The funny thing about social phobia is that even when you think you’ve kind of escaped it, you really haven’t. If social phobia (or social anxiety or shyness or whatever you want to call it) was an NBA player, it would definitely be in the running for the Comeback Player of the Year award.
I think what happens, really, is that once you enter middle adulthood, you start to forget about, little by little, how crushing that anxiety was when you were younger and constantly forced to perform. In school, in finding jobs, in trying (or not) to make friends and date. Once you hit your 30s, a lot of the forced performance is behind you. Through a combination of treatment and life choices, you can settle in and manage. I have become an All-Pro avoider. Situations that make me uncomfortable—parties, groups, talking on the phone, interviews—I’m kind of done with those. As much as I can avoid things like that, I do. And, you know what? It’s been working.
Well, it was working. And then I had kids. And then they started to become social. And then I have days like one I had last week. And then I feel a little bit like I’m back in high school walking around during lunch, ducking in and out of the bathroom for cover, to avoid the indignity of eating alone, or even worse, the necessity of sitting down with strangers I’d known most of my life.
This day was a perfect storm. A nightmare scenario.
First stop, the park. A very normal activity for us. We go to the same park most days that we’re home. It usually goes pretty smoothly. I’ve learned the danger spots to avoid. For example, the zip line is the most popular attraction and often has a line when the park is at all populated. Avoiding all that can go wrong in line situations is a must. Like, what do you do when another kid starts cutting in line or needs help with the take-off when you’re the only adult standing there? You avoid that situation, that’s what. So, I subtly deflect the boys’ attention to the slide or something until there is no wait. Problem solved. Leaving the park is still a reliable disaster, but other than that everything else is usually pretty solid.
But, of course, on this day there was a little boy at the park kicking a ball around with his dad and grandfather. I knew this was going to be bad. I saw it coming from about 20 yards away as we were walking up. My stomach started to do back flips because I knew two things: (1) my 19-month-old is drawn to balls like a Kardashian to an NBA player and (2) once your kids start playing with other kids’ toys things just get weird.
So, as we worked our way inside the fence, I felt as if I was walking to my certain death while the boys, of course, couldn’t have been more excited. They pounced. The little boy with the ball was named Landon. Of course, he would be named Landon. My four-year-old, Jacob, quickly tried to impose some order on the proceedings by directing where the ball should be kicked and to whom. He is a stickler about taking turns. And he’s really a stickler about taking turns when it’s his turn.
My 19-month-old, Bennett, on the other hand, prefers chaos. He descended upon the ball like a vulture, snatched it up with his talons, and took off with it. “OK. Bring the ball over here to Landon now,” Landon’s grandfather called out in a sing-song voice with undertones of passive aggressiveness every time Bennett absconded with the ball. “He wants to kick it now.”
When I forcibly retrieved the ball and returned it, Landon, who is probably about two and a half, gave it a savage kick and the ball sailed away, beyond the playground perimeter. Turns out Landon has a really heavy foot. Landon’s dad turned to run and get it. “I want to get it! I want to get it!” Jacob exclaimed as he scrambled past. The “ugh” from Landon’s dad was almost audible.
Sigh. Three minutes in and this was already going way worse than I expected. And that’s saying something. I was pretty much nailing it though. My awkward smiling was really on point.
Fortunately, several minutes later (or was it hours?) the ball picked up a puncture wound and went flat. We’ll just say it was an accident. I was ready for us to move along to some more solitary activities when, you have to be kidding me, Landon’s grandfather brought out a large bubble-making wand. At that point, it was clear what I had to do. I went and jumped in the lake.
Once I dried off and completed the World’s Strongest Man Two-Child 60-Yard Carry to the car, which always seems to be required because “too tired” or don’t want to leave, we finally made our way home, beleaguered and beaten. Well, I was at least. The boys were great and went straight out to play in the backyard.
“Whew, finally a break. Think I’ll sit on the porch by myself for a minute while they’re playing,” I thought.
And then I heard something that made my blood run cold: the unmistakable sound of a three-year-old just across our fence in a neighboring yard. The boys pounced like Serena Williams on a mid-court backhand. Soon enough, they were shoving leaves and small sticks through a hole in the fence and Jacob was calling out “Who wants seaweed for lunch?”, shouting periodically “My name is Jacob!”, and cackling maniacally. I could tell there was an adult over there too with the little girl, based on the voice and what I could see through the fence slats from a safe distance. But, what’s the protocol in these situations? Am I supposed to converse with someone I don’t know across a fence? You know what my answer is to that.
But as I was pondering this, Jacob had moved on from leaves and twigs and was trying to shove a sizable fallen tree branch over the fence. I had to draw the line somewhere. I put a stop to that like a boss and then retreated inside to empty the dishwasher (or something). And there I waited, impatiently, for sunset. I waited, impatiently, for when it would be time for this….