Hi, new parent. Welcome. So you have a kid now, and you may think sleepless nights and wide-arcing pee hitting you in the eye from an unencumbered baby penis are the worst things you'll face. But you are wrong. There is something else coming that could scare you into living in total obscurity in a yurt on a mountain: other parents.
Like undead Walkers in a Georgian swamp, other parents are coming for you, and unlike Daryl Dixon, you cannot take them out with a bow and arrow. So take a deep breath. Assuming isolated yurt living is not your bag, let me share these important survival tactics for dealing with— and dare I say, making friends with—other parents.
Say something encouraging.
When you arrive at a large conglomeration of parental types—for instance, at a park or soccer field or baby-big-brain waaayyy-advanced college-prep class— be prepared to deal with the awkward ogling of each other, the side eyes, the forced smiles a la school-picture day. Do you stand by yourself in complete silence for 45 minutes, or do you get up in there? And if you decide to go for it, where do you start? I think we can all agree that small talk blows, and small talk while our babies are gumming each other's feet is extra weird.
So, when trying to chat up another parent, if you don't know what to say, say something encouraging. Compliment her kid, her stroller, his ability to push his daughter in the swing for 40 minutes straight without poking out his own eyes, whatever. Say something nice. Use your words.
As parents, we all need encouragement, because we all think we're doing it wrong and we're the only ones covered in feces while struggling to remember the last time we showered and ate something besides the gooey end of a used granola bar. And we hardly ever get the encouragement we need, because the internet and other parents are too busy giving us advice we're too overwhelmed to take. So screw advice. Go with encouragement.
Try the "Wow, that's so awesome" approach.
Once you make it into a decent conversation with someone, you may find all kinds of interesting opinions popping out all over the place. This can leave you feeling sweaty and breaking out into stress hives. You may want to pack an extra pair of grownup pants in the diaper bag.
When other parents are Really Excited about things that have revolutionized their lives, like homeschooling or church or glutenlessness, you don't have to shove them down the slide and run away screaming. There is another way: "Wow, that's so awesome." If you're naturally an asshat, you may have to practice this a few times in a mirror alone to make sure it comes out unsarcastically. If that's impossible, there's always the yurt option.
"Wow, that's so awesome. Tell me more about swaddling/attachment parenting/detachment parenting/circumcision/baby yoga." It's not that we have to agree with someone's blood sacrifices to the god Molech, but we can learn to listen well and not foam at the mouth over everything. And if someone says something that you really cannot, just cannot deal with, well, chances are your kid is about to tumble backward off the teeter-totter anyway, so maybe go check on that.
Don't be creepy.
Important caveat to striking up conversations with other parents: If you're a dude at the park trying to pick up moms, just back the hell up and save it for the club. We are unshowered in our yoga pants, just biding our time until three months from now when our kid finally takes a nap and we can detangle our leg hair. Be elsewhere.
One time I had a dad ask me if I could come out to play, and then he wiggled his eyebrows at me. I went back inside and didn't come out for two years.
Avoid statements that alienate people.
This next part is probably not for you. You probably already know these things, because duh, but bear with me while I go over some stuff for the other people who might not be as smart as you.
Lots of families look different than maybe what you picture in your mind when you harken back to the '80s sitcoms of your youth. Be cognizant of and respectful toward the adoptions, the step-parenting, the transracial families, the various beautiful ways to put a 21st-century family together. Educate yourself, so that at the park, we don't have to do it for you. Have whatever internal monologue you want, but try your bestest not to let that leak out into actual words that our kids can hear.
- "Are those your own kids?"
- "How much did she cost?"
- "Are you the nanny?"
- "What happened to his real mom?"
Just don't. And if you do, flog and punish yourself, apologize, and move immediately to "Wow, that's so awesome."
Along with the other anti-assbaggery warnings, let me include pregnancy- and birth-related observations. I shouldn't have to mention these, but just in case:
- "How far along is your pregnancy?" Oh, holy hand grenade, she'd better be verrrry pregnant. Strike that: Just don't.
- "Did you have a vaginal delivery?" Don't you even mention my vagina. I don't care if you have one, too. At least buy me a drink first.
- "You look good for just having delivered a baby." Nope. No. You don't need to qualify it. Just the first part will do.
- "Why aren't you nursing?" Women don't have to justify their boob-trucks to strangers at the park.
On the flip side, feel free not to overshare all at once, like the park is your own little diary world. When we meet you for the first time, we don't need to hear about your mucous plug or how your ex-wife is the daughter of Lucifer or that time you pooped your pants at Arby's. Let's work up to those things, mkay?
Be yourself and find your people.
Don't try to be The Cool Mom/Dad. (Unless you are The Cool Mom/Dad, in which case, good for you, and that must be nice for you.) For the rest of us schlubs just trying to get some sunshine at the park and give our insanazoids an open area to burn off some energy, remember that we're allowed to have fun, too. Having fun isn't exclusively a kid thing. So be yourself and find your people. They're out there.
Talk about what you love. Work in that quote from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sing that line from Aladdin. (But not Frozen. Never Frozen. I'm declaring a 30-year moratorium on that one.) Mention your Star Wars collectibles, your penchant for Battlestar Galactica cosplay, or how your idea of fun is body paint at a football game. I once fell in Deep Like with a mom who talked about her favorite Jonny Lee Miller movies. Not everyone's going to like you, but you'll find the ones who do.
If you want other parent friends, you have to be proactive. These things don't usually happen accidentally. But it's worth some awkward encounters, because at the end of it, you'll find other parents struggling with the same things as you, and you'll discover that maybe you aren't doing everything wrong like you thought. Maybe your kid will survive, and have a few or even several happy memories from childhood.
Parenting is both the worst and best thing that can happen to friendships. But you find your people, the ones who won't eat you for your unconventional opinion about [INSERT MOMMY-WAR TOPIC HERE]. So don't hide in your yurt. Come to the park. Just don't be creepy.
Melanie Dale is the author of Women Are Scary: The Totally Awkward Adventure of Finding Mom Friends (HarperCollins Zondervan). You can find her on her blog, on Twitter, or in the Atlanta area chatting up moms at the park.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
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