“Why don’t you just leave?”
The other mother at playgroup said it softly, but it was deafening to me in a vulnerable moment.
I was 8 months pregnant and trying desperately to wrangle my 2-year-old at a playgroup meant for caregivers and children under 5. He had gotten away from me in the sea of small bodies crowding the portable, seizing his opportunity to yell, throw things, and snatch toys from the other kids. When he was finally close enough for me to pull him to my swollen belly warning “if you aren’t going to play nicely we are going to leave”, the other mother said her piece, confirming my anxieties of being judged as the mother of the dreaded unruly child. I left that day fighting to carry my screaming toddler over my pregnant midsection, my eyes brimming with tears.
As mothers, many of us become intimately aware of a special form of loneliness that is hard to describe to those who haven’t experienced it. The arrival of a child in your life brings a lot of love and joy, but it also can completely turn your life upside-down. This doesn’t just influence your body and daily routines, but also your relationships. Socially, your life can be interrupted at a time when you could use the support the most. The solution, we’re told, is making mum friends- finding those who are in the same boat as us and rowing through it together. This can be easier said than done.
My child was “spirited” back then, which is a polite way of saying headstrong and demanding. He wanted to do as he pleased, a sentiment he’d assert willfully while exclaiming “but I want to do what I want to do!“. He’s incredibly bright and curious, and wants to get to know the world by taking things apart and testing reactions. He has always been an active participant in life and his environment and has difficulty redirecting his curiosity for the sake of rules. These are qualities that I value in him, things that make life with him hilarious and fun. However, as a person who is anxious by nature, trying to engage in social situations while trying to also manage this behaviour became an immense struggle for me.
After being put on leave from work during my pregnancy, I began to sink into a depression that was aggravated by a lack of social interaction. As a person who worked a demanding full-time job, my coworkers were “friends”, and my leave was the beginning of a period of isolation that I couldn’t bear. I began to attend playgroups in an attempt to meet other mothers. This was often recommended to me as the magic solution to my crippling loneliness. And it’s true- these groups exist because of the research that shows that mothers and children both benefit from the participation in them. The modern era fails many mothers in the Western world because we seem to have lost “the village”, that community that serves to aid and carry mothers in the hardest times.
However, it is not just mothers that these groups benefit. Toddlers are notorious for testing boundaries, and being around other children can be an essential part of their social development. Where the rub came for me was trying to mitigate my own anxiety when being confronted with the judgement of other mothers in a setting where my child’s behaviour was a testament to just how bad he needed this practice of socializing with other kids. I found that my hypersensitivity to the judgment from other parents based on his behaviour (or, my inability to “control” it) led to me to fall even deeper into isolation- only this time it was self-imposed. We desperately needed these groups, and yet I was too fearful of the judgment of the few to attend them very regularly, and I often left them frustrated and embarrassed.
Most parents understand when they see a little one acting in this way that it is normal boundary testing, and more often than not they’ll give a little smile of encouragement. However, there are sadly some parents that will extend their judgment, and for a highly anxious parent, this can be incredibly difficult to ignore. I became so sensitive to it that I’m sure I saw it everywhere, even in places it didn’t exist. Leaving the house at all felt like a daunting task, and I found that I squirreled myself away for fear of having to deal with a meltdown out in public. Looking back, this only served to isolate me further, and to lengthen the amount of time it took for my son to learn how to participate in social settings cooperatively.
Ultimately I regret the time that I lost in this state of self-imposed isolation. I have spoken to other mothers who have experienced the same, and I have seen countless requests for help on message boards and in the comments of social media posts from mothers who are desperate to help their kids acclimate to social settings, but are too afraid of the potential judgment that could come from their participation. Although motherhood is an experience that is shared by many, we all approach it differently, and we need to remain mindful of the fact that just because one child might not show the same behaviours as our own, this isn’t a reflection on the child’s character or the skills of the parent. Children are just learning, and so too are we as mothers.
Now with my daughter at the same age as my son was when I left the portable in tears, I am braving the groups again. Instead of being scared off when she snatches toys or has a meltdown, I remind myself that we are here to learn and that the best way of doing that is by sticking it out. If I sense another parent getting prickly if our kids are clashing, I say something quick like, “Apologies! She’s learning how to share, and that’s what makes these groups so great”. This can help alleviate my stress and it also serves as a reminder that we are all there for the same purpose- to facilitate the social and emotional development of our kids. And you can bet that when I see another mother who is struggling, I give her the biggest smile I can to help her see that she’s not alone.