On Being Excluded
When I was a senior in high school, all the cool girls (which at the time felt like the entire grade) dressed in matching Halloween costumes. They’re enshrined in our yearbook, standing with arms draped around one another, laughing at the rest of us. I found out the night before that they had spent all day coordinating. Decades later, I forget what they dressed as, but I still remember the sting of not being asked if I wanted to dress the same.
Being excluded feels bad. It felt bad at 17 and it feels bad at 44. It’s one of those universal life experiences I’m pretty sure makes me more resilient, but I still wish I didn’t have to endure. I believed my collection of “times I felt excluded” would someday serve as valuable life lessons for my children. I’d be able to sprinkle the wisdom I’d gained from years of hurt feelings like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. My kids could click their heels and be saved my pain.
Instead, when my son recently had an incident where he felt excluded, I sensed I was more like the great and powerful Oz. A sham.
The story of what happened to my son came through like a bad cell phone connection –– slowly and in clipped sentences where we both ended up exhausted and annoyed. Teams were picked. His friend has new friends. After lunch. It’s fine.
His silent pout in the back seat screamed he was not fine. I had the urge to fix his hurt feelings. I rattled through the obvious explanations: there’s only a certain number of kids who could be on each team; there will be a next time; there were plenty of other kids left out. But the more I filled the car with desperate excuses, the more we suffocated. No cheery-mom explanation could erase the fact that he wanted to be included and was not.
When I pressed him to talk about it later, he shut down. So I festered. How could I make this better? I wondered if so-and-so was included. I wondered if he talked to his friend X. I wondered if maybe he didn’t really have all the facts. Maybe there was still time for him to join a team.
As I boiled potatoes for dinner, I wondered why I cared so much. He had gone outside to play, but I was still feeling awful. Was it simply empathy? Was it because I felt like if I were better friends with other parents, or had gotten him involved in more activities, he might not have been excluded? Was it because even though I have reached out and have enrolled him in activities, he still was excluded?
I drained my potatoes and started mashing my growing suspicions that I was making this more about me.
As I pounded the tender potatoes into fluff, I felt the same as when he got shots as an infant or scraped his knees or struck out in Little League. He is my heart personified. His hurt is my hurt. Of course I felt the exclusion as if it had happened to me. I didn’t realize how blurred the lines of our identities have always been. I made this person who is so much a part of me and yet, so clearly his own person. We’re connected and separate. We’re bound by a chain link of DNA — invisible and real.
I folded butter into my pot and thought about the layered messages in not getting picked. How, even after you move on, it’s hard to quiet the feelings of being not good enough, funny enough, popular enough, cool enough. How could I assure him that everyone gets excluded at some point? How could I help him see that if he is not enough for certain people, those aren’t his people? How could I take away any negative feelings he might have?
I couldn’t. Unlike with a bad sports game or a problem with school, where I could encourage him to “try again,” “keep practicing,” or “believe in himself,” none of this perennial advice made sense. It doesn’t hurt any less when I try to explain it away. His feelings don’t change just because I say the cool kids don’t get invited sometimes too. These are lessons and feelings he has to learn to navigate.
But I wish I could make it easier.
Because I’m good at catastrophizing, I thought about how much more difficult it will become to let him navigate. There will be phones and girls and high stakes tests. I know I’m supposed to be appalled by the lengths some parents will go to to help their kids, but I can see why someone with the means would do what they could to get their kid into a great school or sports team or erase a mistake. I can see why parents enable and helicopter and engineer their kids’ lives. It hurts when they hurt. We believe their failures (and successes) to be a reflection of parental guidance, as if the choices children and parents make are exclusively and directly correlated. We want what’s best for them. We confuse loving with worshipping.
I watched the milk cascade through the crevices of chunky starch, smoothing potato into velvet. As my child becomes more himself, my role becomes more clear. I can provide advice and help guide, but I’m only meant to watch him take shape. But man, watching my son struggle to find his way is grueling.
And yet, it’s the only way.
There is a moment in sports when a player on the field goes down. Does the player need their coach or just a minute to recover? Everyone holds their breath and waits to see what the player does. Parenting is starting to feel like one long collection of those moments.
I dug a spoon in my mound of mash to taste. Not enough salt. Or pepper. I sprinkled in a little of both. I twirled the spoon around and around –– the rhythm reflected those of my maternal worries. All those hours spent agonizing about spit up or potty training or learning to read, felt silly in the shadows of fourth-grade problems. Objectively, I know this one incident of lunchtime exclusion will become overshadowed.
I heard my son come in from outside, laughing with his brother. He told me about a funny thing that happened at recess. He talked about how he was excited about basketball practice.
He’d gotten up from the field and started playing again. I stopped holding my breath.
He looked in my pot. “Oooh, mashed potatoes!” I don’t know if he smiled because he knew I made his favorite especially for him. But it didn’t matter.
“Wanna taste?” In the flash it took to hand him the spoon, I saw him both as a baby and teen –– a superimposed image of past and future.
“Fine? Just fine? Should I add more butter? Sour cream?”
He shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
I was left staring into the pot wondering why his afternoon felt like such a big deal to me.
It’s possible I was projecting my own repressed feelings and insecurities about popularity onto my perfectly well-adjusted son. It’s also possible I was beating myself up because I knew that my first instinct to fix his hurt feelings was misguided.
When he was little, and we seemed parts of the same whole, I was a witness to nearly everything that happened to him. When he fell, I knew if he needed a hug, a bandaid or a reassuring wave of the hand. As he grows more independent, and I am just a part of his whole, guessing what he needs based on only the details he chooses to share feels a bit like cooking without a recipe.
I stepped away from the pot put the butter and salt in the middle of the table and called everyone to eat. Sometimes the only way to know what my kids need is to let them decide for themselves.
Over the next few days, I fought the urge to bring up the incident again –– to check in and see how he was feeling. Instead, I spent those days wrestling with my own emotions on this page.
As so often is the case, when he was ready to talk about it, he did. He had never needed me to help. He just needed to know I was there, watching from the sidelines, waiting with mashed potatoes.
Kathleen Siddell is a writer living in Southern California. You can follow her on Twitter @kathleensiddell.