Her eldest has just started school, meaning Sally Coffey is the one stood outside the school gates trying to work out how to make friends and hopefully not alienate people.
My son has started school. As he settles in and tries to get to grips with his new world, I’m faced with an unexpected problem – the social minefield for me that comes with his new territory. I have to play my part and I really don’t want to mess it up for him.
My son is confident, chatty, and – dare I say it – quite good fun, so I’m fairly sure I don’t have much to worry about when it comes to him making friends (but I’m a mum and worrying seems to be written into my job description, so worry I do).
Entering a new social circle is a daunting prospect for most of us. I still remember the agony of starting middle school aged 11 when most of the kids had started aged nine. Friendship groups were well formed and it was for them to decide if I was cool enough to be invited into the fold or too weird to be seen with. Luckily one of the more popular girl cliques decided I was the former. Not so luckily, they later U-turned on this decision and so I started high school in a similar predicament – friendless and lonely.
Now I’m not saying that primary school children are as cut-throat as pre-teen girls, but I am acutely aware that as my son’s nursery is a mile or so away from where his new school is, he is starting from scratch, whereas many of the kids already have friends.
Added to my anxiety is the realisation that it’s not just up to my little boy to ingratiate himself to people.
Until now my involvement in my son’s social life has been perfunctory. I’ve managed to get away with smiles of recognition at other parents when we collect our children from nursery and idle chitchat at the occasional birthday party, but now they’re at school there’s a sense that we need to be more invested.
And so I’ve initiated a rather awkward charm offensive. I’m aiming for friendly and approachable, without coming across as too desperate or clingy. My thinking is that if other parents think I’m OK then they’re more likely to let their kids play with my son and invite him to their parties. Pathetic, I know, but it’s all I’ve got.
“Maybe my dishevelled appearance will endear me to people. Everyone wants to see someone looking worse than them in the morning, right? I can take that bullet, it’s fine.”
So how’s it gone so far? Well, I’m pleased to report I’ve already been invited bowling by one of the dads (with my son, of course, otherwise that would just be weird). Not bad, you may say; your first playdate in the bag?
Well, it was going that way but unfortunately the invite was unexpected and my face must have reacted badly, as the dad quickly retracted it, saying, “Too soon, too soon,” and I’ve barely seen him since.
My awkwardness at the school gates isn’t helped by the fact that I’m very much on the periphery of what I would consider being a ‘proper mum’, particularly when faced with some of the perfect specimens who somehow have time to straighten their hair and apply actual makeup before doing the school run and who NEVER forget to bring snacks on collection. I don’t bake (dear God), I only iron if I have a job interview or a wedding to go to (and to be honest, even then my boyfriend usually steps in), and who on earth has time to dry their hair in the morning? Not me.
Add to this the fact that I can usually be seen running to the school gates just as the bell is being rung and that I have done the school run on a total of around two hours’ sleep on more than one occasion (did I mention I have a five-month-old baby?). I think it’s safe to say I’ve not presented the best version of myself.
But perhaps this could be my saving grace. Maybe my dishevelled appearance will endear me to people. Everyone wants to see someone looking worse than them in the morning, right? I can take that bullet, it’s fine. It’s mine.
And bowling invite/uninvite aside, I think I’m doing OK. I’ve since been invited on my second playdate by another mum, which I’ve politely accepted (not too eager, I hope). I’m gradually getting used to the etiquette of the after-school playground (they play, we chat), and I’m finding a lot of the parents to be nice, normal people – you never know, I may even make some friends of my own.
My son, in turn, seems to be making inroads; he’s bonded with lots of other boys over doing anything that gives them an excuse to play fight.
It’s not all plain sailing; he confided to me the other day that he thinks his ‘best friend’ doesn’t really like him. “He doesn’t seem to recognise me,” he said. Ghosted at four years old – that’s harsh. But, being four, he’s resilient too. The very next day, all it took was for one of the kids to say hello and he bounded over without giving it a second thought.
Perhaps it will all end in tears… or perhaps he doesn’t really need me at all.
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Sally is an editor and writer from south London. She is mum to two boys, which she can't quite believe as she doesn't consider herself a grown up yet.