Twelve years into this whole parenting thing, I know a few things for sure: The baby will need your attention at the exact moment the garlic in the pan goes from golden to blackened; bribery is a necessary evil; and—perhaps most relevant for the phase I’m in right now—mashed potatoes are crucial for surviving the middle-school years. I’m not talking about the kids’ survival here. I’m talking about my own.
Let me back up a bit. In the spring of 1983, I was probably the happiest 12-year-old who ever lived. I had the starring role of Adelaide in my elementary school’s production of Guys and Dolls; I was on the travel soccer team; I never lacked for lunchroom companions. I had my own CB windbreaker, which wasn’t a hand-me-down from my sister (a first), and I even had a requited crush (another first) on a kid named Mike, who was cool enough to pull off a shell necklace.
By the fall it was all gone. My small grade of 100 kids matriculated to the much larger middle school, where my lunchroom companions found new lunchroom companions, who were interested in makeup (I was not); snapped each other’s bras at gym (I was years away from wearing one); and made fun of me when I asked them to “play.” (“We say ‘hang out’ now, Jenny.”)
Even when I said it the right way, though, no one wanted to play or hang out. Maybe it was because I wore a really uncomfortable re-tainer that made me talk funny. I tried to look on the bright side, telling myself, At least I don’t have braces. But that only worked until Mike ditched me in favor of his next crush, who had top and bottom braces, as well as the much coveted red CB down jacket, the one with the quilted back.
I clawed my way back eventually, but 30 years later, like many people, I can still tap into the acute pain of being lonely, confused—and unceremoniously dumped.
For years I thought that this epic fall from grace would make me a great mother to girls, that I’d be more attuned to my own two daughters’ socio-emotional temperature and more equipped to protect them from whatever middle-school situation reared its ugly head. That is to say, I wasn’t afraid to do a little micromanaging if it meant, somehow, that I could spare them the pain of being excluded down the road by any bra-snapping, blue-mascara’d monsters.
This worked out fine when they were little. I called other moms and arranged playdates with kids who appeared to have soul-mate potential. I picked up the phone and raised a tiny bit of hell when the summer-camp director put one in a group without the friend we had requested. More than once, I’m not proud to admit, I made place cards for my daughters’ parties to ensure that they were sitting next to the kids who made them happiest. God forbid my children’s birthdays end up not being The Day of All Days.
But then I entered middle school. I mean, my kids entered middle school, and it became clear that the issues we were dealing with were not ones that I could resolve. At the dinner table and during car pools, I’d hear stories about girls excluding other girls from parties and excursions for reasons that no amount of questioning on my end could get to the bottom of.
All I could do was listen and play out the imaginary conversation with the Queen Bee’s mother. In the worst-case scenario, she’d take offense; in the best-case scenario, she’d talk to her daughter and say…what? That my daughter told on her and got her in trouble?