My Friday nights are so full of unbridled flamboyance these days that I can barely bring myself to chronicle them here. Last Friday, however, was special. It involved my crossing the road to a neighbour’s house to attend a card party. No, I did not cast myself headlong into a den of illegal gambling; rather, the heady environment of a suburban greetings card sales party. I tried to contain my excitement at the triple wonders of being able to have a glass of wine, purchase stationery and Christmas cards, and yet be close enough to rush back if my husband couldn’t cope with my son’s apparent need to stay awake all the time.
I like my neighbour. She’s a very good person who deserves a community award for being generally amazing to other people in her locality. I can’t do that for her, but I can throw her a few beans by way of commission she will earn on the sales made during her party. Unfortunately, not everyone attending the party was as excellent as my neighbour.
Smalltalk isn’t my strongpoint. It does not flow naturally out of my mouth, and it’s a skill I’ve had to learn. Gone are the days when I would open conversations by probing someone’s political views* before saying something unintentionally offensive if they didn’t align with mine (yes, I was a barrel of laughs). What I’ve learnt over the years is that too many people met at social occasions are either unbearably boring and/or xenophobic/anti-feminist/homophobic dipshits best endured with a glazed expression and a list of general questions about themselves that any tool could answer cheerfully until you can make good your escape.
I accidentally got chatting to someone who fit this category. She was deeply dull but had at least mastered the art of a back-and-forth conversation (I’m still stunned that there are people who seemingly can’t do this – my sister in law is chief among the ones I have to cope with regularly). She asked me questions which led to my divulging the Sprout’s existence and his age.
Oh, she said, that’s nice. And what did you do before you had children?
What did I do?
I’m not in the most stable states at the moment when it comes to evaluating my own self-worth, which I recently discovered is inextricably linked to my working for a living at a job I enjoy and by which I feel challenged. I am lucky enough to have that job; indeed to still have it, despite taking 14 months off to focus entirely on raising the Sprout. My office is waiting to welcome me back with open arms very soon now.
What did I do? I still bloody do it, you vacuous idiot! I wanted to yell.
Most people I’ve met who wish to enquire about a mother’s employment status do so in a more indirect non-presumptive manner. Are you on maternity leave at the moment? they might ask as a nice inoffensive topic-opener.
Lard alone knows what possessed her to phrase the question in the past tense. Luckily, I have become notably more patient and tolerant since having the Sprout. Even so, I had to actually pause and count to five before I answered her. I clutched the stem of my wine glass so hard I felt it bend.
I’m on maternity leave at the moment, I said, returning in January. I’m an investigator. No, no, it’s a lot less glamorous than it sounds…
and the world tilted back on its axis without my punching her in the face.
*The reason I have any long-standing friends at all is because, when I was still taking this approach to small-talk at parties I would occasionally encounter people whose views aligned with my own, or those who didn’t but were at least up for a challenging discussion within moments of meeting someone. Those people? Those people are my friends. One of them is my husband.