Tuesday, July 18, 2006

It’s Hard Out There For a Mom

It can be really tough to get involved in a small community. Small town people have a tendency to be very insular and exclude new people, which strikes me as counterproductive in the long run.

I’ll give you an example. I moved here 10 years ago as a mom of small children. Momming small kids is an isolating job, particularly for someone with no good role models as to how to keep active in the community, or find babysitters or other support services, etc. So, for me, that meant that most of my activities were centered on my home and children. We had the occasional children’s sporting event or school activity, but mostly I’ve stayed home and done stuff here. The town has limited resources, no park district, few compelling entertainments available, and it’s at least 45 minutes interstate driving from the nearest real city.

Anyway, as my children have grown older, I’ve tried to branch out beyond the boundaries of my property line and join things. When I was working, I joined the Business and Professional Women’s Association. I remained a member for about a year, despite noticing that scholarships were given only to those whose parents and grandparents were born and raised here, and that if you didn’t have a known surname, you weren’t really considered to be a real person. Old-timers hit me up for networking and sales, and if I didn’t have a fancy connection to share with them or didn’t buy something, I was pretty quickly relegated to either some useless grunt committee or total invisibility. I don’t take that crap well, so I quit.

I tried a couple of churches. One was overwhelmingly infested with religiotainment – lots of bad, sophomoric tunes with accompanying taped music or amateur banjo-players, and the words were projected onto screens behind the pulpit. I find that particularly alarming, as if I were not able to haul my sorry ass into church without the promise of videos and rustic hip-hop.

Another had crazed church ladies who would corner me next to the coat room to tell me about the spider God sent them to teach them not to judge his creatures by their appearance but by their function. I lost 45 minutes one morning to a lady who I’d swear was cross-eyed and over-caffeinated in addition to having an excess of zeal over the Lord’s latest arachnoid blessing. I thought my bladder would save me, but she followed me into the ladies’ room to let me know more about God’s spider. I haven’t been back, unsurprisingly. It will probably take me another 10 years to work up the courage to face another church.

I joined a library program which fizzled due to lack of readers, a mom’s group in which I was the oldest mom and had the added disadvantage of not being from here, which meant no one would talk to me, and I thought about joining the garden club until I found out you had to be sponsored in, like it was the DAR or something. I’ve tried tutoring, teaching classes, and the PTO. Same thing. If you’re not from here in terms of generations, no one will give you the time of day.

I’m not alone in this. My husband and I both have talked with other “newcomers” and found their experiences to be the same or worse. One mom related her experience of having walked out of her house to see a neighbor leaving her home. She waved. The woman said, in a clear, carrying voice, “I already have enough friends. Don’t bother.” Wow. What a warm, welcoming town.

Anyway, aside from my support group, the only other group that has been welcoming is the Chicks with Sticks knitting group. And, really, the “group” has a core membership of two – me and one gal in her early 20’s who is definitely fed up with the small town life, despite being a generational alumna, and is working toward a degree and an exit plan. We get along fine.

Over the last 2 years or so we’ve had a lot of fly-by participants – the two school teachers who decided dog training was more interesting, a couple of scared-looking older ladies who just wanted help on figuring something out, a few people who want to know if we’ll fix or finish something for them and are very disgruntled to find out there’d be a charge, and many people who decided we were NTK (not their kind). One of these was the wife of a local school administrator. She blew in one evening late, showed off her truly hideous, lumpy poncho (worn over suede pants and a silk blouse), asked a couple of questions and never showed up again. I guess we weren’t her type – by which I mean that she didn’t see any faces she recognized or wanted to associate with, so she ditched us. And that happens a lot. Someone will show up for an hour, let loose with an interrogation on our antecedents, who we know, who we’re related to, what church we frequent, how long we’ve lived here, and tell us who they know and how they’re connected, wait expectantly for praise or envy, and when it’s not forthcoming (because I’m thinking, “who the hell is that?”) leave, never to return. I’m not rude, in fact, I’m pretty nice, I just don’t know why the heck any of that matters.

It strikes me as being peculiar to either this small town or small towns in general. Old-timers have expectations as to who they’d like to spend their time with, either due to comfort levels or social aspirations, and if those preferences aren’t met, they split. I don’t envy that mindset at all, which is probably why I’m a willing outcast from this particular microcosm for the most part. I can’t imagine going to a newly or recently formed group and finding only known faces. I’d be disappointed, not pleased, if that were the case. For me, part of the reason to join a group is to meet new people, hear new things, listen to different viewpoints, and learn about new folks. I really don’t understand the insularity of the old-timers, and I hope I never do.

I figure that with housing developments being built, old businesses dying off and new ones with greater scope and appeal opening up, we newbies will reach a point where we outnumber the old-timers. We’ll have and populate our own clubs and groups and leagues, and the other newbies will be more like me. They’ll have lived elsewhere, probably several elsewheres, and will be more open-minded and friendly towards any other newcomers as well. At least I hope so!

Until then, I soldier on, support group on Tuesdays and knitting on Thursdays, checking for churches that seem to be fairly loon-free, and hoping for another club or group to open up. Something esoteric would be nice – medieval crafts or Friends of Noam Chomsky, or Bloggers F2F. Maybe I’ll run an ad for a German club for adults. You never know….


Missy said...

OMG you must live in my town. I've lived in the same town for 3 1/2 years now, i don't know any one here. My husband was raised here but he's not a local either because his family "migrated" here. I so hear you, no one will even talk to you. People drive or walk by and look at you, and then talk about you with in ear shot. The churches are all the same way too. I so wish that there was a knitting group of some kind here. Good for you for starting one.

KarenK said...

Interesting viewpoint. I've moved a lot in my life and find myself happiest when I find one really close friend, and to heck with the joining. Sounds as though you're keeping yourself busy and interesting, which makes you the kind of person that open-minded people will want to know. Good for you.

BoS said...

Thank you both. Sometimes I wonder if I'm being a hugely peanut-brained loon myself, and what I should do about it!

marina said...

I live in a small town, and it;s true there are the old timers who are tough to get to know. But there are also a lot of newbies and they are very happy to make friends. I have joined the AAUW (Amer. Assoc. of University Women--you need a college degree or at least AA degree to join. The women are mostly retired school teachers, but very interested in politics, and the wider world. I also joined a watercolor class which has turned out to be a great group of compatible people who are interested in art. Perhaps you need to start a group of knitters or whatever you'd like to share? Or else, as you say, as more new people move into those new houses, they will be looking for local friends (and you can be the one "old timer" who is pleasant to them :-)

Shelly said...

It's not just small towns. Last year I moved to one of the biggest cities in the US. I am totally anonymous. I have exactly zero friends. I met one person, but then she tried to get me into Amway.

BoS said...

I've moved a lot during my life -- about 12 or 13 times, and I swear, this is the toughest town to break into that I've come across. All I can do is keep plugging on and keeping my hopes up. I have noticed that oldtimers who lived elsewhere for a while then moved back tend to be friendlier. C'est la vie!