Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Not One of Us": An Open Letter about Women, Friendship and How Social Media Can Break Us—Part One

"Not One of Us": An Open Letter about Women, Friendship and How Social Media Can Break Us—Part One

Dear Friend,

Do you remember the girl in school that had a trail of followers?  Maybe she was wearing the coolest jeans, or had the “it” bracelet or the sparkle pen.  Maybe she had the matching set of something, or the sweater that everyone wanted.  Maybe she had the
Girl Cliques
heart of your secret crush and no matter what you tried, no matter how you did you hair, the backpack you bought, the lunch your mom packed, you were never, ever, ever going to get invited to her table.  You were always going to be on the outside at recess, while they looked over at you and giggled, with this girl goddess sitting on top of a lunch table, smiled serenely. 

That cast?  That scenario?  It doesn’t change.  No matter how old you are or how much you’ve traveled, it doesn’t evolve.  There is always going to be the leader of the pack and if you are the woebegone that doesn’t meet its criteria, you will always, always be on the outside.

Honestly, I did not start out wanting to write about this—I feel like it has been covered time and again by so many bloggers on social media.  I wanted to throw a couple recipes your way since I was awol last week, I wanted to write something on dementia because my father, well, it has been more than trying of late.  I wanted to write about how no matter how much, how long and how well you love your kids, there is more than one day that they are the most trying, crazed, alien beings you never, ever want to lay claim to.  I wanted to write about those things, and I probably will, but yesterday I met with a sweet friend of mine. And I don’t get to see her nearly enough.  She has a spine of steel under such warm and softly understanding eyes.  We had our children meet together at the local pool and we talked and what came out of the conversation was this: the cliques
and the Queen Cliquesters.  And those on the outside and how in the world to continue to navigate the schoolyard and four square when we are all grown up and should know a lot better.

Because there is a reason it is covered again and again and AGAIN.  It still exists.  Somehow the schoolyard princess bullies just grow up and wield power again.  And maybe it isn’t that girl, maybe it was the little girl in glasses sitting in a corner who had the misfortune of doing something that made
The Hurt Stays the Same as We Age
somebody mad who grew up wanting “in” and getting it by building a wall of women around her who would hold her up because she never learned to do it herself. 

I was scrawny with wild curly hair and brown.  At a time when there weren’t kids who looked like me everywhere, and even if there were, they weren’t Indian Syrian Christians.  Our histories and communities were vastly different because of that.  Of course I didn’t know that then, and I couldn’t articulate it like that, all I knew was that I was different—and not in a good way.  Because of that in my predominantly white school, because my parents spoke with an accent and because I wasn’t particularly good at sports, I was picked on quite a bit—rejected for Girl Scouts when my mother turned to me full of feeling of parental failure, a look I only understand now, after getting off the phone saying that Jenny Smith’s mother had mocked her accent.  Life was not easy at my elementary school.

I think the formation of otherness and outsiderness begins there.  In this space of the schoolyard.  The vast criticism that is so brilliantly bald with children who say exactly what they think, know the viciousness with which it will hurt, and keep propelling those verbal grenades over and over and over again.  Lee was the bully in my schoolyard in those early years, with curly dirty blond hair and pink cheeks and friends with the girls who were not ungainly and othered as I was.  She also made sure I knew that I was outside that circle. 

I have boys, but there have been moments like these for them, and my friends who have daughters say the cliques have worsened, and the expectations are far more precise and because of social media, the maliciousness and pointedness has become almost too much for them to bear and walk and be.  It is a lifetime commitment to instill in a child the presence of mind to walk as who they are without any kind of qualifier.  It means a deep resourcefulness and courage that is not innate.  Because I do know what happens when this doesn’t take place.  The girls grow up, and those feelings of exclusivity and otherness, respectively, continue on with them from the schoolyard all the way to the playgrounds of our children.
Judy Nelson Fine Art

Do you remember the book that launched popular fiction writer, Emily Giffin’s career?  It is called, Something Borrowed.  And it’s about a young woman, Rachel who sleeps with her best friend, Darcy’s fiancé.  On the surface, it is appalling.  A code of women and line of trust that is so broken.  But Giffin relates a backstory that overcomes it by showing how Dex (the handsome, wealthy, well-
© Warner Brothers
connected fiancé), was attracted to Rachel first, that she felt unworthy to be courted by him because her best friend was more attractive, popular and interesting than she was.  She had lived in Darcy’s schoolyard shadow for years, getting cosseted protection from the verbal barbs and anger from other girls not permitted into Darcy’s world.  And, to some degree, Rachel was tired of being her foil. 

I cheered Rachel on, despite this huge moral failing, and I suspect a lot of other readers did too, because of the underdog role she played that was so quintessentially familiar to so many.  No one wanted to see the mean girl win; for once, they wanted to see the soft, rounded, “wheat germ haired,” smart girl get the guy.  When Rachel does, it seems like a cosmic wrong is righted.  Giffin’s subsequent novels have not appealed to me much as a reader, but she is enormously popular and often she seems to hit on the fragile pulse of women’s lives.  That goes a long way toward relatability.  But when I look at this, the coming together of Dex and Rachel, the continued affair against a friend, no matter how vapid or self absorbed, it is just wrong.  And where have we gone wrong as a female audience that we applaud it?

My string beanishness, and otherness followed me as it would, for the rest of my life and I made friends, don’t get me wrong, but I also went through a period of pushing them away.  I was trying to negotiate some hard in my life and that meant a complete
resurfacing of the seam point of who I thought I was and who I actually am. 

And, for a long time before the self-renovation began, I was a McJudgerson that would put any of those mean women to shame.  I didn’t run a crew, but my mind was as vicious as any old episode of Project Runway with Michael Kors as judge.
© Project Runway
  I would assess a woman by her shape which if it was over rather than under, made me believe that she wasn’t working hard enough on being healthy and just was gluttonous and lazy, her hair, the frizziness and the inconsistency of color that showed me that she either wasn’t aware of her appearance or couldn’t afford its maintenance.  Her clothing which could reveal a distinct lack of designer label which meant that she either couldn’t afford where I shopped and that meant we were from vastly different spheres.  Her nails, which may or may not be chipped or well polished, which spurred in me an insecurity as mine have long been short, not able to grow past a point and cuticles that would make any manicurist scream in frustration.  Upon this assessment, I would determine that this woman would not be in my circle, because by associating with her I would be assessed by others to be accepting of her and that, I couldn’t have.

Now, before you completely dismiss me as one of the worst women you have ever met, consider this: if I have been so unbelievably critical of a woman I’ve never known, can you see how extraordinarily hard I have been on myself

The judgment above is equal parts absurd scrutiny and, had I continued, the self-reflexive gaze of my own inadequacies that I have absolutely placed on her.  It seems to me that these are the judgments, the daily picking of self and others that eat away at our self esteem and confidence in ourselves, and, by extension our ability to mother.  With such careful gaze directed outward, the antiseptic quality of the inward eye was impossible to keep up—the clothing I wore, the hairstyle I kept, the stroller and diaper bag I carried, the clothes my children wore, my nails, all of it, all of it would be next to impossible to maintain even if I had been able to do it all the years before I had children.   I remember lamenting to my friend and teaching partner about how hard it was to break into this group, how they did everything together, how I felt I was all wrong (and, mind you, I was so
Pundit from Another Planet
wobbly because that's what a first baby does to you) and he said, "Good grief Sara, get away from these women!  This white mommy mafia sounds terrifying."   And for awhile, I did.  My friends are not
Stepford Wives by Ira Levin.
Adapted in 1975, 2004 for film
the least bit Stepford, they are all different shapes, sizes, experience levels and family groups, they bring a wealth of experience into my world and really, that's what I want for my children too, that their friends reflect combined differentiated experience and talent, not carbon copies of the same person.

It seems to me now, from the long distance of memory’s backspin, that my preoccupation with
Boarding the Mothership
these ideals had less to do with wanting to be in the clique (although that played a part and truthfully—it still does), but just wanting to be understood and cared for. 
Bolstered by my community of female friendships, which understood my place and space more deeply than anyone else in my life could.

It always strikes, this knot of fear of rejection whenever you feel the most vulnerable.  Whenever you aren’t sure of your steps and your place.  Often after you’ve had a baby, or gained weight or lost it, when you’ve experienced a loss or had a major upheaval.  All of those moments are ripe for self-scrutiny and where you are most fragile for the atmospheric drop in pressure that comes when you see the cliques enter.  And it doesn’t matter who they are, does it?  You know exactly who I’m talking about.  You need resilience and belief in yourself to make sure you can stand up and walk tall among these women.

The beginning out of it is grace and truth.  Are you really all the negative that swirls in your brain?  You’re not.  The God that made you loves you just as you are and you need to know that, own it and remember it.  You extend grace so effortlessly to others around you, pray for those who are hurting, offer comfort to those who need it, bind wounds of friends and children but you refuse to allow that grace for yourself.

So I am telling you, as I finally told myself, and have had to hit pause, rewind and repeat: 

You don’t need them.  
You can manage.  
You need to cut the weight of those who are making you feel small
out of your life.  

Without that amputation, no matter how long those voices have been around you and near you, you will never have room to welcome or extend your arms to embrace the friends that can help you navigate the new seasons in your life.

It’s going to hurt.  All forward movement, all change does hurt, at least a little.  But sometimes saying goodbye to friendships that do not feed you or sustain you needs to happen.

When other women who you thought you knew, begin to say things to you that prick your skin and make you doubt yourself or the ways in which you parent, consider why it bothers you.  And then depending on the answer, get rid of the person who is causing you pain.  You wouldn’t allow it to happen to your child, would you?  Why are you enduring it yourself?

You are a strong person.  You are a capable mother.  You are a good friend.  You are a consistent person.  You are trying and trying and trying.  
And that is enough.

Those same gut instincts designed to protect us from harm, the fear factor that can keep us alive, are the same ones that can protect your heart from hurt.  If you feel the heat rise in your face and the clench in your chest or the burn in your stomach, it’s time to take decisive action and stop the pain rather than endure it.  And this is counter-intuitive.  Because as women we are expected to take pain and manage it no matter what the cost.  We hold it in, worse still, think we deserve it and there is a negative loop that runs in our brains that hold us hostage to the comments, ill meant or not.

Consider this, I was in a Bible study where we were reading Lysa Terkeurst’s Unglued. In it she writes, “Brain research shows that every conscious thought we have is recorded on our internal hard drive known as the cerebral cortex.  Each thought scratches the surface much like an Etch A Sketch. When we have the same thought again, the line of the original thought is deepened, causing what’s called a memory trace. With each repetition the trace goes deeper and deeper, forming and embedding a pattern of thought.  When an emotion is tied to this thought pattern the memory trace grows exponentially stronger” (22). 


Okay.  So what this means is that there are negative thoughts (or positive ones) that our own minds have created that create grooves in our brains….  Grooves, not passing bruises or scratches that heal over time, but grooves, picked over and over, wounds that will not heal.  

These comments, this scrutiny by other women who are supposed to be on your side—I mean you travel in the same circles, your children are in the same grade, same class, you worship in the same place, so the differences seem entirely outward—my fabulous Target pleather bag and your Kate Spade one, for example.  And to dismiss me just because my workout gear says lululemon instead of Old Navy, is not only egregious it is just plain old fashioned dumb. 

These aren't wholly impossible to ignore of course, these comments, I mean, we are adults.  But the scrutiny no, the rejection affirmed or otherwise from female friends are like small ants who come out of nowhere and begin a sedate crawl to spaces that you'd rather they not go.  So that you're constantly picking and searching for the invaders that have come to rest on your very skin and try violently to stop their ascent and access to somewhere more serious and provoking.

It begs the question:  Do the bugs just like me or do I actually invite them?

(Ponder this question, think about it, tell me your thoughts about it and stay tuned for Part Two of this lengthy love letter where we'll also talk about how to turn social media around so you can get your sea legs and continue to be as fabulous as I know you are.  L, smh)

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