Overcoming Socially Awkward Parent Disorder (SAPD)
Carly Stasko investigates the quandaries of new parents
Being a new parent can be an exercise in awkwardness that starts in pregnancy (and in some instances conception), is punctuated by labor, and becomes gradually entrenched over the years as you endure spit-up stains and public tantrums until eventually the socially awkward parent has a socially awkward teenager, and the journey of life goes full circle. While I’m still at the beginning of this journey I hope to reflect on overcoming Socially Awkward Parent Disorder (SAPD). In fact, I hope that with a little help we can all wear our awkwardness with pride. If you have never suffered from SAPD then good for you – either, you really have your shit together, you are very good at denial, or perhaps you have just managed to accept the awkward moments of parenthood with a certain amount of self-acceptance and grace.
It’s not hard to feel completely uncool as a new parent trying to maintain some of the social and cultural lifestyle you once enjoyed, pre-offspring. Sometimes having a baby on the hip actually doesn’t feel that hip! Rarely if ever does parenthood actually look like the pictures on the cover of parenting magazines.
All it takes is a bit of splattered food on your clothes, dried banana mush in your hair, a loaded down stroller and a screeching baby to feel like a complete social outcast in the very same cafés or stores where you once felt entirely at home.
Waiting in a clothing store to try something on was once merely a mild inconvenience — now I find myself sweating and plotting as I wait for the change room to free up, thinking, “I have enough snacks to keep this little guy happy for three minutes max and then it’s melt-down city! If you’re texting in that change room please vacate ASAP. Mama needs a new dress!” It’s at moments like these that I wonder when I became “that crazy lady.”
Sometimes I have a false memory of life before becoming a mom. Those pre-baby days seem so full of free time and so much simpler. Somehow I manage to forget that I had other challenges or worries then too. Looking back I can’t help but think I had it so easy before. Now I’m starting to understand some of the snarky comments seasoned parents said to me when I was pregnant. They knew that I didn’t know just how much my life was about to change. But the truth is that before I became a mom, I had a long list of awkward moments where I felt just as much out of place or ill prepared. If anything, I feel more liberated now because I don’t have the time to worry about it. The stakes are high so I’ll put myself out there beyond my comfort zone and surrender to the process of learning to be a parent – even if it’s not always as graceful a process as I’d hope.
FROM ENTITLEMENT TO INTERDEPENDENCE:
I know what it’s like to feel invisible or unwanted in public as a parent. I’m also well aware of the other end of the spectrum, where monster strollers rule the roost and childless peers must endure condescending comments or pressure to join the “parent club.” It wasn’t long ago that I experienced the ever-so-awkward feeling of being the only childless guest at a baby shower. Yes, there are many instances when today’s modern parents can demonstrate an inflated sense of entitlement. Rather than entitlement, I like to think about interdependence and interconnectedness. Just because someone chose to have children doesn’t mean their needs are more important than everyone else’s, but similarly just because someone doesn’t have kids doesn’t mean they aren’t part of an interconnected and interdependent society that includes many parents and children. It takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to raise a parent. Rather than being entitled, we need to be empathetically entangled. We are interconnected whether we like it or not so let’s own it and celebrate it.
There are plenty of reasons to feel like an outsider, and truthfully sometimes I enjoy the experience. There is a definite shift that parents face as they try to re-enter the world they once knew with the life-altering addition of a baby on the hip. It’s a whole different game—and it can be more than a little intimidating. You’ve likely already heard some nightmare stories or endured your own moments as a socially awkward parent (and please feel free to share them in the comments section). But I’d like to take a moment to be grateful for the people out there who are doing their part to make the world a little less awkward for parents by making it more welcoming for kids.
During a recent visit to Vancouver, I was delighted when some friends took me and my 17-month-old son to a funky family friendly restaurant that featured a small play area, a slew of multi-coloured retro high-chairs, and an atmosphere and staff that were relaxed and friendly. Little Nest (1716 Charles St. off Commercial Drive) describes itself as “a place where kids can be kids and the grownups still feel grown up.” Looking around we counted 24 tots under 5, but it was far from chaos. There was no screaming and the mood was notably laid back. The wee ones were too busy having fun to protest, and the parents were able to enjoy some good food and feel welcomed rather than simply tolerated. How refreshing!
I had a similar feeling a few weeks back in my hometown Toronto as I searched for some back-to-work clothes with my son in tow. All I needed was a few quick minutes to try on a dress, but I didn’t know if my teething toddler had the patience. Just then the storeowner offered to entertain my son while I was in the change room. I hesitated until I saw her open a hidden drawer in her display area and pull out a small toy collection! My son was instantly enchanted. She gave me a wink and I quickly darted into the change room. Something about that small experience made me feel so good. I felt like this storeowner was making a very important piece of social commentary: “Kids matter, parents matter, you don’t have to be invisible.We are all in this together.” Someone more cynical may say it was just a sales tactic. I like to think it’s a bit of both.
A PLACE TO PLAY:
There are countless ways businesses can make themselves family friendly, from providing diaper tables and accessible entrances to setting aside separate play areas or toys for kids to play with. It needn’t take up a lot of space – kids are small. I especially like the way creating play spaces for kids really shows respect and value for the importance of play in children’s lives rather than seeing it as an inconvenience. The same instincts in a child can be perceived as “good behavior” in one kind of environment and “misbehaving” in another. So then, how to we want to create our shared spaces? What kind of world are we co-creating?
Increasingly kids are given smart-phones, iPads and other so-called “pass-back” tech gadgets to help them “behave” in restaurants, on planes and in stores. Recently during a long afternoon in the waiting room at a doctor’s office I observed several parents fighting over the one electrical outlet, as their kid’s various gadgets needed to be recharged. It was a sad scene where parents were pit against each other while they waited to see the doctor. While we choose not to use these tech-toys with our young son, I totally understand why parents sometimes need to. Yet the natural behavior of kids is to play with each other and to explore their real environments. I’m not suggesting all restaurants or businesses need to provide play opportunities, but I want to applaud those who do. I think it’s important that as a society we think about the messages we are giving children. Are they welcome? Do their needs matter? Is their curiosity a mere inconvenience or is it essential?
A lot of potentially awkward moments felt by parents would be alleviated if kids could just be kids and feel welcome in more public places. I joke about parental social awkwardness being a disorder, but really that just pathologizes the very natural needs of parents and kids. When the world is just a little more kid friendly then the awkwardness often melts away.
STEER CLEAR OF THE SNEER:
Yes, today’s modern parents can come off as overly entitled. We’ve all heard the complaints about the monster stroller brigades in some neighborhoods. I would argue that rude people come in all forms; some have kids and some don’t. Most parents are trying their best to care for their kids, to respect those around them, but to still have some semblance of a life in the outside world. It isn’t always easy and the only way to figure out how to make it work is to try.
Looking back on my pre-travel prep during a recent trip, I realize I spent a lot of time planning ahead to avoid scenarios where I would get sneered at by people on planes, in restaurants, at galleries and shops. All the planning in the world won’t prevent the odd cry or yelp or spill of snacks. Kids are kids! I appreciate that for the most part, just as we did our best to keep things civil on the plane and during our trip, those around us did their best to show their support.
Whether it was the hotel staff who helped me build a fort out of coat racks and blankets so that my son could have his own calm corner in our room, or the taxi driver singing to him, or the waiters that didn’t make us feel bad about the stray cheerios on the floor, or the people on the plane who were actually quite encouraging – it all helped. At the end of the flight we even got a few congratulatory pats on the back from fellow travelers.
I call this column “How to Raise a Parent” because I strongly believe that it takes a village to raise a parent. It was moments like these when I really felt like part of that larger village. I’ve endured my fair share of sneers, and I’ve felt out of place many times as a new parent. But for all those times I have felt the support of my broader community, I am thankful.
I am a big fan of courageous vulnerability — a term I coined when I was going through cancer treatments several years ago. Since then I’ve come to see the power of being courageously vulnerable in all aspects of life and parenting is no exception. Can it feel any more vulnerable when you are new to the job, a certain amount of failure is inevitable, everyone seems to have an opinion about your parenting approach and it feels like your heart is walking outside of your body? Given these hallmarks of parenthood, no wonder we all feel socially awkward sometimes. Whether it’s uninvited judgment, public toddler tantrums, exploding diapers or leaky boobs we can rest assured that we aren’t alone in our awkward moments and that they will ultimately make us stronger and hopefully wiser.
Sometimes it’s through these vulnerable moments that we are able to forge connections with others. The loneliest people in the world are those who don’t actually need anyone. We are by nature interdependent and it’s OK to need help sometimes. This is a lesson even the most fiercely independent parents tend to learn early on. So when we can’t escape those awkward moments, let’s embrace them and be as accepting of ourselves and of any outside support as we can.
Experiencing SAPD can be deflating and uncomfortable. For those times when you’re suffering socially awkward parent disorder, do your best to take it in stride. You will be a good role model for your kids who will also have to learn to navigate the socially awkward moments in life. If they can learn at a young age to endure and even embrace the inevitable awkward experiences in life then they will be more courageous and resilient and less likely miss out on some of life’s great joys and opportunities.
Previously: A playground rap from a new mom
Carly Stasko is a self-titled Imagitator, one who agitates imagination. She is also an artist/writer/producer/public speaker/cancer survivor/new mom living in Toronto. For more Carly Stasko, check out her radio stories on CBC’s Definitely Not the Operaand her blog, Imagitate the State.
Her series, How to Raise a Parent, appears once a month.
All photos and images via Carly Stasko