I am a teenage mother. Oh, not chronologically. Let's be serious, I couldn't even get a date in high school, much less find some horny 16-year-old to knock me up in the backseat of his parents' Ford Escort. No, age wise, I'm not even close to being a teenager. But social skills-wise, I'm just one lousy retainer and a bottle of Clearasil away from being shoved into a locker and sent crying to the guidance counselor.
After surviving my first set of awkward years, I grew into a charming adult. I had good interpersonal skills. I was witty, verbose, well-informed. I made people laugh with me. Not at me. My career in the film business and later, advertising required that I talk to all kinds of people, from movie stars to janitors, and I did it well. Then I reproduced and any ability I'd had to make new friends disappeared as abruptly as my flat stomach, perky breasts and freedom to go to the bathroom alone. For I had become not only a mother, I had become a social nightmare.
I was thrilled when my friend Dena invited me to have dinner with two of her friends from Seattle. I went to college in Oregon, so Pacific Northwesterners are my peeps -- pasty vegetarians who stay indoors all day listening to The Grateful Dead and suppressing suicidal thoughts. I couldn't wait.
The night started off well with the women all lovely, and me my old, likable self. Then someone brought up movies and suddenly all bets were off. Thrilled with the chance to discuss films that didn't star talking animals, I breathlessly launched into a 10-minute-long diatribe about the superiority of '70s filmmakers that was so loud and impassioned, even Tarantino would have said, "Man, she's obnoxious." Concluding with what I thought was a rather brilliant comparison between Apocalypse Now and Must Love Dogs, I sat back, looked proudly around the table and saw three stunned faces staring at me like I was an escapee from a Lord of the Rings convention. I took a deep breath and braced myself for a wedgie.
In my panicked state, I looked for a way to divert attention. Pointing to the person in the booth next to us, I quietly offered that he looked like "Mick Jagger, circa 1978." This got a small laugh. Encouraged, I continued, "I don't know," I said, "but whenever I look at him, I hear 'Sympathy for the Devil'. Ah-yah!" This garnered even more amusement. I was back, baby. Then Mick got up and two horrifying things were immediately evident: 1) Mick was a woman 2) Mick had Multiple Sclerosis. Which, of course, I would have figured out sooner if I'd been looking at her "Walk for MS" t-shirt rather than her wavy Rolling Stones hair. As she slowly limped past our table, everybody's eyes went to the floor. My entire body burning with embarrassment, I looked to Dena, my only friend at the table, for some reassurance. She scooted her chair away.
One warm spring day, I took my two-year-old son, Jack, to the park to ride the little train. He was really excited to ride the little train, until I bought the non-refundable tickets to ride the little train. Then he started frantically screaming "NO RIDE WITTLE TWAIN!! NO RIDE WITTLE TWAIN!" (If Jack wore a mood ring, it'd explode from overuse.)
Unused little train tickets in hand, I approached a friendly-looking woman with a young daughter, and asked if she could use them. This led to a very pleasant conversation about our kids, ourselves, and the world in general. (Your typical park/birthday party/Gymboree conversation: "Yes, I agree that we should consider trade sanctions with North Korea. JACK STOP THROWING ROCKS!! I MEAN IT, MISTER! Do you think the UN will be able to intervene? OWW! DID YOU JUST AIM THAT AT ME? YEAH, YOU'D BETTER RUN, WHITEBREAD! What are your thoughts on the issue?").
Discovering we were both in the writing field, I told her about some of my projects and she was very enthusiastic. She then graciously invited me to the next meeting of her "woman's group," which included Harvard graduates, novelists and other local literary professionals. I was delighted at the prospect of being included in such lofty company and thus responded with all of the social grace of Screech from Saved By The Bell. "That sounds great," I said. "But it's not a pyramid scheme, is it?" I'm still waiting for her e-mail.
It was my son Sam's first T-ball practice and I was dressed in what I thought any suburban mother would wear to a Little League field on a Friday night - a slightly stained t-shirt, old Levis and a cat hair covered baseball hat. Then I saw the other mothers milling about in their size-4 designer jeans, silk tank tops and strappy sandals and once again, I was a 7th grade loser in JC Penney corduroys while everyone else knew Gloria Vanderbilt jeans were now de rigueur. Hiding behind an equipment bag, I tried to figure out why they looked like they lived in The O.C. and I looked like a reject from Blue Collar TV. Had I missed the coach's e-mail that said, "Bring a bat, a glove and cocktail party attire?" Was there going to be a jazz band in the dugout after grounder practice? Or was this just how mothers, at least in our neighborhood, dressed these days?
Caving into peer pressure faster than a preacher's daughter at a hip hop concert, I hauled it to Nordstrom the next day and shakily plunked down $150 for a pair of jeans that were so stylishly low, you could see how I delivered my children. Back at home, I modeled the jeans for my husband. "They look good," he said. "How much did they cost?" I gulped and told him the truth. His eyes widened, he took one more look at the jeans, then muttered, not unkindly, "They make your ass look big." I returned them the next day and spent the money on five pairs of Gap jeans and a sandwich.
After these horrifying incidents, I tried to figure out why motherhood had caused me to socially regress. Sure, most of my conversations these days are with people under three feet high whose favorite words are "booger," "diarrhea," and "Chex Mix," but still… Maybe the brain cells that control witty banter were somehow attached to my long lost placentas. Maybe repeated viewing of The Wonderpets gives you the personality of a chronic pot smoker. But more likely, maybe it's just the sad, simple fact that making new friends is hard at any stage of life.
Eager to lose my pariah status, I launched a calculated campaign to fit in better. I no longer referred to my kids and myself as "playdate sluts" when talking to other moms. I stopped openly making fun of Wal-Mart, Christian rock and conversion vans. I kept most of my thoughts, and cracklin' personality, to myself. And it actually worked. I met a lot of other mothers and struck up tentative friendships. I was mature and composed and finally felt like one of the in-crowd. It was time for me to make my triumphant walk down the staircase to a round of slow, meaningful applause and head off into a night of bliss at the prom.
And then my Molly Ringwald moment came. You know, the one where she defiantly yanks off her Homecoming Queen tiara because she finally sees that she hasn't been (all together now) "true to herself"? I came to realize that while I had a lot of new friends, I really didn't like them so much. They weren't funny. They weren't weird. And I like weird. I am weird. And that's when I decided I was no longer going to surrender my personality just so I could be that beautiful, popular cheerleader at the football game. I'd rather be one of the dorks under the bleachers making fun of her, anyway.