(Originally published March 23, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)
The email chain started a few months ago. So many friends from my college circle lived in or around New York City, that it seemed a good idea to plan a dinner. You know, get the band back together. Nothing formal. No need to wait for the university to plan it for us.
The date was picked, location settled, and at least a dozen women and men planned to be there. What a treat it would be to catch up with so many acquaintances after almost twenty years.
And then the week arrived and I was nearly nauseous at the thought.
First, there was the location. The initial email from one of the women was, “I am glad to host either at our apt or the downtown house.” Wow, the apartment, the downtown house, (got a pool, got a pond). Good living in Manhattan.
A later email clarified, that no, my friend was not actually long on real estate, “The Downtown House” was an exclusive club where there would be a guest list, a private room and a hip downtown atmosphere. Which, of course, made it almost worse.
The night before the dinner, the real crisis hit. No matter the size or contents of your closet, every woman knows that paralyzing fear. What to wear?
This particular event left me without my usual crutch of asking a friend what she was wearing. Each of these women lived in Manhattan, and I was afraid someone was going to use the words “skinny” and “jeans” in the same sentence.
But more than where to go or what to wear, I was most anxious about what to say.
Normally, I’m the last person in the room to be short on words or self-confidence. However, this would be an Ivy League dinner and the table would look something like this (okay, exactly like this): lawyer, doctor, lawyer, doctor, lawyer, banker, corporate VP, banker, corporate VP. And then there was me.
And, well, “blogger” just sounds way too much like “blah-ger” or “blomit” to throw it out there with my head held high. The word “freelance” really isn’t much of an improvement. And once it’s been ten years, it’s probably time to drop the, “well I used to…”
Fundamentally, I knew the dinner would be great, but all I could see on my plate was a heaping portion of “I used to be somebody and now I’m somebody’s mom.”
Truly, I’m not interested in the tongue twisting debate of working mothers, stay-at-home-mothers, mothers who work at home, or mothers who would prefer to work in neither locale. The roles are not a debate to be won or lost.
Regardless, we open our conversations and make small talk with the nearest common denominator. If you are on the baseball sidelines or one more birthday party at the go-kart park, then the line of questioning is, “how many?” and “what are their ages?”
But if you are at a cocktail party or a fundraising dinner, then inevitably “how about that rain?” will be followed with “so, what do you do?”
I realize this is intended as the most benign of questions and meant to be about as personal as the weather. But the silence seems to grow louder the longer I wait to respond. The question calls out to be answered simply with a title or a company name. And when you have neither to supply, then it seems that a more personal question couldn’t have been asked.
This single conversation is a minefield for me every time.
But this group of people should have been different. I’d known them half my life and we’d collectively matured into adults together. How could they make me feel like a seventh grader heading to the middle school dance?
“Reunions are supposed to be a time to be together, celebrate life’s changes and get back in touch with each other’s lives,” explains Long Island psychologist, Linda Sapadin. “They are not supposed to be a career contest or a beauty contest.”
Intellectually, yes, that’s an easy argument to make. But, emotionally, reunions can feel like a checkpoint or a pit stop on life’s achievement track.
And then, Dr. Sapadin’s years as a relationship specialist and success coach come to bear as she names my affliction. Social comparison theory.
“We don’t compare ourselves to the average person, we compare ourselves to our own social network. How am I doing against these people I started off with, and how will they judge me?”
Sure enough, I was doing it to myself. The morning’s visit to the orthodontist, the appointment with the gutter expert and The Downtown House conundrum weren’t enough. I had added the universal burden of “measuring up” to my to-do list.
“Particularly people who were successful in very competitive schools seem to think they can have it all,” she explains – obviously forgetting that I have asked her for an interview, not a one sentence personal analysis. “People take different paths in life, and all of these paths show us that you can’t have it all or do it all at the same time.”
And my path had me on an afternoon train, hurtling towards Penn Station, New York. Surprisingly, as the dinner got closer, my anxiety began to dissipate.
First, there was a pre-drink with one of the bankers. And what did he want to talk about? His kids and mine.
Then, while still down the street, I got an email from one of the doctors who’d already arrived at the dinner. “On the 6th floor, in some sort of David Lynch film. Food and beverages. Come.” Oh yes, there would be skinny jeans aplenty and every flavor of uber-hip, metro-techno character at the exclusive club, but not among my people. Come.
With each new arrival to the party, there was a flurry of enthusiasm and laughs. And it was just like Louis Armstrong’s line, “Sayin’ How do you do? They’re really saying I love you” from What A Wonderful World. Every time someone said, “so what are you doing now?” they were really saying, “It’s so good to see you.”
Our last classmate arrived grinning just like he used to breeze into the dining hall twenty years ago, “Hey, guys, which way’s the bar?”
Yes, the cocktail party could begin. No flak jacket required.