How the playground makes my social anxiety worse

I’m sorry my social anxiety makes you feel uncomfortable. I am a huge introvert with an anxiety disorder, it’s the perfect storm which makes social situations a real challenge for me. I know I’m not the only one who struggles, but sometimes it can feel that way.

Walking into any social situation makes me anxious. Even if I’m meeting good friends for a drink I can be anxious and struggle to speak. Busy places and crowds make it worse. Going out is a real love/hate thing for me and I suspect working from home and the social isolation that brings probably makes that worse. 

Last week I went out for a drink with a friend, our children go to school together. We had a very lovely evening with minimal social anxiety. Later that week I bumped into her in the playground and something awkward in my brain kicked in and I could hardly speak or make eye contact with her. It’s not deliberate, it’s something inside of me.

Doing the school run and being in the playground is a real challenge for me. As soon as I turn the corner to go to the school at hometime I start to feel incredibly anxious. I know my mission – to locate and extract my child as quickly and safely as possible without me getting spoken to by his teacher, without him running off and without either of us causing a scene. 

I try and time it just so, so I am there half a minute before he leaves the building and I’m positioned so I can grab him and leave. There are a few mums I get on really well with, but in the confines of the playground I suddenly become near mute and struggle to make conversation with them.

I usually wear sunglasses, partly because I don’t want wrinkles and partly because it means I can avoid eye contact. Eye contact means conversation, conversation means realising I can’t speak and I end up looking and feeling like an idiot. I also have terrible eyesight, so if you’re more than a few metres away from me then you’re just a fuzzy shape and it can look like I’m giving you the stink eye. I’m not.

I know my behaviour probably marks me out as weird, I don’t know what I can do about that. When I first got to know some people I told them about my social anxiety and that it was me and not them, so most of my good friends know that on a one to one basis I’m usually fine, and that I’m fun and I can string lots of sentences together. In a social situation – the playground, a party, whatever, not so much.

I don’t think it’s the sort of situation I can easily manage. The playground will typically have a hundred or more people in it, you never know who you will see there so you can’t mentally prepare and run through the list of small talk questions you might have if you were going for a coffee with one of them. 

So I appear at the last minute. I wear my sunglasses so no one can look me in the eye. I fake some confident person in a rush body language and I extract and escape with the small boy as quickly as I can. It’s the only way I know to survive the school run and the crippling social anxiety it brings me. 

It’s pretty uncomfortable knowing that almost daily I’m in a situation where I can hardly make eye contact with or speak to my friends, let alone anyone else. I know that my trying to keep my head down has made some people feel like I’m anti-social or stuck up, but it’s very much the opposite. So I’m sorry if my social anxiety has made you feel uncomfortable, it’s pretty uncomfortable just being me.

social anxiety

Similar blog post – Mean girls – how playgroup destroyed my confidence

Mean girls – how playgroup destroyed my confidence

Now my boy is five years old, we’ve more or less settled into a group of friends. He sees them at school, out in the park, at parties or at after school clubs. He, like any five year old has a better social life than me, and that’s saying something. It wasn’t always this way.

When he was a baby I felt some pressure to attend baby groups and classes with him, something I thought would be good for his development. I didn’t really want to do it but I did it for him, the thought of making awkward parenting-competitive small talk with people I had nothing more in common with, other than our bodies had expelled a child at roughly the same time filled me with anxiety. But still I persisted, taking him to a music class where we banged tambourines, rang bells and shook maracas to encourage his development; to the local library for baby story time where we sang and jiggled; and to the “Friday playgroup” which filled me with weekly horror.

If the thought of sitting on the floor of a church hall making music, with a baby who was at best ambivalent to my finest Bez impressions was bad, then “Friday playgroup” still gives me hideous palpitations of anxiety. They were a bunch of stuck up, cliquey yummy mummies, who even after six months of me attending and smiling weakly at them, still failed to find out my name. They would literally turn their backs on me and my attempts at small talk over coffee and biscuits.

Each week I spent an hour each Friday crying in front of my wardrobe, desperately searching for something to wear which would make me one of them. Hysterical, I would push my baby to the church hall and pull myself together just in time. I’d sit, huddled on the play mat with my baby and my one friend who also felt like an outcast.

Little did I know that the “Friday playgroup” had form for being an unwelcoming hotbed of bitchy cliques. Subsequently I’ve met and made friends with many people who attended for a week or two, discovered how dreadful it was and moved on elsewhere. I knew no better, I had no yardstick, I thought this was what groups of mums were like, horrible, bitchy, judgemental and just mean. My heart fills with anxiety at the memory of it all.

I’ve no doubt they didn’t realise what a bunch of complete bitches they were, they probably looked at dumpy old me in my less than designer post-maternity wear and decided I wasn’t from their set. I wasn’t a chartered accountant, I wasn’t the wife of a partner of a firm of solicitors, I was just some dowdy mess who didn’t belong in the same room as them.

I credit this awful group of mean girls (because that’s exactly what they were) with denting my fragile confidence, it’s coloured my every interaction at baby groups, all the way up to school. My natural response to another parent isn’t one of friendly welcome, but a cautious backing off and shying away so they can’t hurt me, and so I don’t care enough for them to hurt me.

I let very few people in (if you’ve made in into the circle of trust, then welcome, here’s your special badge, wear it with pride) and I know that means both me and the boy are missing out on a whole load of good stuff. So this coming year I will try harder, trust more, open myself up for more disappointment and rejection and hope that I’ll never encounter those mean girls again.

FYI, I found a better, more welcoming, more lovely playgroup, made some nice friends there, so there was a happy ending after all.


A Monster Ate My Mum – Book Review

I’ve suffered from low self esteem all my life. After a period of illness this year that low self esteem turned into depression. There have been times this year I’ve been sad, dead eyed, weeping, cold in front of my son. He’s two and doesn’t really understand. He asks “what’s wrong Mamma?” as he did this evening when I cried, and he cuddles me and kisses away my tears. It’s heartbreaking and lovely. Ultimately it’s really unfair on him.

I feel such guilt at these times, he doesn’t understand. I hope he’s too young to remember the dark days. The dark days are fewer than they used to be. I’m working on my recovery for him and for me.

I was mooching around Twitter when I came across mention of a book called A Monster Ate My Mum. It’s a new book aimed at the children of mothers who have post natal depression. To be honest, having read it I think it works for depression generally.

I loved the title. It does seem like a monster has eaten me. Snatched me away from my family. Eaten my smile, suppressed my giggles. Made me less human. I had a copy of the ebook to look at and read to my boy. I was immediately struck by the gorgeous illustrations. I fell quite in love with the illustrations by Helen Braid and when I read the book to Splodge and Hodge they loved them too.

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Author, Jen Faulkner suffered from PND with her third child, she wanted to find a way of explaining her feelings to her older children, so she wrote a poem which this book is now based on. It is beautifully and heartbreakingly written.

From my perspective as a parent with mental health issues, this hits all the right notes. It explains things perfectly in an accessible way. Husband Hodge said it made him feel sad because it made him reflect on the impact of my depression on the family. But he agreed that the book is a valuable tool in explaining why Mummy is sad to her little ones.

We sat down and read it to Splodge who is just short of his 3rd birthday. He was excited by and engaged by the illustrations and wanted to look at them over and over. We read the story to him a few times. I’m not sure how much he understood, he is still very young, but he did say “Mamma sad” and pointed to the Mummy in the book. I think if this was read to him regularly then he’d understand more. So that’s what we’ll do.

It is a beautiful book about a sad subject. I’d definitely recommend this for children who have Mums like me. I feel really strongly about mental health issues. I speak and write frankly about my problems because I’m not ashamed, I have no reason to be ashamed and by speaking out it makes it less of a taboo.

Children aren’t stupid, they’re often more astute than adults, by teaching them about the reasons why Mummy is sad can only be a good thing. By not demonising mental health and depression it might make them ask for help if they need it later in life, it might make them more equipped to cope with the problems others face later on, and if it helps them understand there and then that Mummy isn’t like that because of anything they’ve done, then that can only be a good and incredibly positive thing.

I really hope this book is picked up and used as a tool for helping families in this situation. I’m quite in love with it and I know it will help us and Splodge. My recovery continues. The dark days are less frequent but they are still there, at least now I can explain that the monster ate my smile.