Tuesday 5 March 2013

Mommy Small Talk

You're at a park/playgroup/waiting room and another mother is sitting nearby.  She notices your child playing and says to you, "He's cute.  How old?"

Uh oh.

You are about to engage in Mommy Small Talk.  Everyone hates small talk but recognizes that it performs the valuable social functions of filling the terrifying abyss of uncomfortable silence and facilitating conversations with people you might like to befriend.  But my experience of Mommy Small Talk is that it often hinders friendship and has transformed that uncomfortable silence from terrifying to golden.

It's not that I have a problem talking about being a Mom, but I am only comfortable with it if I feel like I can just be myself and be honest.  I can do that here on my blog because no one is being forced to read my stuff.  If you don't like me you can leave and, unless you leave a comment telling me what a jerk I am, I would never be the wiser.

But with a face-to-face Mom I care about how I present my kids in case they would like to play with her kids.  I care about how I present my parenting because some of my jokes could result in a visit from a Children's Aid Worker.  And I care about how I make her feel because well, I'm a human being.  There's enough pressure that comes from being a Mom and I don't want to be contributing to that if I can possibly help it.

The Oxford Dictionary says that small talk is supposed to be about "unimportant and uncontroversial matters".  But there is nothing unimportant or uncontroversial about Mommy Small Talk.  Seemingly innocent topics like sleeping habits, feeding choices, doctor's visits, even diapering, can be fraught with pitfalls for the unwary conversationalist.  If you are asking the question you run the risk of hitting a very raw nerve and if you are answering the question you are at risk of sounding like an insufferable asshole.

Because here is a valuable truth: when it comes to parenting you can never defend your choices without coming off as a superior shit to someone, somewhere.


Any defense of your parenting choices carries an implied criticism of those who did not make the same choices.  Just the other day I was making Mommy Small Talk with a first-time pregnant acquaintance of mine.  She knows she is having a boy and, even though I didn't ask, she was adamant that her son would be circumcised ASAP (while still in the womb if possible), complete with a small shudder of horror at the alternative.

First time preggers are cute, aren't they?  She had no idea that both my boys are not circumcised.  She had no idea that what I was hearing was "Mothers who do not circumcise their boys are condemning them to a life of ..." whatever it is that made her shudder, I guess.  She has no idea yet what a hot-button issue circumcision is.  You can make light of it and joke around to downplay your choices but you may still come off as an asshole.  Sometimes joking makes it even worse because it can sound patronizing.  

Don't even try talking about developmental milestones.  If your kid is precocious it's hard to not to look like you're bragging.  Plus you run the risk of hitting a sensitive spot by unwittingly calling attention to possible developmental delays you didn't know her kids have.  Recovering from this can be even more disastrous.  As a Mom whose son is in speech therapy I can tell you that hearing jokes like "You're so lucky he isn't talking yet.  I can't get mine to shut up!"  is pretty fucking hilarious.  Like root canal, hilarious.

If the purpose of small talk is to try to make friends it fails pretty miserably.  There are Moms in my neighbourhood that I have known for years and yet after logging in countless hours of pointless conversation I still know almost nothing about them.  They in turn know nothing about me.  I've been hiding it on purpose because I want them to still like me and think I'm nice.  I don't know if they could handle the real me in all my irreverent, F-bomb dropping glory.  And for all I know they are just as sassy and fun but have the same anxieties about who they really are.  We could be laughing our asses off over pitchers of Margarita right now, if only we had met each other without our kids nearby.

Instead, I confess there are times when I see one of these Moms and I pretend not to because I don't have the patience, time, or energy to pretend to be the "nice" Mom and stress myself out trying not to accidentally offend.  I know.  I am a terrible person.  Don't hate me.

It really feels to me like we're not allowed to talk about anything else, doesn't it?  When I am in an unavoidable Mommy Small Talk situation I feel like it would be rude to talk to the other Mom without mentioning that obvious fact we have in common.  So I cringe inwardly as I consider which controversial parenting topic is least likely to cause offense based on the extremely limited information I have of her.  I brace myself for her answer hoping to hold in check any spontaneous reaction I may have if she says something stupid.  I breathe a sigh of relief when she doesn't.  At this point it seems rude and awkward to try and steer the conversation around to a safer topic.  I leave the conversation feeling like I just survived some kind of ordeal.

Wouldn't we all be a little better off without Mommy Small Talk?  It is widely acknowledged that religion and politics are too controversial for polite conversation.  So why do we consider it not only okay but mandatory that parents who barely know each other make small talk about something as personal and touchy as parenting?


  1. I could not agree with you more. Too much pressure.

  2. I agree. It's nice to not have to talk to people. I did have a little fun yesterday, though, at the mall, with a mother that was bound and determined to buy makeup with a two-year-old writhing in a stroller, crying, sucking on a binkie, throwing his shoes on the floor. I tried to look disapproving (because that's what she wanted, right?), but I ended up rescuing the shoes and giving them back to her. Sometimes I think the world would spin much more smoothly in silence.