Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The three o'clock mingle

I’m usually good at issuing a guilt-free “no” to my children. Amidst a generation of parents who are often accused of being unable to give an unequivocal negative response, and a generation of young children whom onlookers occasionally call “attorneys-in-training” for their skill at negotiating, I’m a stark voice of dissent among my parenting peers. It’s not that I enjoy disappointing my children any more than any other parent would, but for the most part, I can justify my negative responses to them with a simple explanation. Disney cruise? Too costly. Stop for a quick snack at Burger King? Can’t bear the fat content. Stay up late to watch Monday night football with Dad? Not if you want to do well on tomorrow’s math test.

But one question that arises in our household does generate a little bit of uncertainty for me: the kids’ recurrent request that I pick them up at school.

That’s a tough one. Most of the time I don’t want to, but unlike snacks with trans-fats or violent movies, I don’t have a really compelling reason behind my “no.” I have only “Because I don’t feel like it.” And I’m ambivalent as to whether a petulant “No, I don’t wanna” is a legitimate answer for a parent to give a child or not.

What my kids don’t see is that picking them up at school isn’t simply a short drive for me; it’s a social event for which I sometimes just don’t feel mentally prepared.

In Carlisle, picking a child up at school entails parking on the street and then walking a short distance up to the school plaza. In some ways, I love this arrangement: the idea of driving up to the curb and having my child hop into the car isn’t appealing to me at all, inasmuch as it represents just another emblem of our drive-through culture. I like the fact that we’re forced to walk and mingle.

At the same time, there are afternoons on which I just don’t feel ready for mingling. Carlisle is a small town, and I consider myself lucky to have so many friends and acquaintances. But a lot of days, the prospect of driving up to school gives me the exact same feeling I get when I’m dressing before a cocktail party. Experience reminds me that I’ll have fun once I’m there, greeting and chatting and meeting people and renewing old friendships, and yet the thought of walking in the door fills me with anxiety. Whether it’s a Saturday night cocktail party or the school plaza at three o'clock, certain anxieties prevail. What if when I arrive, everyone else is already engaged in conversation and no one talks to me? What if I don’t remember an acquaintance’s name, or run into someone whose last email I ignored because it was a request for some favor I didn’t want to do, like helping with a classroom papier-mache project?

Fortunately, both of my kids are generally happy to take the bus home. So once a week or so when they do ask to be picked up, I can usually psyche myself up sufficiently, reminding myself that after a long day of solitary writing, it’s actually fun to run into friends and acquaintances up at the school. I’m not the only self-employed or stay-at-home parent for whom the plaza is occasionally the only truly social event of the day, and it can be a quite convivial atmosphere, at least before the frigid days of winter arrive.

But for the most part, I tend to stick with “no” on this one. As taxpayers, we support the schoolbus system for a reason, I tell my children. It’s more environmental, and we don’t want to put the bus drivers out of a job, do we?

What my children don’t realize is that in another couple of months it will be a moot point. Our school is planning major construction starting this winter, and the result will be a redirected traffic flow and a reduction of parking spaces that will make it much more complicated to pick children up, deterring all but the most resolute parents.

And then? Well, naturally, I’ll tell my children that of course I’d pick them up if I could – but our obligation during construction is to avoid driving to school unless absolutely necessary. So it won’t be a “no” at all, and certainly not a guilt-inducing “Sorry, I just don’t want to.” For once, I’ll feel entirely justified in my recalcitrance.

Still, missing out on plaza pick-up time will significantly diminish my social life. It’s possible I’ll spend the whole winter and spring working all day and not doing any chatting or visiting at all when my work hours end. I’ll just have to hope that a few friends stop by as I wait for the kids at the bus stop, alone with my thoughts and free of my social anxieties for the time being.

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