Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Case of the Frustrated Mother

Forget politics for a moment. Forget the grand dramas that play out on the world stage. Consider this small, minor and seemingly trivial problem: a single mother (a widow) makes plans with other mothers, plans that we would call play dates, only to find out that the other mothers invariably bail. Her son is 8. So she finds herself in the embarrassing position of having to explain to her son why their well laid plans keep blowing up... and making her look bad in his eyes.

So, Frustrated Mom writes to Ask Polly— already a serious mistake— asking what she should do. She wants to know whether she should call out the other parents for bailing on them. As you might imagine, Polly has nothing of consequence to say about it all. To her mind, it’s part of everyday life in today’s America. Besides, Polly offers, parenting is tough. We are happy to learn this eternal truth.

Yet, people who constantly go back on their word are abusive. We might be tempted to dismiss Frustrated Mother as a complainer, but, in truth, the parents who are constantly reneging on agreed appointments have a serious problem. Worse yet, it’s not just single widowed mother who is suffering. Her child is suffering too.

We are intrigued by the fact that more than a few parents are doing so. This makes it feel like something of a cabal. And yet, we do not know the nature of our widow's relationships with these parents. Does she socialize with the women beyond her constant efforts to set up play dates? Are the other women all married? Do the other children all have fathers? 

The dynamic is unclear. Before addressing the question of how to deal with her son, she might try to socialize with some of the local mothers, to have coffee, to build social trust.

We like to think that it’s all about politics. But the social fabric is shredded by people who are not good to their word.

With this introduction, consider this excerpt from the letter:

So, I make plans to have other kids over, or take them to the pool or the movies or the science center or hiking. The problem is, his friends’ parents constantly bail on our plans. There’s always something more important or more pressing that comes up — like the mom didn’t realize the dad had made plans to visit Grandma; it turns out that Uncle Bob is in town, so they’re going to spend the day with him, they need to head up to the cottage early, etc. It’s crushing for my son and for me. I just smile and say, “No worries, we’ll plan for another time.” But inside, my rage is barely containable. I often put down the phone and burst into tears, anticipating my son’s disappointment and the constant “There’s nothing to do” whine if I don’t find a replacement plan. But sometimes these adults cancel with only a few hours’ notice, making it hard to come up with a new plan. Of course, my son is also mad — but being 8, he sometimes takes it out on me, which makes me more mad and sad.

My family often accuses me of being inflexible. I think if you say you’ll do something, you should find a way to do it, because people might be depending on you. They point out that things change and you need to be able to shift and adapt. But I feel like there’s a fine line between being flexible and being walked all over. I often feel like people let me down and then expect me to brush it off by being “flexible.” Are all of these people walking all over me? Are my expectations too high? Maybe they just don’t think about the effect their cancellations have.

Since Polly believes that these sometime friends are not walking all over her, we may safely conclude that they are. Clearly, she is not a priority. Clearly, plans with her are contingent on not being able to find something better to do. Or else, she might come across as so needy that people are afraid to say No to a request for a play date. 

She says that her son is perfectly sociable, but we know nothing more about it. And we do not know what these children do over weekends or over summer vacation. 

So, she should not just get over it. But, she should also not make a point of confronting these people.

We do not know whether she is dealing with the parents of her son’s classmates or with neighborhood children. As for how she should deal with it… the first step is: stop making plans with people who cancel all the time. This will guarantee that they will not bail on you. I promise. 

Point two: she should sign her son up for organized activities, like Little League or the Cub Scouts. Or perhaps even Kung Fu classes. Or piano lessons. Or summer camp. Many options exist. We do not know which might be best for Frustrated Mother, but there are options where no one ever bails, and where the boy might be able to make some new friends, participate in activities with them, and not have to depend on his mother’s social standing.

Besides, it might free her up and give her more personal time.


Sam L. said...

There's too much we don't know to make guesses or conclusions here

Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sam L. said...

I'm guessing someone made guesses and came to conclusions.

Ares Olympus said...

Not particularly Sam... I just noted there are two approaches to life, one where your word is your bond, and you put the needs of others above your own, and the other where life is full of more opportunities than you can't do everything, and so you can make soft plans that can be adjusted last minute. I only suggested the middle ground is a 24 hour window where plans shouldn't be changed without very good reason. But even better is small group plans where one or two individuals backing out don't spoil things.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@Ares Olympus - I take it you haven't actually brought children through this process.