Tuesday, November 18, 2014

When There's No Such Thing as Trying Too Hard

In the before times, my husband and I would go about our Sundays slowly, shuffling around the kitchen in our robes, brewing coffee, listening to the radio, frying up an extra strip of bacon for the dog.

In the now times, we have a toddler.

Our son doesn’t care that it’s the weekend. He doesn’t even know what a weekend is. He can’t appreciate the Lord’s day, which is a day of rest after bottomless mimosa brunch.

Fortunately, we live a scant few miles from the most kid-friendly coffee shop in all of suburbia. The shop is equal parts caffeine, homemade pastries, comfy seating, and toddler Thunderdome. Tucked discreetly next to a couch, near the far corner of the shop, is a wooden train table and bins filled with toy cars, blocks, and figurines. Near the lurid display of lemon tarts, pumpkin bundt cakes, and oversized cookies is a modest refrigerator stocked with low-fat string cheese, apple slices, and milk boxes.

Woe unto the businessman who tries to take a sales call during his coffee break; nothing can be heard above the din of frothing milk and the joyful thud of children pummeling each other with wooden toys.

For Shelby and me, scones and mugs of dark roast have taken the place of champagne cocktails and aspirin chasers. Like so many parents in our neighborhood, late Sunday mornings are spent at the coffee shop, where our kids can run amok while the adults commiserate. Even at my most socially awkward, I find it easy to strike up conversation with the other moms and dads nibbling muffins on the sly as they dole out carrot sticks to the little ones.

Last Sunday, the coffee shop was brimming. We were lucky to snag the last two-top, and right next to the play area. At the train table, a few preschool-aged boys were alternately maiming plastic pedestrians with a caboose and engaging a dinosaur in battle with a bulldozer. Pork Chop scrambled off of Shelby’s lap and joined the fray.

At the table to our left, a dad leaned back casually in his chair, a backpack, jackets, and hats stacked at his feet. He watched his two boys playing, occasionally piping up to say, “Colin, Joseph, please share.”

To the far right, a newish mom hovered over her daughter, a spindly babe crawling toward the bin of figurines.

And in the middle sat a mom and dad, their table littered with crumpled napkins, a leaking sippy cup, and empty plates. The dad wore a Steelers sweatshirt and scrolled through his smart phone, glancing up nervously every few seconds. The mom sat bolt upright and wore a smile that made my cheeks ache vicariously.

Smiling mom turned to the casual single dad, “I can’t believe how well they’re getting along! They’re just playing so nicely.” Then turning to her son, “Jack, aren’t you just having the best time with Colin and Joseph? Aren’t you having so much fun?”

In response, Jack, a fair-skinned boy with soft brown curls, snatched up a wooden railroad tie and used it to smack my son on the head. “We don’t like babies much,” he explained to my toddler.

“Careful now. Careful.” I said, just as his mom leapt up, pleading, “No hands, buddy! No hands!”

Jack turned slowly toward my voice. His pale eyes were fixed somewhere on the wall behind me. He dropped his weapon.

“It’s okay,” I mouthed to the smiling mom. Pork Chop had seen worse. Pork Chop had done worse. But the mom hurried over to crouch by my son’s side.

She stroked my son’s head tenderly, nervously. She glanced up at me. “How old?”

“Not quite two.”

“Would you look at those eyelashes! If I had lashes like those, I’d never need mascara. Oh, you’re just gonna be a heartbreaker when you grow up. Aren’t you?”

Abruptly, smiling mom turned toward new mom. “And how old is your little one?”

“Oh, Avery’s 10 months.”

“What a doll baby! And did you hear that, Jack? Her name is Avery! That’s what we were going to name you if you had been a girl. We love the name Avery. Love it. It’s our favorite girl name, isn’t it?”

Jack grabbed both Colin and Joseph by the neck, pulling them into a group hug. Then he squeezed until the boys turned red in the face. “Look how strong I am.”

“Hands, Jack! Hands to yourself!”

The new mom gaped briefly at the boys, then turned toward me from across the train table. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch it. How old is your son?”

I opened my mouth to speak.

“Oh, he’s almost 2!” Jack’s mom swooped in, smiling, smiling, smiling with all her might.

I nodded and sat back in my seat. Shelby raised his coffee to his lips and covertly cocked his eyebrow at me. I shrugged.

“This place is just the best, isn’t it?” asked Jack’s mom. “Now that we’re homeschooling, it’s so nice to find a kid-friendly hangout. Lots of new buddies to meet!” Then she paused, cleared her throat, and dug into her purse. “The boys have just played so nicely together, haven’t they? So, so nice. Let’s just go ahead and set up a play date, right?” At that, she whipped out a stack of business cards, handing one to the single dad, who blinked and nodded in a gesture that conveyed both confusion and consent.

Shortly after, we took the last of our coffee to go and loaded Pork Chop back into his car seat.

At a red light, Shelby turned to me, “Well, she was intense, wasn’t she?”

“Yeah, you could say that. Did you hear her answer for me? She was trying just a little too hard.”

I heard myself say it: “Trying.”

“Trying” ­— in all of its incarnations. “To make an effort.” "To test the quality of." “To be difficult.”

Like so many moms on the Internet, I’d just read the moving open letter "Dear Parent: About THAT Kid" by educator and blogger Amy Murray. I thought about the difficult kid, the oddball, the troublemaker. I thought about “THAT kid.” I thought about Jack’s mom, smiling like it was her job, turning a free-for-all into a bromance, trying so damn hard.

I turned back to Shelby, saying, "I think maybe . . . " but trailed off at first, unable to articulate why I suddenly felt ashamed.

What, I wondered, would compel a mom to carry business cards for play dates? 

I tried again. "I think maybe that kid must have a hard time making friends. A really hard time."

Shelby was quiet a moment. "I think you might be right."

"And if he can't make friends . . ." I said slowly, working out my thought as I spoke, "it must be pretty hard for her to make friends. I mean, if your kid is THAT kid, what do you do?"

You smile a lot. You print out business cards. You try and you try and you hope that, one Sunday morning over cappuccino and juice boxes, something clicks. That someone gets him, and by extension, gets you.  That someone picks your kid for his team. That your kid has a team. That someone — someone else — picks your kid.

In the backseat, Pork Chop flipped through a picture book. "Lemon? Lemon? Lemon?" he asked, pointing to a yellow fish.

"It's a fish, buddy. A fish."

"No! No!" Pause. "Lemon?"

To us, our son is perfect. He destroyed our lazy Sunday mornings. He is lovable. He cries when we make him wear socks. He is a wonder. He calls the baby monitor "Grandma." He is worthy.

I don't know if OUR kid will ever be THAT kid, but if that day comes, I'll be down at the coffee shop, smiling 'til it hurts.

Smiling until it hurts, I tell you.


  1. It's good to take a step back from what we consider a seemingly overbearing, neurotic parent. There are usually reasons. I sometimes fall into this trap of wanting to seem like I'm together, that my kid is together, that he or she is not THAT kid. I smile until it hurts and then I'm mad when my cheeks hurt later and I still haven't set up a play date. I hate play dates because I'm not cleaning for five year olds or their mamas, but sometimes? Sometimes I'd be willing to do it, to try.

    1. Yeah, it seems that I always take a step back AFTER the fact, when it's a little too late. I guess this post was my way of trying to make up for that. As for hosting play dates, Jesus wept. I do it. And I love the kids and moms in my neighborhood, but the cleaning, the rearranging of furniture, the having to put on deodorant . . . it wears me out.

  2. The behavior that Jack's Mom exhibited sadly probably extends to most facets of her personality. Whether from neurosis or an overwhelming sense of insecurity it does not bode well for her children's future relationships. Now, Pork Chop? The entire family knows that he IS adorably and lovably perfect, which of course is a direct reflection on his great parents.

    1. Well, obviously MY kid is perfect. But I have to say that I think Jack's mom was just trying her damnedest to make nice. I got the impression that her son was the kind of kid who has a tough time playing well with others. That could make for a pretty lonely little boy. As his mom, I'm guessing she was pulling out all the stops to make a friendship happen.

  3. This was a really great post Jess. I am really impressed by your ability to see past that immediate situation. It is easier to judge people or poke fun, but it's a wonderful thing to see past peoples weirdness and know there is probably more to it than we know. I certainly don't hand out business cards, or speed parent date at coffee shops, but I get Jack's mom. There are a lot of Jack's in this world, and if more people were patient and kind, finding friends might be the least of their worries. Well done sista! Love you mean it. SARAH

    1. Yeah, I wish I had seen past the situation WHILE I was in the coffee shop. And though I poke fun at the business cards, I totally get it. If I were in a new town or trying to find a few mom friends, I'd be all about the business cards.

  4. Being a parent is experiencing the social anxieties of growing up all over again, on behalf of your child. Loved this post.

    1. Thanks, lady. As an adult, I still have social anxiety. Watching your kid experience the awkwardness, the failed attempts at making friends -- they just don't warn you about that in the parenting books.

  5. Oh, I want to reach through my computer and hug you. My son was a Jack. Sometimes still is a Jack. I never printed out business cards or accosted strangers for play dates, but I was so damn tired and demoralized. And lonely, oh my God lonely. I think to the outside world I often looked twitchy and neurotic at public kid events, but it was only because I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, genuinely afraid based on repeated past experience that it was all going to turn into a giant cluster of suck. Again. Eventually I did find people who "got" it, and I found that once I was able to relax, my son chilled out as well. Thank you on behalf of smiling mom for seeing past the surface.

    1. And I would totally let you hug me. I think every kid has "Jack moment" -- when someone hits, when someone gets rough, when someone says something a little too honest or a little too weird. Hell, I have those moments. I wish I had gotten over my holier-than-thou self sooner so that I could have asked that lady for a card.

  6. have never met a mom with business cards. But I have met "that mom" of "that kid" and felt embarrassed for her and sympathetic all at the same time.Great post, Jessica!

    1. Thanks, Jessica. Yeah, I felt a whole crazy mix of emotions. I just wish I'd gotten over the awkward part in time to get to the empathetic part. Hindsight.

  7. I love the fact that you could step away and feel sensitive towards this mom, who also might be lonely for friends herself--not just for her kid. It is awkward when the *trying* is so tangible that we can see it, touch it, and name it. But you were so kind to think of it another way and to encourage your friend to do the same. Would have been easy to sort of laugh at the situation together instead. This was awesome!

    1. Thanks, Nina. Yeah, it was, oddly, the thought of the mom struggling to make friends that really made me catch my breath. On an average day, dealing with typical toddler meltdowns, I lean so heavily on my mom network. I can't imagine going it alone.

  8. So insightful, so descriptive. You are SUCH an incredible writer. Loved this.

    1. Thanks, Ashley. You know the admiration is mutual. :)

  9. I have experienced both the child you can set free and then glance over every once in a while and the child who requires constant vigilance. I'm so glad people write and think about this kind of thing... The one gift of not having it easy is that you become completely open to the idea of other possibilities. Another major perk is practicing kindness and understanding with others makes you a lot less hard on yourself. Great piece Jessica!

    1. Thanks, ladies. Being someone who finds social situations challenging, I try to extend a little grace to others. We just don't know what someone else is struggling with or hoping for. Just I wish that I'd had my moment of clarity sooner.

  10. I so appreciate this post...I was the mom with "that" kid, Jess, and I often felt like no one understood us, or worse, like I was doing everything wrong - the complete failure-mom who doesn't know how to teach her kid to play nicely with others. I will never forget a time I took my boy on a field trip to Krispy Kreme with the mom's club, and he threw a holy tantrum b/c he didn't want to enter the building - he only wanted to check out the wheels on the trucks in the parking lot. Other moms were staring as he threw his body to the ground outside the front door - it was awful for him, for me, for everyone. A few of the moms tried to be nice, but didn't understand the issue (I didn't either, at the time)...my attendance at mom's club meetings dropped after that, and I tried to find just one or two people who might bring their kids to our house to play. And I did find friends who were patient and kind and understanding, but there was some loneliness in those early days, for sure. It's nice to know that people out there like you are thinking outside the box with big hearts and lots of compassion. xoxo

    Reading your story, I was dying to know if the woman's business card said something like, "my child has Asperger's Syndrome," or "ADHD" or "is on the Autism Spectrum," of something with some special need - I have known people to carry those types of cards around when something outlandish that could use a little explanation happens. Often it includes a website for reference to explain more about whatever the issue is to spread awareness, etc.

    1. You know my chest feels tight just reading your comment. It's hard enough when you feel like you can't help your child to help himself. But to be abandoned or misunderstood by your friends? That would just be the straw that broke the camel's back.

      As for the woman's business card: I may never know. Pork Chop was a little too young for her son, so she didn't pass me a card. But I absolutely understand how such cards would be hugely helpful.