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Question: I’m the mother of a feisty two-year-old. We go on a lot of play dates, and although I like my friends’ kids, sometimes it’s all I can do to be nice to my own daughter, let alone everyone else’s children. But some mothers are really good at this. They’re always full of smiles and compliments, hugs, and snacks. Basically, it bugs me. Do you guys have any advice on how I can handle the situation better?—Caitlin Warner
Answer: Caitlin, as you must know, we’re in the middle of a war. And when you’re at war, it’s smart to try to understand your enemy. Thus the enduring popularity of movies like Run Silent, Run Deep and The Hunt for Red October. We love the cat-and-mouse game. We love stories of clever captains pitted against each other, both noble, both working within a code of ethics. Fate forces them to disagree, not their hearts! Yet they struggle to out-maneuver each other and in the end the box office receipts are huge.
And so it is in the Mommy Wars. To understand how and why you’re being out-mothered, you must think of yourself not as the sleep-deprived mommy of a toddler but as the captain of a war vessel—say, the submarine (it’s sleeker). And your enemy is not the lost-her-baby-weight-faster mother of your child’s best friend, but the captain of a rather drab and chunky battleship hunting you. Let’s consider possible motivations.
1. Is she a stay-at-home mom and you’re not? Then she might be trying to give your children some of the nurturing they’re not getting from you.
2. Is she a working mom and you’re not? Then she’s eager to prove she can work and nurture children, even though you can’t.
3. Do you have a boy and she has a girl? She wants in on some of that mother-son love. A girl’s adoration of her father can be oppressive.
You never would have used bread, peanut butter, and birdseed in quite that way, but it bought you an hour of free time. 4. Do you have a girl and she has two boys? Pity the woman!
5. Do you both have boys? Well, it takes a village, as they say, but that doesn’t mean she has to take your son to the bathroom. She probably just wants to see if he’s circumcised or not.
6. Does she have two children over the age of four and you have a child under two? Then she may be trying to decide whether or not to have a third. Let her coo at your baby! If she goes for it and gets pregnant again, that smile on her face will soon be replaced by an expression of nauseated gloom. On the other hand, if you want these excruciating play dates to end some day, better pretend Junior has a fever and get out of there fast.
7. Is her child enrolled in an academically rigorous preschool? All those hugs and complicated words of encouragement are designed to calculate how many leaps and bounds her child is ahead of yours. She’s probably measuring your child’s cranium size.
8. Are either one of you (but not both) home-schooling your child? Then find another play date fast. Like Plain and Star-Bellied Sneetches, you don’t mix well.
9. Do either one of you (but not both) subscribe to Martha Stewart Living? See Sneetches, above. In this case the hugs are measuring costume size. She’ll be sewing your child a princess dress for Halloween because you’re incapable of doing it.
10. And finally, are you a “let them cry it out” fanatic while she’s still nursing 20 times a night? She’s looking for signs of starvation. (And—admit it—you’re looking for signs of destructive co-dependency if not insanity.)
Now, Caitlin, if you study this list the way the Japanese destroyer studied the garbage of the American sub in Run Silent, Run Deep, you will know your enemy. Then, the next time you feel out-mothered, you can fire off a torpedo and dive deep! For example, if that too-chipper mom starts laughing with your kid, tell her she reminds you of an overeager intern—which makes sense because, as a working mom, she probably spends more time with interns than with her own children. Tilt your head and make a sad face to show you’re not judging her.
If she’s being too sweet to your girl, say you remember hearing a little rhyme once that goes like this: “A son is a son until he takes a wife, but a daughter remains a daughter for life.” Catchy, huh? But you’re sure her sons will be different. At least one of them will live above her garage and whittle pencils until he’s 90.
Cite articles. There’s so much being written right now about motherhood and parenting, no one can keep track. Say you read in an article in The New Atlantic by somebody-or-other Warnagan that parents who fawn over other parent’s children are jeopardizing their own children’s safety. Say that studies show that 34 percent of the offspring of such parents grow up with feelings of inadequacy that prevent them from getting into the college of their choice. But there’s good news! You just saw an ad for a device from Safety Foremost™ that helps restrain this kind of parent. It’s a buzzer you wear against your chest. You’re not sure how it works, but it’s supposed to have a 150 percent success rate.
If the play date turns crafty, you could take the path of least resistance. In other words, instead of believing your friend is merely overcompensating for her lost career, try to enjoy her creativity. What’s so bad, really, about a mother rallying a group of bored preschoolers to make presents for the birds? You never would have used bread, peanut butter, and birdseed in quite that way, but it bought you an hour of free time.
Do not try to become more friendly with the children. This is important. It’s annoying, but children are preternaturally wise about these things. Your efforts will only earn you a nervous facial tic, an irrevocable loss of self-esteem, and enough unused construction paper to pave your road to you-know-where.
Two final words of advice, Caitlin. Drink more. These should be happy days. You have a child! You have time to spend with her! And yet, alas, it’s true: There’s never been a play date that a glass of wine wouldn’t have improved.