My name is Dana and I am agoraphobic. I suffer social anxiety and severe panic attacks, and my fear of having these attacks leads me to avoid interacting with people I don’t know. But when I found the bright yellow envelope with my toddler’s name on it in his backpack and my husband and I realized we’d received a last-minute invitation to a birthday party—for the first time ever—I surprised both of us. I told him we had to go.
Our son is a little younger than two. We’ve never been invited on a play date. Part of me is relieved, because the idea of play dates carries so much anxiety for me. But as relieved as I am, I feel guilty that my son doesn’t get to spend time with other children outside of daycare. So we immediately texted the host of the party, thanking her for the last second invite, and I took an extra anti-anxiety pill before bed.
We scrambled in the morning to get ourselves to the Fun-E Farm, the indoor bouncy house facility where the party was being held. My son bellowed the entire way in the car because it was a nice day and he wanted to play outside, and I fretted that we’d walk in late and the other parents would all be judging us. I wanted him to have a great time.
That’s why I needed to push myself. I focused on my son.
Lately, he’d started jumping. His version of jumping is the most adorable and hilarious thing he’s done yet, and he’s a pretty funny little guy. He squats slightly and then jolts his whole body up, grinning proudly. His feet never leave the floor. I knew he was going to love the bouncy houses.
We walked in, found the party, and introduced ourselves. I kept one hand wrapped around my son’s and one on my husband’s elbow as I learned the names of the parents hosting the party and some of the other moms and dads. I was pleasantly surprised to see one of the daycare teachers there. Her son also goes to the daycare, so of course it made sense that she would be there, but I hadn’t thought about it beforehand. It made me feel much more relaxed. I had spoken to her many times and she’d even babysat for us once. Within the first fifteen minutes I managed to let go of my husbands arm, though I held onto my son’s hand.
My husband is at home wherever he goes, and I am self-conscious, shy, and anxious. Our son is all of those things. A great example is his interactions with dogs. He loves them. Whenever we see one, he walks over and then suddenly stops a few feet away and freezes. If the dog moves toward him, he lunges toward me or my husband and grabs onto our legs. I’m careful to hide my anxiety around him, so I don’t think it’s something he’s picked up from me. I think he just gets unsure of himself around the unfamiliar. At the party, he was unsure of himself.
He was happy to see the children he knew, but not confident enough to play with them, so he gravitated toward the toys that were set up in the corner at first. I sat down with him and looked over the rest of the room, filled with parents and children running and shrieking in delight. Across the room my husband was chatting to another dad. I took a deep breath and decided to plunge into the fray, taking my son by the hand and suggesting that we take a walk to look at some of the bouncy houses and slides.
He approached cautiously, stepping back uncertainly when he saw other children were already using the equipment.
I asked my son if he wanted to play with the other children, but he reacted as he often does around children he doesn’t know. He stared like he forgot how to talk or move. I helped him up in the bouncy castle and he mostly just shifted his feet, watching the other children.
He wasn’t getting the jumping part. I pushed aside my self-consciousness and demonstrated his funny “jump” from down on the floor, trying to get him to mimic me. He grinned.
“Jump!” I said, bouncing on my heels.
He swung his arms and dipped his knees with a shy smile.
I squatted way down and bounced up without leaving the ground, swinging my arms up dramatically. “Jump!”
He tried it, and the look on his face was priceless. He lost his balance, bounced to his knees, picked himself up, and bounced again. And again.
I jumped with him until a stampede of older kids made him nervous, and then he ran around the floor, doing his funny little jump.
During lunch, I talked to another mom, and by the end, I had introduced myself to another. My son had a blast and I had fun watching him discover the bounces and slides, and running around shouting and singing with the other toddlers. This isn’t something I will be doing every day or week. But we did it. We got through that first play date. We escaped the Fun-E Farm unscathed. It’s not like my anxiety has suddenly gone away. It doesn’t work like that. But managing to do something for the first time, despite the anxiety, is a huge step.
I don’t dread play dates anymore. My little baby is almost two, and soon they will probably be inevitable. I’ve discovered that watching him have fun, in that way that my husband and I are too old to be fun, is a reward that’s worth fighting my anxiety for.
I think I’ll be okay, as long as I take them one bounce at a time.
Dana Mele is a writer and attorney currently located in the Catskills with her husband, who teaches high school, and her toddler, who does not suffer fools. Her writing has appeared in Typehouse Literary Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, Lunch Ticket, Right Hand Pointing, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Bird’s Thumb, among others, and she is currently working on a novel. She was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She enjoys knitting, playing musical instruments marketed for toddlers, and avoiding bears.
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