There are times in our lives when we can be sitting in a crowd of people and feel very alone. The Mommy Wall outside our local elementary school is one of those places.
The Mommy Wall is a low brick wall that forms part of a planter that runs along the front of the school. Its top is wide enough to accommodate adult-sized backsides and it’s just high enough to make it a perfect place to sit. One end of the wall is in the shade and protected from rain, and the other is in the sun, so no matter what the weather, you can find somewhere that suits you. The best part of the Mommy Wall though, is that from there you can see the gate where the kids are released after school. When the final bell rings, you’re in a prime position to pick out your child from the sea of swirling, whirling kids, backpacks and homework.
For that reason alone, the Mommy Wall is a popular place to sit. Moms and Grandmas (and the occasional Dads and Grandpas) congregate there in droves, chatting away while waiting for the stampede. They talk about Little League and sleepovers, dance lessons and scouting, and who said what to whom and what they should have said instead. Thrown together by the demands of their children’s activities, people who may not have otherwise had reason to interact with one another are now friends. They listen to each other brag about their children’s accomplishments, commiserate about homework, and offer advice about dealing with the ups and downs parenting. They celebrate their children’s successes, validate one another’s experiences, and in a hundred little ways tell each other that although parenting isn’t easy, they’re doing as well as everyone else is. They are not alone. The Mommy Wall is a ten minute support group that meets every day.
For some parents, though, that’s not why they sit at the Mommy Wall. They sit there because not only does it give them a good view of the kids coming out of the gate, it’s someplace they can sit where their child’s teacher can find them. It’s not prearranged meeting – they don’t know that their child’s teacher will necessarily be looking for them. It’s just that sometimes she is. Once a week, or twice a week, or sometimes more often than that. Depending on what’s going on in the child’s life, the teacher may feel the need to touch base with mom frequently. Typically those aren’t fun times.
If the teacher is looking for mom, there’s a reason. It might just be about class work that didn’t get finished or something the child needs to remember to bring in to school. It might be to let mom know about something particularly good the child did that day. But typically it’s to let mom know there’s a problem. Junior did something that he shouldn’t have. Or Junior didn’t do something that he should have. Or, which is often the case with kids with autism, Junior did something that no one else ever thought to do before and that no one ever thought to tell him that he shouldn’t do (like while stepping out of class to go to the office, taking a side trip to the cafeteria to see what’s in the refrigerator. That way he could get evidence to support his case to the principal that she should fire the lunch lady and hire somebody who cooks something he likes.) Two out of three times, if teacher is looking for mom, it’s because something bad happened.
Those moms (and dads) who are sitting on the Mommy Wall in case the teacher wants to find them, are generally not happy. They are not chatting away with the other parents. They may not even know the other parents. Junior may not be able to participate in after school activities and so they may never have met them. Homework may take too much of his time, he may have therapy/doctor appointments, he may not have the skills to participate, he may have social difficulties that make it hard for him to get along with others, or the stress of getting through the school day may already be all the family can handle. If Junior doesn’t play baseball, mom and dad won’t meet other parents through baseball. If Junior doesn’t do Scouts, mom and dad won’t know the Scouting parents. If their child doesn’t have friends who invite him over after school, mom and dad won’t meet other parents that way. And if their child has difficulties, mom and dad may not have the time or energy to participate in the PTA or school booster groups or community activities like church. If parents are sitting on the Mommy Wall so the teacher can find them, there’s a good chance they’re sitting alone in a crowd of people.
These parents don’t get the benefit of the daily support group; in fact, it often makes them feel more alone. They overhear the conversations of other parents and it underlines how different their family’s life is from everyone’s around them. They get to hear about soccer games and sporting events that their child can’t participate in. They hear about social events their child wasn’t invited to. They listen to parents talk about accomplishments that their child hasn’t and may never achieve. If their child is struggling, they probably aren’t hearing other parents talking about what they’re going through. Parents don’t tend to chat about how their child hit another kid, or about him having a major temper tantrum in the library, or swearing at the principal, or having a toileting difficulty, or being three years behind in reading. Junior’s accomplishments aren’t something other parents would even necessarily celebrate. Going a week without ending up in the counselor’s office is not a milestone most parents can relate to. It’s not that they would look down on a family going through that, it’s just that their experiences are so very different that they wouldn’t really understand. The parents who need a support group the most are the ones who aren’t getting it.
Parents who sit on the Mommy Wall so the teacher can find them, often think they are the only ones there for that reason. They don’t see that in that crowd of folks who all seem to know each other, there are a handful of people who are waiting, too. Different parents, waiting for different children and different teachers. Different families with different challenges, but with more in common than they know. All of them mustering the courage to wait for the report on how their child did. All of them doing the best they can to get their family from today to tomorrow. All of them worried about what their child’s future will bring and how they will handle it. If they knew there were other parents there like them, they could find the support they need. But they don’t.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve sat on the Mommy Wall yourself. It may not have been an actual wall – your school might have had benches or a shady spot under a tree or maybe you just waited by the school’s front door. But you know what I’m talking about. You’ve sat there, stressed out and feeling alone. You’ve watched other families buzzing about their busy, normal lives. You may not be sitting on the wall now, but you remember what it was like.
So here’s your assignment. Go find someone who’s currently sitting on the wall and introduce yourself. Chat them up. Ask them how their day is. Find out who their kid is and how he’s doing. You don’t have to be scary-stalker-like. Just have a conversation. Share a little about your family. If they find out your child has a few difficulties, they may feel comfortable talking about their child. Or maybe not. But at least they’ll know they aren’t alone. And next week, when you see them sitting there, say hi again, and do it the next time you see them, too. You don’t have to be their best friend; just be friendly.
You may not think that a smile and a wave can have that much affect on someone who’s sitting on the wall, or that a few moments of commiseration can really help someone make it through their day. But I want you to think back to the times when your child was having a really hard time. Remember how you felt? The panic? The fear? Wouldn’t it have been nice if someone who understood what you were going through, who had been there and survived it, had taken a few minutes to sit down and chat? If someone had helped celebrate your child’s accomplishments, commiserated about his difficulties, and offered advice about dealing with the ups and downs of parenting? If they had validated your experiences and told you were doing as well as anyone else in your situation could? If you had known you weren’t alone?
All of us sitting on the Mommy Wall need a friend. If we don’t reach out to one another, it won’t happen. We’ll all just continue to sit, side by side, alone.