We were the only ones in the restaurant, the lunch crowd not yet trickling in. It was an impromptu last day of school mother-daughter lunch, two moms, two daughters, just catching up and chattering away, excited for summer and all the freedom that the break brings. We talked about vacations, plans for next year, and caught up on all the major fourth-grade happenings from the year past.
Then, my friend, oblivious to the drama this simple question would create, leaned in close and said, “So we’ll see you at the pool party later today, right?” And, pressing further in reaction to my blank stare, “She was invited, you know. All the girls in their grade were.”
She had no idea, of course, that all the girls were not, in fact, invited.
There was no malice or mockery in her question. She was genuinely curious, not knowing yet that the invite didn’t trickle all the way down, that there was one glaring omission from the RSVP list, my daughter.
There was no cool or nonchalant way to handle this, at least not one I have in my social playbook. There wasn’t anything I could say at that moment to protect my daughter from the blooming knowledge that she was excluded, purposefully, from this party or myself from the pain of watching history repeat itself, that my elementary school experience was replaying itself for this miniature version of myself right before my very eyes.
She rescued me, my 10-year-old girl. She recovered faster than I did, searching my face for encouragement, and when she didn’t find it, squeezing my hand with the lightest pressure, saying, “Oh, I can’t go anyway. I have gymnastics.”
And that was that. The heat was off, the awkward conversation closed, easier social topics quickly broached.
But the uncomfortable truth sat there at that corner restaurant table like an uninvited fifth guest to our mother-daughter lunch.
I couldn’t shake it. It hung in the air and churned in my stomach, this knowledge that my daughter—this beautiful, bright, friendly, and vibrant girl—was excluded, somehow deemed other in the social hierarchy of the fourth grade.
She was aware of the party, of course. The whispers and rumors had reached her ears. Someone had already slipped, asking her earlier if she was coming, assuming that she knew. But she didn’t.
First, because the group text where it was planned, appropriately called “Girls Only” is one she hasn’t been invited to. And second, because it was one of those things that was whispered behind her back, conversations abruptly stopped when she walked into the room. You all know the kind, right? Her exclusion couldn’t have been more obvious if it was written on the chalkboard in front of the class. Every single girl in her class knew she wasn’t on that list. It was no secret.
By the time our lunch date rolled around, she was very aware there was a party she wasn’t invited to, which explains why she was able to recover faster than I was. She already had time to absorb the blow.
This idea kills me.
What stings even more, though, as her mother, is that no one thought to invite me, either. Because in all fairness, the host mother wanted everyone to be invited. She really did. She sent a text out to all of the parents in her circle, asking them to spread the word so no one was excluded.
Except I, like my daughter, fall outside any of these social circles, and no one thought to send it to me either.
So, in a way, we are both on the outs.
I am a 42-year-old woman. I have lived my entire life just slightly outside of the normal circles. I have made peace with this discrepancy in my life. Naturally introverted, I understand that I do not need nor desire to be a part of a large group. I work and own my own business, so therefore I don’t have the time to invest in lunches and PTA and get-togethers, instead choosing to spend what precious social time I have on the one-on-one relationships that feed my soul.
So I’m on the outside of this strong, local circle. And after years of realizing what makes me tick, I’ve come to accept and appreciate this about myself, to cherish my deep, rather than wide, relationships.
But my daughter, I’m struggling with her exclusion.
She is unique as well. A competitive gymnast, most of her time is spent in the gym, not at the park or at playdates. The hours she spends working out physically have shaped her differently mentally, too—matured her, gifted her with a strong personality. She is driven and no-nonsense. She has quirks regular girls her age do not have and has very little time or headspace for the things they care about. And she knows this about herself.
It still astounds me. In sixth grade, I was purposefully excluded from a birthday party, and I begged and pleaded myself right into an invitation. A begrudging one, at that. I lacked personal pride, I guess. Where she does not. Instead of groveling to get into the in-crowd and find out what all the behind-her-back whispers were about, she decided instead to hold her head high and cleave to what is comfortable and safe. Her people. Her gym. Her family.
But as a mom who knows the pain of being other, this cuts deep.
I have come to accept the quirks in my personality that keep me on the outside. But when it affects my daughter, and I feel as if it’s at least partially my fault she’s not included, I start to cave. The maybes and what-ifs creep in, leveling me in the dark hours at night when the minutes tick by yet sleep does not come.
Maybe if I had just tried harder or joined that PTA board . . .
What if I had been more social, joined more clubs . . .
I’ll never know the answers to these, of course.
She’s entering fifth grade now, this end-of-year party well in her rearview mirror. But the scars are still tender, the pain close to the surface. She’s worried about her class. Who will be in it? Will she have any friends? She begs me to put her in “gym school,” the homeschool program competitive gymnasts attend, the school I was sure I had a few more years before I had to consider.
And I don’t know what to do. On one hand, she is so strong, stronger than I ever was. She knows who she is. She knows who her people are. She has goals that exist far beyond elementary school playground drama and very little time to partake in it.
She’s bigger than what happens here. And both she and I know it. But she’s still a little girl who wants friends.
Who worries about who she is going to sit with at lunch. Who cried when she got her teacher notification and realized her safe people were not in her class, and furthermore, some very unsafe people were.
My mother’s instinct is to protect her at all costs. I want to apologize to her. To tell her I’m sorry, that this is all my fault. If I had pushed her more, signed up for more playdates—maybe, just maybe—if I had played nice, joined the crowd, tried harder, pushed myself—maybe, just maybe . . . But the thing is there is no maybe here, there just is what is.
My daughter doesn’t fit in. And neither do I.
Whether it’s nature or nurture is neither here nor there, she is living this in real-time and what’s done is done. It hurts in moments like this, moments when she’s sobbing and unsure of herself, excluded and left out. It breaks my heart and I want to fix it, scramble to try to find an alternative, to make excuses, and shield her from the reality that sometimes kids aren’t nice, and this is just her time to be on the receiving end.
In the other moments, though, I watch in awe at this daughter of mine who doesn’t fit in. I watch as she grows beyond this need for acceptance and forges her own path. I watch as she chooses to be a helper in her class, volunteering to be a buddy for one of the special needs kids, instead of desperately trying to find someone cool to befriend and cling to.
I am proud of who she is and how this has shaped her.
She is kind and driven and has a level, even head strong enough to answer the tough on-the-spot questions about a party she isn’t going to. And I believe this is the unexpected gift of not fitting in—this depth, this empathy, this self-awareness.
I’ll take my cues from her, follow her lead as we traverse these familiar not quite cool-crowd waters. At 10 years old, she is already a more adept navigator than I am. And I am proud, so proud, to be her mother. Even when it hurts.