Friday, 9 January 2015

A tale of two playgroups

I'm the kind of person who really likes my own company and can be a bit of a loner by nature, but I think when you're trying to integrate into a new cultural space, it's do or die. I've moved to enough new and strange cities in my time to have a keenly developed survival instinct telling me to get out there and vigorously mix, integrate, interact. Volunteer opportunity at the local homeless shelter? Sign me up! H's second cousin wants to meet for coffee and practice her English? Yes please! Plus, there is the small detail of my small daughter now spurning me on; she has a couple cousins here but both are school age and if I don't want Girl Wonder to become a little hermit baby I'd better mom up and make an effort.

So we've been checking out playgroups. However - leaving aside the strangeness that is my new social role as a mom - my German is still wobbly enough that I'm not confident just waltzing into a local group to make my own way in a language which still feels foreign to me. So we went for 'special interest' groups as a first step.

First up: there is a very active, city-wide, English-language playgroup that exists for the many foreigners who call this place home. A good place to start, right? Well, sort of; we might have had language in common, and even the experience of being newcomers, but to be honest? (Of course I'm painting with broad strokes here, I only dipped my toes in, after all), that might be where the commonalities end.

Because this city hosts the headquarters of a number of international organisations, expats here tend to be of the well-travelled and well-heeled variety. While we may be the former, we are certainly not the latter. Our home isn't big enough that we can play host to fourteen (fourteen!) sets of moms and babies, as others in the group have recently done. And while we move in some pretty interesting circles, we can't tell you about our last visit to the ambassador's residence for a semi-formal buffet dinner.

So there was already a certain socioeconomic divide, although that wasn't really the thing that singled me out and made everything seem awkward. Nope, our family history took care of that. Since my own brush with terminal illness in my teens, which left me with a pronounced limp, I am accustomed to answering intrusive curious questions about 'what's wrong with your leg?' my complicated medical history. When I know the intentions are good, it doesn't really bother me and I'm happy to oblige. Though I'm finding that things get a bit more sticky when it's your child(ren) concerned, I'm also someone who wants to contribute to the destigmatization of topics like infertility, disability, unconventional family building, etc. and so I generally try to be open and matter-of-fact. Our stories, all too often shunted to the margins for the comfort of a complacent society, should be part of the conversation too. Also, I (naively?) like to think that if I share my experiences in a way that shows they're not a life-defining tragedy for me, it might demystify some of the fear and pity for others as well.

Uh, except...maybe, on some occasions, this is more than a room full of terrified, pregnant fertiles most people can handle. So when stories were being exchanged about birth experiences and starting solids and yadda, yadda, yadda and, rather than come off like a wallflower, I honestly contributed...'born six weeks early by cesearean'...'intra-uterine-growth-restriction'...'Down syndrome'...'we're starting solids later because of her surgery at 36 hours old and feeding tube for first nine weeks'... Well, I'm sure you see where this is going...

I wasn't just the lead balloon in the room; I quickly became the bogey man, the personification of everyone's darkest dreams. You guys, that was before we even got to the infertility and loss stuff. People just looked at me. And despite the fact that my life may be dreamy these days and is certainly a long way from dark, it wasn't the most comfortable experience to see myself through other eyes.

I felt isolated. Like a fake, a freak. And though I know it wasn't intentional, that no one had set out to ostracize me, I couldn't help but feel like the awkward new girl at school facing The Plastics. (And if you haven't seen Mean Girls, go check it out; I'll wait. Tina Fey and Lyndsey Lohan in a previous incarnation. Love.)

(As another aside, I'm not really sure why people think 'I can't possibly imagine what you're going through' is in any way a good thing to say to someone facing life challenges. In my experience this only underscores otherness, leading to the person feeling all the more isolated and lonely. Also - while the subtly but crucially different 'I won't pretend to know what you're experiencing' is honest and direct, which I appreciate - in saying that you simply can't even imagine, you're pretty much saying that you lack the compassion or humanistic imagination for any kind of empathy. Way to go. But I digress...and that is deserving of a whole post of its own, really.)

So where was I? Ah yes, back to the playgroups.


Luckily, that finely honed survival instinct of the expat prevented me from throwing in the towel after my initial difficult attempt. The following week, there was a playgroup put on by and for the local parent's network for families of kids with Down syndrome. (Again, at the risk of generalising,) I've said it before and I'll say it again: I like how people from this 'community' think and approach life.

There was the kind of shorthand that groups who have found themselves on the margins tend to share, and none of the awkward horror at all our baggage: was she born early? Did we get a birth or prenatal diagnosis? Did she have any medical anomalies? What is she doing with her early intervention therapist?

In a few brief conversations, I also learned that two of the babes in the group close in age to Girl Wonder were the product of fertility treatment. Do I think that there's a relationship between this extra challenge in family building and potential parents' attitudes towards chromosomal anomalies? Probably, yes.

Am I saying that if you've experienced hardship you're inevitably going to be more empathetic and have your priorities worked out? Not at all (and Loribeth wrote a great post recently about how people who do experience adversity in life are expected, often for the benefit of everyone but themselves, to fit a certain redemptive cultural narrative).

But I do think that once you've been through some of life's nastier shit storms there is at least the opportunity to gain some perspective; some gratitude. Not to get hung up on life's little 'problems'. So many of you have shown me that, with grace and humour and generosity of spirit. And while this ALI club is certainly not one that any of us would have voluntarily joined, I think the higher-than-average levels of compassion and determination not to sweat the small stuff are a significant silver lining that make me glad to have you all for company. But again, I digress...

The gist of my second attempt was this: I felt accepted. Embraced. And - perhaps ironically, given that shared language was not the common denominator here - understood. It was such a good feeling, and one that made me think I'll do fine as we move forward, even juggling as I am a new hometown and my new role as a mom and my newbie status in the world of Down syndrome.

I'm not saying that difficulty is something to be lauded. But maybe difference is, or should be.

With our unorthodox background stories, our transnational lives, our off-the-curve road to reaching a family, our high risk pregnancy, and a host of other variables, ours was never going to be the typical, 'normal' story. And as much as others may have a hard time with that, I'm ok with it; better than ok. I'm grateful for and sensitive to complicated, less-than-'perfect' realities. I'm happy. My life is full of love.

Leaving that playgroup, I found myself, not for the first time, feeling like we've landed on a really good side of 'normal', and oh so happy to be here.

And we don't even own a dryer! Source.


  1. I'm so glad you found a group of people to spend time with that make you feel good. That's not easy to find, especially as an expat!

    As for the "I can't imagine" comments, I think it's just an example of things people say without really thinking. They don't know what to say but want to say something.

  2. I'm so glad you've found a community in your new city. I'm in a similar situation, and it's not easy to put yourself out there, let alone to find other moms who speak the same "language."

  3. Nodding along here and so happy that you found a community. Agree with your observations too.

    I'm learning that the "I can't imagine" comes from people comparing hardships as a form of one-up man ship. These woes-is-mes are meant to allow the teller to feel special and "I can't imagine" is a way of making that person feel special. But when there is true loss/trauma, this has the opposite affect.

  4. How great that you are reaching out as an ex-pat and not allowing yourself to become isolated. I must learn from your example (even though I live in my hometown and the only new country I'm exploring is motherhood.) I am glad that in the Down Syndrome group you felt accepted, though it is a little disappointing to hear that people in the other group didn't know how to experience or express sympathy. Maybe they're put some thought later into how people actually don't all have the same experiences.

    And this: "I'm grateful for and sensitive to complicated, less-than-'perfect' realities. I'm happy. My life is full of love." I think in those 3 sentences you might have found the meaning of life. :-)

  5. Glad to hear you've found your tribe. :) I seem to remember writing a rant awhile back about "I can't imagine..." My takeaway is not that they can't but they don't WANT to imagine. Too scary for most people to even contemplate.

    1. Exactly what I was thinking! But imagining is the root of empathy. Not to go there is to be less human.

  6. So glad you found the second play group. That first one sounds ghastly. Any group would be lucky to have you and Girl Wonder join their ranks.

  7. I am so glad the second group went better. While our experiences are different, I can relate very much to how you felt in that first playgroup. I've been there, feeling like that, having it be awkward, being the elephant in the room (or maybe glaring neon sign)... finding a place you "fit" can be such a relief.

  8. I am so, so glad the second playgroup was more comfortable and went better. I always feel uncomfortable and unable to contribute to the conversation at baby showers and baby play groups. At the very least I feel like a cautionary tale b/c of our IF journey. Like you, I feel grateful for our outcome and that it made me a more sensitive, empathetic person.

  9. hugs, here from the roundup...

  10. Here from the roundup... I certainly do know that feeling - when you're family building is not like the others. Oh, the conversations I've wandered away from....I'm a social person and just love to meet people and make friends but sometimes you do have to be choosy, more so with a child because they take up so much of your time and you need to be particular as to how much you want to spend time with people who do or do not make you feel at ease.

  11. I really recognise this - that look of horror in other people's eyes when they hear your story...and you suddenly realise 'they are horrified by my life". It is such an isolating moment.
    A well meaning friend of mine recently commented that she didn't know how I had carried on after I lost my first baby Ouch.


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