“Cheerio?” I offered, separating the zippered seal from a baggie and extending my arm to the circle of moms. We were gathered on blankets at the park where baby and toddler talk was in full swing. When will night wakings end? If my child isn’t walking, should I worry? Which car seat is best?

The clear, plastic baggie dangled from my fingertips. Much like a policeman stopping traffic with his palm, one mom put up a hand to block my gesture. She wasn’t about to wave this snack through. “No, thank you.”

“We don’t do Cheerios,” said another.

Judgment thick as the humidity on a New England summer’s day penetrated the atmosphere, only I lived in California, and my mouth went dry like the air.

Quick, announce the new salt and vinegar kale chips you spotted at Whole Foods, rave about the green drink the hubby blended this morning—just leave out opting for coffee, heavy on cream and sugar. Next week, pack rice cakes.

My choice in the cereal that’s been “waking up America for more than 75 years” had just caused me to commit social suicide in a mom group rooted in giving birth.

I had hoped I hadn’t set off a hot debate on toddler nutrition. Once, a dispute over pacifiers had broken out.

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Feeling permanently profiled as social standing alarm bells sounded through my emotional intelligence brain waves, I clammed up.

Blanket for one, please?

Once maternity leave from my job started, I knew I’d be in search of new colleagues—ones pushing strollers and singing “Wheels on the Bus” on squishy, colorful mats at indoor gym Mommy and Me classes. Though my daughter’s needs came first, she was a conduit in making mom friends.

Word on the baby block was that childbearing produced lifelong friendships.

“We’ve known each other since our kids were in diapers!” friends with grown kids, recalled. Some connections dated back to Lamaze classes, labor and delivery wings at hospitals, or grocery store lines when buying diapers.

“Why do you go to that group?” asked a pre-mom-season friend, the one you can vent to about anything. “Every Thursday you come home upset.”

I opened the cabinet doors to the kitchen cupboard. Golden and tall, there it stood. The enemy.

I snatched the Cheerios box off the shelf like it were a pesky food moth.

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“Well not every Thursday,” I corrected, scanning the nutritional facts index. “Last time a couple of the judgy ones weren’t there and the week before, we all went for coffee. Off-blanket, some are OK.”

Grams of Sugar: 1

Total Fat: 2g

I returned the box to the pantry.

It was true I came home from the group outings conducting a personal evaluation of my parenting skills. I worked at a talk radio station where you couldn’t escape opinions on issues, but chit-chat on this ground cover could sometimes be a downer. If I was getting triggered by a reaction from a whole-grain oat, something was off with me, them, or the chemistry combination. Only one thing to do: shop differently.

Over passing seasons, I’ve learned that friendships possess different shelf lives. 

Even if a mom connection didn’t move through the decades of newborn mom glider to senior citizen rocking chair stage, keeping good old-fashioned company sufficed. There was purpose in swapping stories, acting as sounding boards for concerns, or providing release from being housebound, and meeting up for walks. Sharing frustration over not having slept or baby milestones our kids had or hadn’t met was comforting even if we didn’t become sorority-sisters close.

I examined my friendship purchasing habits. I didn’t want to push the needs of my kids aside due to popular opinion or trends. Family, friends, teachers, and authors helped educate me with approaches and perspectives I may not have otherwise considered. When entry into my ideology was overstepped, I could be gracious and set boundaries rather than feel pressured to be shaped or judged by someone else’s viewpoints.

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I would later observe many a mom’s approach that would cause nearby eyes to stare in speculation or that evoked a naysayer to criticize—be it at birthday parties, school pick-up huddles at the curb, or playdates. Like cereal boxes on shelves, it was OK to pass by when I felt my bowl emptied by an eye-roll. I was the consumer in my child’s life.

As we share in the motherhood journey and cultivate friendships, we can hopefully be ourselves regardless of who’s piled on our blanket. And if you’re OK with Cheerios, come on over to mine. There’ll be plenty of space—and Os—for you to enjoy.

Linda Tang

A wife and mom of two daughters, Linda has authored a YA romance novel and writes for parenting publications. Her PR and marketing career has circled the globe working at Miss Universe, Inc, ‘TEEN Magazine and KABC TalkRadio in Los Angeles.