There is a woman, a mother, who sits in the children’s play area of our local park and she is usually alone on a bench on the sidelines, watching her little boy play.
The wind picks up and she pulls her scarf tighter around her ears, buring her chin deeper into her woollen coat, only raising her eyes every now and again to catch what is going on in the hustle and bustle of her surroundings.
She is trying to be invisible. She is trying to be noticed. She never moves from that bench, afraid to strike up conversation with someone, afraid that someone will strike up a conversation with her.
When I first saw her I thought it was one of the saddest things I have ever seen.
She scans the playground for her son, who is crawling over the metal apparatus like a little bug, oblivious to the biting cold.
He is only three but he has no problems making friends. He runs up to other children with that wide-eyed innocence of youth and requests their name. He talks to other parents like they have always existed in his world.
There is no embarassed pause. No reservations. No nervous laughter.
But all the while his mother sits alone, kicking her heels against the soft tarmac to keep warm, hands buried deep deep in her pockets.
She makes no effort to socialise with the other parents dotted around the playground. She doesn’t know how to. She watches their easy chitter chatter and it stabs at her conscience. Did they know each other beforehand? Did they just meet? How did they just meet? How?
She has no idea how to approach the other mums and dads and make friends. She doesn’t have her son’s easy charm. She finds it makes her panic to think about it.
And so, every time they make that trip to the park or the play centre or a playgroup, she pushes that little feeling of dread to the dark recesses of her mind and makes the effort for her little boy.
I know all of this because I saw her one day and knew exactly what she was going through. I knew every stab of failure chipping away at her confidence and so I sat next to her and said something trite like: “It’s not much fun for us mums here is it?”
She gave me a weak smile and carried on staring ahead at the swings. But I bulldozed on, talking rubbish, talking about the children’s programmes I’m forced to watch, the ‘treats’ I’m bound to be buying on the way home, the pile of washing I’ll have after this trip to the park.
Then, suddenly, she changed. A light sparked behind her eyes and she started chuckling along, joining in, adding stories.
After half an hour I knew how very lonely she had been for a very long time.
She moved to this area with no friends, no family and while her husband worked long hours, she stayed home with her son.
And it wasn’t the life she had dreamed of.
Is that you? Has that ever been you?
I found the school playground difficult. My son started at a school where I knew no one, not a single soul and while he ran in through those school gates on the first day all arms and legs, I hung behind, not wanting to crash in on little cliques forming around the edges of the playground, too shy to say hello.
Luckily there were parents there who noticed me and strolled over to break the ice and for that I am eternally grateful, because making friends is hard when you’re the new face on the scene.
Now I find myself in that position again as my daughter has started a nursery school and has been invited to one of her new friends’ birthday party.
She is SO excited. I am secretly dreading it. I know none of the parents there. Sure I say hello in the mornings and make small talk, but attending a party for two hours is a different kettle of fish altogether.
And then I start to panic that my reservations will somehow percolate over to my children and infect them with my insecurities and they too will feel more comfortable sat in the corner on their own than mixing with anyone who will listen.
I’m not that bad I suppose. My defence mechanism when I am shy is to talk. Talk talk talk talk talk. It’s to hide embarassing silences I suppose. Or to avoid giving anyone enough time to decide that actually they don’t like me!
SO I wonder, what are your experiences – good or bad – of making friends with other parents?