Is it normal to feel like I'm in middle school again -- at 43? I wrote recently about wanting to protect my sixth-grade daughter from the hornet's nest of middle school, and knowing I had to take a step back for the sake of her emotional development. The corollary, which I avoided writing or thinking about until now, is how unsettled I'm feeling about my own social identity these days. Whether I'm projecting my child's experience onto my own or vice versa, I'm not sure. But lately, I feel as uncertain about where I fit in as I did when I was 12.
After a typically miserable middle school experience marked by loneliness, insecurity and unhappiness, I was lucky to emerge into high school more or less unscathed. At my all-girls' school, we worked out the worst of our social aggressions by 9th grade. Also, many of the most discontented decamped for other schools by high school, leaving greater tranquility in their turbulent wake. I certainly had some friendship struggles in high school, but I managed to stay out of the worst of it. My few close friends and I had each others' backs.
College was a happy surprise, a friendship fiesta. Thrown among so many like-minded peers, I was never happier. My singing group, my musical theater friends, my roommates, my fellow New Yorkers -- I was so lucky in my college friendships, and I blossomed with their love and support. My romantic life may have been consistently disastrous, but my college friends were the beacons that kept me from foundering. My life is still richer for having met them.
Alas, the post-grad years sent my nearest and dearest scattering from sea to shining sea. First to graduate schools and jobs, then to marriages and hometowns, college friends are too quickly, and in too many cases, dispersed across thousands of miles. Even if distance doesn't conspire against us these days, the mundane details of life do. Children and finances hamper our ability to meet up, and while Facebook keeps some friendships feeling fresh, it has nothing on the rejuvenating joy of face-to-face conversation and laughter. The weekends we've stolen away together, the lunches we sneak into busy workdays, the college reunions when we dance and stay up as late as we did when we were 19: these are some of my brightest memories of the last two decades.
Some people value money and possessions above all else; some crave worldly achievement and approbation; some, like me, find their deepest satisfaction in the relationships and friendships they form and nurture over the years. My primary and most cherished relationships are with my family. But I wouldn't put my friendships far below. Some people prefer to have a small cadre of loyal friends; I feel richer and more complete with a large circle of good friends. I like to make friends frequently but well.
There's surely a narcissistic element to the value I place on friendship, or an insecurity. Perhaps I need to see myself reflected in eyes that value and admire me because I am not always sure how much I value or admire myself. Especially as a stay-at-home parent and writer, lacking coworkers or clients, my friendships -- which often provide me with the only adult interactions I have each day between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. -- feel more important than ever in my forties. So it's an unpleasant surprise to acknowledge the long-dormant feelings of insecurity that have cropped up in the last few years.
When your child enters middle school, the bonds you've formed with fellow school parents start to stretch and, sometimes, fray. Your friendships with other parents are vicariously subject to the same stresses your children's friendships endure. Digital communication amplifies that effect: when your daughter texts you from school that so-and-so is being mean to her, it affects your relationship with that child's parents. It's much harder to slough off hurtful interactions that no longer feel as impulsive and thoughtless as they did when the children were younger.
There's also a distancing effect as you become less involved in the day-to-day logistics of your child's friendships. If there's an influx of new students into his school or if he enters a new school himself, you are less connected to the other families than in lower school. The intimacy of playdates and neighborhood classmates comes to an end, and for a stay-at-home parent in particular, even one who may have longed for that day, it's unsettling. In two years, I went from knowing every family in the grade, some for as long as eight years, to never having met two-thirds of the families who send their children to school with mine. No wonder I feel unmoored.
I've had uncharacteristic spats with close friends in the last few months that left me shaken far beyond the relative insignificance of what we actually argued about. I've found myself stupidly jealous of friendships and events displayed on Facebook ("What an awesome night at X's birthday dinner!"). I sometimes feel left out -- really left out -- in a way I haven't since, well, since middle school. And that's what I keep coming back to: am I unwittingly reliving those terrible years?
I try to ground myself in the friendships I know are rock solid, reaching out across time and space if necessary, to nourish those bonds and reassure myself of their strength. I focus on new friends outside the parameters of school: how liberating to enjoy a friendship without the baggage of being parents together! It's the inverse of what I felt as a new mother, when other parents were often the only things that kept me from going insane. Now it's a breath of fresh air to not talk about our kids; as their emotional lives get messier, I long to keep my own friendships clean and pure. Most of all, I hope that what I tell my daughter will also be true for me, so I keep my head down and assure myself that this will pass in time. Like her, I hope I'm going to find my footing again soon. I'm really ready to be done with middle school, again.