script

    Parenting a special needs child can be challenging, with its own joys and triumphs. It can also be lonely. Unfortunately, parents of special needs children often find that their own friends, colleagues, and acquaintances can lack empathy or basic kindness in all sorts of situations. In this guest post, Alexis Calabrese writes about how she learned a “new script” for how to find her own network of support.

     

    Alexis Calabrese

    By Alexis Calabrese

    It’s airless in the gym which is odd because it’s a huge space, high ceilings and glossy wood floors recently shined to glow like a mirror. A door opens and sunlight streams in along with a faint breeze and the smell of fresh cut grass.

    “Thought you could use a refill.” Karen smiles as she hands me a large plastic cup, dripping wet and brimming with iced coffee. I slug down a third before coming up for air.

    “Thank you. I mean, seriously, this is saving my life right now.”

    She nods and takes a sip off her own cup. Within minutes the room fills with moms and a random dad or two. Loud, buzzed on caffeine, shorts and sneakers mixed with yoga pants and flip flops. It’s Tuesday at 10:05 a.m. and we move like a swarm around tables and clipboards. I yell out some orders, hand out a floor layout and the swarm parts.

    “Hey VP!” It’s Michelle, my neighbor. “Are we still going with the green bunting or did we decide gold streamers?”

    “Gold!” I yell back, checking my list. Sweat trickles down my back, and my t-shirt goes all damp and clingy. We work down the hour, tossing around memories as we arrange chairs, memories of the past six years, pushing our kids into and now out of grammar school. I see the President of the PTA make her way through the crowd.

    “Go! Get out of here. I’ve got this.” Kimberly’s toned yoga arm waves me off and I shout over my shoulder that I’ll see her tomorrow for our final event, the 4th grade end of year celebration and the last day of school. She high-fives me, holds my hand for a beat and mouths the words thank you.

    The hallway is cool and soft compared to the loud heat of the gym. I shake my hair out of a pony tail and catch a glimpse of a class coming out of the music room. It’s my son Owen’s class and I wait to watch him pass. He’s in deep conversation with Jackson, one of his best friends. They’re talking about a video game, I can tell by the hand motions. He bends to scratch his leg, and I see that he’s adjusting his leg brace, a stiff plastic orthotic that runs just up to his knee. I tamp down the impulse to help him and dig at my cuticles instead. He quickly tightens the Velcro strap and keeps moving with the line of kids, his gait awkward but steady. No one stares. It wasn’t always this way. He’s worked hard to become one of them. He explains his diagnosis with patience, holding up his wrist brace and ankle-foot orthotic as props in the story.

    “Babies can have strokes you know,” he’ll say defiantly. “I know because I had a stroke when I was a baby. And now I have a disability called hemiplegia.”

    It’s a prepared script we’ve worked on together so that he isn’t stumped every time someone asks him questions. Hemiplegia is easier to say than cerebral palsy.

    Owen disappears down the hall and I make my way out of the building toward an afternoon of endless conference calls and a prickly meeting with my boss. I should be prepping for the meeting but all I can think about is Owen’s smile, the comfortable back and forth with Jackson, the baseball hat worn backwards. I breathe in the sweet smell of lilac in the June air and wave to the landscapers trimming back bushes, yet another committee at work.

    Later that day, I’m in the kitchen, high heels kicked into the corner, when I get the call. It’s Karen. She’s in a rush but blurts out an invite. She’s hosting an “end of year” party with a few other moms tomorrow. It will be held at a local pool club, the one on the far side of town. Boys only but moms can stay if they want. The cost is five bucks for pizza and a juice. I swallow hard, holding back my excitement as best I can. I tell Karen how thrilled I am to get the call, how thankful and sweet they are to think of him.

    “Of course!” She responds. “We were just talking and I said, ‘Hey, let’s include Owen!’”

    “Oh?”

    “Well, the Evite went out over a month ago so we weren’t sure if you had other plans.”

    “Oh.”

    “We would have invited him sooner but well you know, this time of year is so crazy and…”

    I let her sit in the silence of that uncomfortable moment.

    “I’ll have to get back to you,” I finally say. “It’s a little last minute.”

    “OK,” she says. “I think we’ve got like 50 boys coming so we hired extra lifeguards. I hope the weather holds out, I think it will…”

    She continues to talk, nervously and too fast, but it doesn’t matter. I stop listening.

    50 boys. There are 103 kids in Owen’s class. I know because that number is imprinted into my brain from every single PTA activity I’d been planning for the past months.

    If it wasn’t all the boys in the grade, then it was close. Too close.

    I call my husband.

    “Let O make the decision,” he says calmly. “If he wants to go, we should let him.”

    “I’ve worked with these people every day for months, planning a million different events for their kids, for our kids and there’s no way, no way they forgot about him. They just didn’t invite him, they left him out on purpose!”

    “Just because you have coffee with them and joke about laundry doesn’t mean they’re not assholes.”

    He’s right, of course. But it’s more than that.

    These are my friends. For years I’ve walked next to them down the wooded path to school, listened to stories about family, carpooled and raised a glass or two during a mom’s night out. Our boys hung out in different circles. Sure, our struggles were different, but we were all in it together, weren’t we?

    After dinner, we tell Owen about the party. He tells us, while slurping up the last of an ice cream cone, that he has another invite.

    “Jackson asked me to come to his house for a swim party,” he says. “His mom is gonna text you.”

    And sure enough, there’s the text from Jackson’s mom lighting up my phone. It should have made me feel better knowing there was at least one other kid that hadn’t been invited to the big party. But it didn’t. Jackson has Down Syndrome and was one of the four boys in Owen’s inclusion program who, I found out later, didn’t make the cut.

    I wish I could say I circled back to Karen and the other moms to ask them about their decision, to try to understand why they chose to leave these boys, my boy, out. But I already knew the answer.

    I’d been in the trenches for so long, consumed with how much my son had overcome, I was blinded by how far he’d grown apart from his typical peers. His world wasn’t made up of lacrosse practices and STEM camps but EEG tests for a newly diagnosed seizure disorder and road trips to see yet another orthopedic specialist.

    If I thought about it, I couldn’t remember the last time I shared any of the details of Owen’s medical issues with these moms, these women I called friends. A space had settled between us and I had a hand in creating that gap, ignoring their lack of interest and concern by glossing over the difficulties of our day to day.

    I watched as the gap grew, as the calls for playdates dwindled and the kids who once teetered with Owen on training wheels, now veered around corners on muddied bikes, the sound of laughter trailing behind them. I had lost sight of those connections, or perhaps I just shut my eyes. Either way, whatever we had back in those early days, was long gone.

    Now, I don’t give my time to the PTA but instead help out with the SEPAG, the district’s parent group for kids with disabilities. I listen to other parents whose kids struggle to make friends, to stay socially afloat and learn from them. We attend workshops and team up with advocates to help improve the social ties between kids with disabilities and those considered typical. I try not to let the past haunt me. But I do want it to guide me, to help me find my voice, so that when the next situation comes along, I’ll have my own script ready to go.

    alexis calabreseAlexis is a native New Yorker now living in New Jersey where she works as a Creative Director/Copywriter. Finding the time to write is her biggest challenge, so she has reluctantly become a morning person and one of those ridiculous people who tap out stories on a phone. She believes the right concealer is everything, can spend hours lost in a Twitter hole and believes in big magic–the bigger the better.