Tom Burns didn’t realize that, when his daughter started school, he would have to smile and make friends too. It hasn’t been easy
There are many dirty little secrets that nobody tells you about when you become a dad. Things like eventually your kid will ask you “Am I going to die one day?” and you’re going to be expected to answer that question honestly. Or that eventually your kid is going to see you naked and, if your kid is a girl, she might point and ask, “What is THAT?” (Both true stories.) But, despite all of those unexpected questions over the years that have reduced me to a stuttering, stammering mess in front of my daughter, the one reality of being a dad that blindsided me worse than any other was the sad fact that, when you’re a dad, you are expected to MAKE FRIENDS. You’re expected to make grown-up friends, preferably with the parents of kids that your kid knows.
It is the WORST.
Seriously. It’s horrible. It is so bad that, if I could will my consciousness back in time, powered only by social anxiety and my overwhelming desire to not make small talk at a Chuck E. Cheese, I would seriously consider having a long conversation with my younger self about the pros and cons of becoming a parent. Wait, that’s too much. (My daughter is the best.) At the very least, I might consider moving to a less populous town or homeschooling or considering whatever other variables might mean that I don’t have to continuously find myself on (what feel like) first dates with other parents.
I have been married for going on fifteen years. I haven’t been on a date since the 1990s. And, yet, now that I’m a dad, I am now constantly repeating the awkward behaviors that plagued my dating life, but this time, it’s with the moms and dads of kids my daughter likes. There’s uncertain eye contact, strained conversation, feeling the other person out, making jokes, backtracking on the jokes you just made, fishing for personal details, exchanging email addresses… it was so much easier when I knew that I was just going through all this in an attempt to get laid, but now, all I want is someone to make conversation with at the bake sale.
The hilarious part was, before my daughter started school, my number one fear was that she was going to have a hard time with socialization. I didn’t care if she could read or add small numbers, I just wanted to her to be happy and easy-going around other children. I wanted her not to have to worry about the social aspect of school because, while I was confident that I could help teach her how to read, I didn’t know if I could teach her how not to be miserable in a roomful of people.
And the thing is—I largely got my wish. My daughter blossomed at school. She started kindergarten and never looked back. She was so self-possessed and confident that it almost intimidated me. She instantly befriended every upperclassmen on her school bus and was always coming home with friendly notes and trinkets given to her by fifth- and sixth-graders. She made friends in her own grade too, but it was always on her own terms. She never seemed to worry about what her classmates thought of her and played with whoever she wanted to play with whenever she wanted to play with them. Her confidence both delighted and baffled me.
However, I’d spent so much time worrying about my daughter’s potential socialization problems that I was unprepared to deal with my own. Because, when your kid starts school, as a parent, you suddenly find yourself thrown into a teeny, tiny universe filled with parents that you are going to be around for a very, very long time. My kid goes to a K-6 school, so, I’m probably going to be interacting with a finite, closed-set of parents for, at least, SEVEN years. That’s like I’m going to medical school with these people. That means I either need to get social or I need to become the world’s most talented wallflower. The worst part is, if I really don’t like any of these parents, telling them off isn’t an option, because, if I do, chances are, next year, their kid will become my kid’s best friend. You can’t burn a bridge when you know you need to cross over it almost every day, summers excluded, for the next seven years.
Now let me be clear—by and large, the parents at my kid’s school are generally pleasant, genuine, and interesting. (There are some notable exceptions.) There are even a few that I find legitimately wonderful and I look forward to continuing to become better friends with them. I am, in no way, turning my nose up at them or saying that they aren’t my kind of people.
I AM the problem here.
I am a grouchy, sedentary hermit. Like I mentioned previously, I’ve been married for a long time and I haven’t made a close friend since college. I have not “gotten to know someone” for a very long time and I am not used to being placed into social situations that I can’t wriggle out of. But, when your daughter wants to go over to her very, very best friend’s house for a playdate and you’re unclear whether or not the etiquette of the situation allows you to drop her off and leave or whether you’re supposed to stay and chit-chat, as a parent, you are forced to be social. (The key word there is “forced.”)
And it’s hard because I want my daughter’s school life to be solely about her, about setting up social structures that support her as she ventures out into the world, so it feels selfish to spend so much time worrying about “Oh god, what is his name again? That’s BLANK’s dad. Did he send me a friend request? Is he coming over here? Ohnoohnoohno…” But that’s the reality of being a parent. Like it or not, becoming a parent is an inherently social act.
I chose to have a child and one of my responsibilities as her parent is helping her develop into a social creature. And I can’t do that by only exposing her to my closed set of friends and family that I’ve been developing for myself for over three decades. I have to allow my daughter to create her own network of friends and acquaintances, even if I have to occasionally make myself uncomfortable or pretend that I give a damn about college football to make that happen. Maybe when she’s in high school or college, I’ll retreat back into my hermit cave, but, for now, I’ve got planning meetings, sock hops, and soccer games to attend, and the only thing that’s worse than having to make small talk is being the weird guy in the corner who never talks to anyone.
So, new and expecting parents, be forewarned—for the benefit of your children, you will be expected to make friends with other parents. It will be hard and it will be awkward and, if you’re anything like me, you will not want to do it. But, ultimately, it will help your children develop into well-rounded social animals and, maybe if you’re lucky, it might just help you do the same thing.
Photo courtesy of the author.