At a parent meeting at my son Pedro’s preschool, I corner his teacher. “So, how’s he doing?”
“Oh, he’s fine,” she answers. “Although sometimes he just sort of, well, does his own thing.”
Of course he does, I think to myself. He’s not even three yet. But then I wonder. What does that mean exactly? My thoughts turn to a recent discussion in one of my internet groups. A woman confided that a potential love interest had dumped her saying, “You live too much in your head.” That’s me exactly, I thought. Is Pedro following in my footsteps? Does he even have any friends?
The next day at pickup time, I realize I don’t have to worry. “My daughter is always talking about Pedro,” one mother says. “It’s Pedro this and Pedro that . . .” “Mine, too,” another chimes in.
I feel a glow of relief, and then pride. My son is popular! When the doors open and the kids file out, Pedro sees a classmate and yells out her name, running over to give her a hug. Nope, I think. No worries there.
I just wish it were that easy for me.
I’m not exactly a social butterfly, and making friends didn’t come easy to me even back home, with no language or cultural barrier. The few friendships I have been able to maintain despite my many geographical changes have endured in part because we’ve been faithful correspondents. For me, it’s easier to let a relationship deepen through the written word. Lots of people in the various internet discussion groups I belong to get together for face-to-face meetings, but while a part of me thinks it would be fun to see some of these people in real life, another part is secretly relieved that I’m too far away to join them. I’m much better in writing, I think. What if they think I’m boring in person? What if I am boring in person?
While my reclusive nature did make it easier to leave everything and come to Spain, it hasn’t served me as well since I’ve been here. When Pedro was born, I suddenly began to crave interaction with other moms. I was desperate to discuss diaper rash, teething, sleep problems. I longed for that uber-mom friend, the one who would come over for coffee and talk while our kids played at our feet.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until Pedro was two and started preschool that I actually began to meet other moms. While we waited for the doors to open, we chatted about ear infections, potty training, food jags. I came to depend on those daily interactions, hungry for that fifteen minutes of connection.
I began to walk home afterward drop-off with Laura, and the small talk occasionally ventured into non-mom territory: the program she was doing to study therapeutic massage, what it is like to be raising a family so far from home. I thought about taking the next step and inviting her over for coffee someday, but there was always something: errands to run, one of our kids was sick, the moment just wasn’t right. And Spanish standards of housekeeping are pretty strict. What would she think if she came over and saw the windows that haven’t been washed in months, the papers and books spilling out from the bookcases? Was I ready to expose my house — myself — to that kind of scrutiny?
Eventually, I worked up the nerve to invite her over. I know she enjoys our conversations, I told myself. It’s not like she’s going to run away screaming. Going for a casual tone, and hoping my tongue wouldn’t stumble over the words in Spanish, I managed: “So, would you and your son like to come over after school this afternoon?”
She hesitated. “Um, well, he has to have his merienda . . .” Her voice trailed off. Ah yes, the merienda, the mid-afternoon snack that is one of the five daily meals eaten here in Spain. Important, but not exactly an insurmountable obstacle. Obviously, this was a no. Damn. “Oh, right, of course,” I started to backtrack, but then she said, “Maybe we could meet later and go to the park. How about five or five-thirty, at my house?”
As we passed through the locked gate of her apartment building, I looked around. A big sandbox, lots of benches, a slide and swings and teeter-totter. Pedro needed no urging to make himself at home. Soon the place began to fill up with kids and moms and the occasional dads. The moms sat on the benches, alternately trading recipes and intervening to break up toddler conflicts. One woman left her child in the care of the other moms as she ran to the store. When he needed to be changed, Laura dug in her bag for an extra diaper as another woman pulled out some wipes. I could leave Elias in the sandbox as I chased after Pedro, and someone would keep an eye out to make sure he didn’t stuff fistfuls of sand into his mouth.
“Wow,” I thought as I looked around. “I’ve stepped into an alternate mommy-universe.” How much different things would have been for me in those early months with Pedro, or during my pregnancy with Elías, if I too had had a village like this one to help raise my child.
As I watched Laura move comfortably from mom to mom, kid to kid, I thought of other times on our walks home when she would run into someone she knew, always greeting them with a smile and a minute or two of animated conversation.
So, she’s just a very social person, I thought. She obviously already has a huge network of other moms right here in her own building. She doesn’t need me. I began to feel a bit foolish, like the too-eager teen who mistakes a smile and hello from her crush as he walks by her locker as a declaration of undying love. We stayed friendly after that, but neither one of us brought up getting together again.
Recently, though, I’ve started on another woman, Marta, whom I met at the hardware store. I heard her speaking English to her daughter, and propelled out of my shyness by the thought of another English-speaking mom nearby, I approached her and introduced myself. It turned out that she was Spanish but had spent time in England and now lived not far from us. It took a few more chance meetings before we actually planned a get-together: one Saturday, she and her husband and daughter came over for coffee.
Here, people don’t tend to call each other up just to chat, but after the visit, she phoned with more information on a program she is doing to get certified to teach in the public school system. Later, I called to ask about her new baby, and we agreed that my husband and I would drop by after we returned from our vacation. Slowly, we are laying a foundation.
And Laura? Her car is in the shop, so once again we’ve been walking home together. She is now in the early stages of pregnancy and seems as eager as I was to resume our talks. I brought up the unrelenting summer heat that would soon be upon us and wondered aloud what to do with the kids all day, cooped up inside. “The playground at my building has shade in the afternoon,” she said. “Whenever you want, just drop by — if we’re there, I’ll let you in.”
About a month after the parent meeting, Pedro’s term evaluations came in. Under social skills, the teacher had written: “Pedro is very independent but is well-integrated in the group.”
Hmm, I thought. Something to aspire to myself.