Alone vs. Lonely

My son takes an art class at the local museum on Wednesday mornings, and he’s been begging me to stay afterwards so he can play with the other kids on the front lawn. We usually have to rush to get his sister from preschool, but this week her father was picking her up.

“Mom, can we please stay a little bit?”

“Sure,” I said, and sat down on a bench to watch a half dozen kids gathering acorns and pretending to be interrelated family members. They immediately designated him their “Pa,” due to his age, height, and authority in commandeering the acorn trees.

The kids’ two mothers had left the museum behind me and were walking slowly, conversing like infatuated teenagers. Occasionally I have a conversation like this, and while it’s fun and thrilling at the time, it usually leaves me feeling as if fluid has been drained from my body.

Still, I was willing to sacrifice for my son. I made sure to leave enough room for the mothers on the oversized bench, should they want to sit down. I stayed in the “open” and “receptive” position (i.e.: I didn’t pull out my phone and start texting) and did not chomp gum like a hillbilly. I plastered a welcoming smile upon my face, prepared to exchange the basic, mom-and-kid information.

But the moms deliberately stopped about ten feet behind me and continued talking. Maybe they did it out of consideration: They were debating the merits of signing their children up for classes at the science museum, and were trying to overcome some complicated technical details, like whether to skip Girl Scouts or gymnastics. My son had attended the science classes, and I might have had something to contribute the conversation, but they didn’t give me the chance.

Did I feel excluded? Yes. It felt awkward to sit there alone like a new kid at recess while the others made plans. But I was also relieved. I suspected that they were military moms, and I wasn’t sure we’d have that much in common. After about ten minutes, I moved down to the grass where it was warmer and I didn’t have to listen to their consternation.

Contrary to mainstream convictions, homeschooling is rife with opportunities for social interaction. Not just classes and lessons, clubs and co-ops, but group picnics, walks, field trips and fine art outings. You have to be quite careful, as a homeschool mom/director, not to let your kid’s dance card get overbooked or there will be no time for actual schoolwork.

I pulled out my book and started reading. A few minutes later my son came running up to me, looking concerned. “There are some moms up there if you want to talk to them,” he said.

I glanced back. The moms hadn’t moved from their spot; they looked like mating insects, bodies inert, mandibles moving.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m enjoying reading my book.”

“But if you wanted to do something different, you know? They look nice.”

“Okay honey,” I said, smiling and turning back to my page.

After he left, I considered: Were they nice? Maybe with each other, but not with me.

I’d seen them earlier in the hallway and had said “hello.” One had bestowed the barest of smiles and the other had glanced at the art on the walls. I’m pretty sure it’s not the way I looked—we’re all just about equally frazzled and unfashionable. But maybe they picked up on my own shyness or reticence. Maybe—God forbid—I had “an air” about me.

My son was obviously worried. He is a supremely confident eight-year-old, popular with children and adults alike. In the art class he’d just left, he’d glued a stovepipe hat to his eyebrows and created an assembly line for kids who wanted to make their own. Everyone was wearing them. When his teacher had played Lou Reed music, he was singing and grooving along, completely uninhibited. Last summer, he’d spontaneously serenaded his entire camp with an accordion and was received with thunderous applause. He thrives on attention. He craves it, the way an actor or dancer or singer loves an audience.

Where, in his nascent view of the world, did I fit in?

I imagined him chatting with the other kids as they gathered acorns: “She’s always by herself. I try to encourage her, but she’s so stubborn!”

“Don’t worry, it’s just a phase,” one of the other children—the gymnast—would murmur consolingly.

Should I prove to Felix that I am capable of interacting with other adults?

I imagined walking over and interrupting the moms’ conversation, stopping them like a big, intrusive burp. I visualized their expressions: Shock, dismay, annoyance. Of course they would quickly re-adjust their faces, offer introductions, make polite inquiries. But the irritation would remain. Thenceforth they would feel obligated to greet me in the hallway or call me over to congregate with them on the cement, where I would stand like a large metal museum sculpture, groping for something to say.

Did I want to do that?  No way!

I wanted my son to know that I’m not afraid to be an outsider. That I don’t need the attention or approval of others to feel okay about myself.

On the way home I said: “You don’t have to feel sorry for me when I’m sitting alone. I was enjoying reading my book on the grass.”

“I know,” he said quickly.

I pressed a little further, treading softly upon some politically incorrect terrain, suggesting that, “it’s great when kids want to play together,” but “some mommies might not even want to talk to one another.”

“But if they don’t like you, then they’re not going to like me!”

“That’s not true,” I said, and mentioned a few kids I liked, even though I wasn’t so keen on their moms.

“Besides,” I added. “if they don’t like you, they’re crazy, because you are a great kid!”

He considered this a moment and said. “If you were talking, we would have stayed longer.”

I laughed, relieved. Suddenly everything was clear: Felix had wanted me to glom on to a bunch of moms so that he could keep on playing side outside and put off doing the afternoon school work.

“Not necessarily,” I smiled.

Not even the staunchest of homeschool moms will forgo lunch for companionship.

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