Sunday, January 30, 2011

Weeding My Friendship Garden

I began weeding my friendship garden in the year or so before TTC. And initially I thought that it was so that I would have my life and support network in optimal shape before bringing a child into the mix.

But as I think back, I realize it was a bigger step than that. Making the decision that I didn’t want a particular person in my life anymore was a message to myself that I was ready to prioritize my own self, my feelings and my priorities, and that this was a hugely important step to take before being ready to responsibly raise a child.

I grew up in a turbulent home. My father was narcissistic and aggressive. He competed with his three children for his wife’s attention. He was quick to put us in our places, to assure us of our faults. He could reduce any of us to tears in mere moments. My younger brother, the only boy, fought with him, constantly and of course unsuccessfully, for the place of alpha male. So he generally received the brunt of the negative attention. My older sister had a strong personality like my father, but was generally busy with her own life… except when she felt that my brother was being treated unfairly. Then the screaming really began.

My role, as the quiet middle sister, was to be the good girl. I thrived on praise, and generally tried to fly under the radar. I was much, much better than my brother at getting what I needed, because I knew just the right way to appease my father. I learned to model my interests after his, to show interests in his other pursuits, to keep the conversation entertaining and non-threatening. And most of all, I knew how to avoid conflict. I suppose in this way I modeled myself after my mother, who seemed permanently exhausted by the chaos of three children, a suburban lifestyle when she hated to drive, and the constant threat of a prolonged angry outburst from my father (a quick apology would never do – once his ire was raised, a long series of apologies explaining the full extent of one’s regret and wrongdoing were required).

My parents had no real friends. Neither knew how to socialize with others. My father thought the quickest way to impress was to regale strangers with a detailed accounting of his latest accomplishment… not surprisingly, that didn’t make him a lot of fans. My mother just never learned how to interact in a social way. Her understanding of conversation generally seemed to be as a way to impart information… with a fair bit of judgment thrown in as well.

When I reached the fifth grade, I realized that as a result of my parents’ lack of social skills, I had never really learned how to make friends myself. I was lonely. Not only that, but that it was my own fault that I was socially inadequate, and that I was somehow responsible for being born into my dysfunctional family. I desperately wanted to distance myself from them, and from that terrible belief, and so I began to watch others, to see how they managed the task. I remember hungrily studying the social habits of a popular girl in my Sunday school class to see just how she did it. Luckily, I spent summers away from home at sleepaway camp, where I had the opportunity to reinvent myself, and the following summer I first had a gaggle of friends. 

Mindful of the previous summer, when I had spent an afternoon crying in my bunk when none of the other girls would agree to be my swimming buddy (and humiliated, convinced it was my fault I was being treated thus, had to confess the shameful truth to my counselor), I was on my best behavior. When I came back to school in my tiny town, if I stayed on my best behavior, I was allowed to stay just on the fringes, socially. I didn’t have to eat alone at lunch anymore… I had a precarious seat at the corner of the table. I was made fun of occasionally, and excluded sometimes, but not consistently any longer. And there I stayed for the rest of my school career. By high school my class of 60+ was a fairly close knit group, and I was usually treated with a vague kindness, though I never felt a part of things. Luckily, I continued to go to summer camp, where I had lots of friends as the years passed, and then I joined a regional youth group that got me out of small town life and into a vibrant social scene, where I had close friends and even a boyfriend. Always, I stayed on my best behavior. I would never consider the youth group summer trip to Israel, or any other group travel for that matter, where I might be forced to let down my walls out of sheer exhaustion. If they knew what I was really like, if I ran out of the energy to stay on my best behavior, I was sure they would reject me.

Fast forward to adult life. Apart from a shocking, deeply painful experience late in college when I had a falling out with my group of close knit friends… shockingly reminiscent of my junior high years… I’m generally socially successful. I’m beloved in the school community where I work, and I’m finally “cool” with teenagers, so many years after being a teen myself (I'm not sure it really "counts" now), as the provider of confidential birth control and STI testing. Finally in the last couple of years, I’ve begun to be my real, authentic self. I got tired of “trying.” Through working with a fabulous therapist last year, I finally, miraculously, relieved myself of the burden of believing that I was somehow marked, tainted, somehow insufficient. I finally believed that it wasn’t this curse that has left me single. Though I do believe that my belief that I was insufficient may have contributed. I never let a boyfriend see my true, unfettered self (well, save one, of the five year relationship though he still doesn’t know the truth about my junior and senior high school years… and then, perhaps, because a part of me never thought we would last?). Never let anyone truly know the depths of my flaws. Who might I have met if I had let my true self shine?

The lucky truth is that I am happy single, and no longer have any desire to be coupled. I finally learned that who I am is to be celebrated. That with all my quirks and weirdnesses, I’m still pretty awesome. Because each and every one of us is great, just as we are, especially when we are unapologetic and proud. Partly because there's no changing who we are, no matter how we try (and oh, how I tried), so why not celebrate ourselves? It sounds so obvious to me now, but it took me a very long time to learn this. 

Learning to be the author of my authentic self has been a long and arduous journey. I’m so thankful that I never “succeeded” in a romantic relationship where I was any less than I am now. I still doubt that I can remain unapologetic about who I am if I did choose to be in a relationship, and so I have chosen to remain single until I am confident that nothing can shake my sense of self. I wonder sometimes how long that will take… but I feel no sense of urgency any longer. I am complete. I don’t need anyone else to make me happy. So what’s the rush?

And now, choosing to eliminate people from my life who no longer, or never, contributed to my life in a positive way is just one more way I prove to myself that I fully accept myself. I eliminated an ex-boyfriend who liked to toy with my affections. A female friend of his who once confessed to me that the reason they never “got together” was simply that they live in different boroughs – why would I want to know that you and my ex would’ve been perfect for you if not for a small (or not, for that matter) geographic discrepancy??? A running group where the leader liked to turn on a different member each week, to make him or her insecure.

I can’t wait to share my hard-won learning with my child, to teach that every aspect of who we are deserves to be celebrated, even the more trying aspects. There’s a lifetime of opportunity for working on those minor flaws… and not a second to wait to start celebrating who we are right now, complete with those very flaws. 

(***note: I was asked to write this for the SMC blog. I'm not at all sure that this is a good idea. But that's why this is tied up with a bow at the end. In reality, of course, it's an ongoing struggle... though to be fair, I have made significant progress. More on the ongoing struggle soon. It's feeling a little too raw at the moment.)  


  1. I feel like you just wrote about my childhood, about my struggles as the middle child, always wanting to please, avoiding conflict, fearful of losing my friends when they discovered the "true me." Thank you.

    This is an incredibly well written post. Genuine, heartfelt, and insightful. You figured out, relatively early in life, what some people never understand in their lifetime.

    Can't wait to see it in the SMC blog!! Congratulations!

  2. Thank you so much, HopefulCC! that really means a ton to me.

    I feel like it needs so much work... all my posts do... but I am just so eager to let them out into the world.

    Thanks again.

    Thank you, thank you for this post.
    However, I do have to say that I wanted a partner. I am happy that I had a baby on my own. I am so blessed, and I have no regrets at all. However, when I joined SMC, I WAS disappointed to not meet ANY women who wanted a partner. I am thrilled that they are happily single, but I do wish that there were other SMCs who wished for some intimate companionship. When I wrote about the loneliness of watching other pregnant women at my OB with their thrilled and doting partners, of my sadness of being the only woman alone on the hospital tour, the only woman alone in the hospital, I was told that the SMC list serve was a place for positivity only!!!!! Get your loneliness out of here!!!! I hated feeling shamed by my SMC sisters. My choice is not second best, but I wish I was allowed to express my desire to have a partner someday.

  4. V, wow, that's so interesting to hear that, because I feel like lots of people are sad, are "grieving the dream," etc etc. I do "get" what you mean about feeling like maybe you are not "supposed" to feel that way, though, once you are TTCing, or beyond.

    But I often feel a little weird that I have zero interest in boyfriends (or girlfriends) after being so heavily into dating for so long. But it's like I don't trust myself and my newfound happiness... scared that I will revert back to seeking others' approval. So then I feel lucky that I don't want romance. Even if maybe it's coming from a place of sour grapes? It FEELS positive.

  5. Hey Abby,
    I think that is so positive. I think you are in a really great place. You are on top of it all, and your baby is so, so lucky!!! You are so strong, and dealing with so much. You have so much to be proud of.

    On my end, I don't see wanting to be partnered as wanting approval. I don't need anyone's approval, or I wouldn't have had a baby alone at 44, and for that matter, I wouldn't have spent my life as full time professional modern dancer. I want to have a boyfriend, not a partner right now, but just someone to see a movie and to have sex with.
    It was hard for me to sit in my OBs office with all of the sweet young wives with husbands who were so excited. It hurt to have 2 really ugly miscarriages alone, and to spend days in the hospital having my baby sucked out, completely alone.
    I hoped that SMC was a place where I could talk about this, but no. I was berated for not being "positive". I was positive about being a single mom, but wanted to have an honest conversation about loneliness. I think I was just really, really crushed when I mentioned my loneliness on the SMC list serve and people were really judgmental of my desire to have a partner, and my sadness around doing this alone. I felt really censured by the other gals. Then, they had endless discussions about THINGS, the "best" baby monitor, the "best" stroller, the "best" nanny, the "best" of everything. Socioeconomically, I was left out of the "best material object" discussions/competition, and I felt like "Hey, why is my loneliness not OK? Aren't there other list serves where you can talk about products?"
    I don't have the "best" material object. I never will, and I will never, ever care. My daughter will be able to talk about sadness, about joy, about anger,about love, about art, about God. There is no shame in loneliness. The shame is in judging a sister while comparing strollers.