Talking to Strangers Is Not My Thing

What it’s like to parent a social butterfly

Lindsay Hunter
Aug 15, 2018 · 5 min read
Illustration: Haejin Park

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My kids and I were at the park the other day when my son turned to me and said, “I want to go play with that kid over there.” My response was basically, “Cool! It’s a free country. Do you!” Which is the equivalent of a blasé shove-off, but LOOK. I was probably helping my two-year-old ride the seesaw all by himself (this requires me to almost do the splits while also somehow planting my feet and doing a squat so I can push the seesaw down on one side and pull it up on the other—yes, this is my entry for Mom of the Year) and figuring out how to aim my nipple into my two-month-old’s mouth at the same time, so it’s like, Godspeed, five-year-old, love you to the moon and back, but please also learn how to cook dinner while you’re at it, because Mama’s tired.

My son looked stricken and said, “But I want you to go over there and ask if I can play.” My insides died a little, and I probably* said “Ugh” way too loud. (*I definitely 100 percent did this and scared my infant and a nest of baby squirrels by doing so.) It’s in these moments that I remember I’m supposed to be an adult, a grown human who doesn’t feel shy or afraid to approach another human being and say a thing to it, but instead I regress to being a kid myself, when the idea of interacting with a stranger made me feel like screaming, if I could scream without making any noise at all and thus remain invisible. Like, I couldn’t even call and order pizza without pacing in anxiety for a full 20 minutes beforehand until I was in my late thirties. (I’m currently 38. Things are going great over here.)

It’s in these moments that I remember I’m supposed to be an adult, a grown human who doesn’t feel shy or afraid to approach another human being.

What do I think will happen by talking to strangers? You didn’t think I’d have a good answer, but I do. I have several:

  1. The person will think I have a weird voice.
  2. The person will notice I haven’t showered since eight Trump scandals ago (roughly one week).
  3. The person will think I’m a loser for seeking out other human interaction.
  4. If it’s a child I’m approaching, the child’s parent will rush over with a Taser and/or mace.
  5. The person will feel trapped by my proximity and will feel forced to continue the torturous small talk until one of us blurts something like, “WELL, IT’S TIME FOR MY ELECTROSCHOCK THERAPY. GOTTA RUN!” before rushing off without the sunglasses that flew off our head as we ran.
  6. I will have to talk to strangers without telling a weird personal anecdote, which is my innate fear response, like the time I filled a terrifying moment of silence among acquaintances by shouting, “I GOT BEN THAT HAT FOR HIS BIRTHDAY!” even though no one had mentioned the hat or even looked at the hat once.

The flipside of this is that I’ve reached that vaunted, coveted time as a parent when my child is self-sufficient and whole enough to want to go off on his own and play with others. I can tell him to “go play,” and HE WILL, praise be. Shockingly, I seem to have birthed an extrovert, a child who doesn’t understand why I don’t want to go with him as he knocks on all our neighbor’s doors until he’s invited in for a playdate. He truly doesn’t get why Mom doesn’t want to do a lemonade stand. (Oh my god, collecting money from strangers for a shitty cup of probably expired lemonade I’ve had in the back of my fridge for over a year, no no no make it stop no.) He is confused as to why he can’t yell from our corner lot at every passing kid to come play in our basement playroom but watch out for the mice traps. (SOS, my face says to these passing normals.)

Despite my own hangups, I’m sentient enough to realize that I should encourage this social aspect in him. I don’t want him to think, “Oh, I’m supposed to hide in my dark home until the knocking at my door goes away,” or, “Oh, I guess ‘friends’ are things that only exist on TV, which is my actual true friend.” So I’ve had to swallow my pride (can it be called “pride” if it’s what prevents you from holding a conversation without randomly mentioning how you wear a size 11 shoe?) and, gulp, approach an other.

There’s a bit of grief in it as well. I’m not the kid anymore, and I haven’t been for a long time, and I never will be again.

And this, above everything, is what’s made me feel like a true mom. It has brought memories back of my own mom saying, “Hey, how about you kids have a race to that tree over there,” and wham, suddenly two hours have passed and my mom was able to do the dishes and sew matching outfits for our entire family and sit staring silently, and meanwhile, I had a great time with my new best friend, whose name I never even asked. I’m now that mom, that adult voice bringing the kids together, that grown-up who is ignored until someone gets a boo-boo or wants a popsicle.

It’s an uncanny feeling, straddling those two mental spaces: one foot in my past, so connected to my childhood psyche, and one in my present, where I’ve had to push through decades-old boundaries in order to guide my children, teach them, or simply keep them alive. Motherhood often makes me feel younger than I am (likely because I’m playing hide-and-seek and eating mac ’n cheese and laughing about butts) and older than the earth. It’s bittersweet, this strange reality in which I am confronting myself over and over in order to adapt to my children’s needs.

If I’m being really honest, there’s a bit of grief in it as well. I’m not the kid anymore, and I haven’t been for a long time, and I never will be again.

That’s why I do walk over and ask if my son can play tag; I do let him knock on doors. He’s being a kid, and I want that to last as long as it possibly can. (Already, he’s changed from saying, “Hey, can you do me a favorite?” to “Can you do me a favor?” He’s basically an adult!) And blessedly, I get to witness my babies’ childhood unfold. I get to remember what it was like to discover spiderwebs and fireflies and the ice cream man and how great it feels to tell a joke and watch your parents genuinely laugh. A big part of being a parent is holding your kids’ hands when they need you to. And that means, again and again, my kids drag me out of my comfort zone, where I’ve been moldering in the shade, out out out into the hot, bright light.

Lindsay Hunter

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Lindsay Hunter is the author of two story collections and two novels, most recently Eat Only When You’re Hungry. She lives in Chicago.

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