Fitting in at Forty

I wish that I could be like the cool kids, ‘cause the cool kids they seem to fit in. ~ Echosmith

Growing up, I vividly remember wanting to be a part of the “in crowd.” Who didn’t? Sure, there were the select few of us who were somehow fortunate enough to have a busted give-a-darn early in life, or at least the amazing ability to pretend they did, but most of us craved popularity amongst our peers. There existed an almost physical yearning for acceptance. No, acceptance wasn’t enough. Enough would’ve been the ability to strut through the high school courtyard in ignorant, happy cadence with the prom queen’s entourage like we owned the place, because we did.

In the words of my now eight-year-old (she coined this phrase at age four), “THAT didn’t happen.” Thank goodness. I didn’t know then what I know now, which is I was never cut out to be BFFs with the likes of Regina George. I didn’t own a single pink article of clothing, so I would’ve been up a creek without a paddle on Wednesdays.

At the time, it sure seemed like they had it all. You knew them – the kids with the looks, the hair, the clothes, the cars, the letter jackets. Along the way, someone somewhere started this crazy rumor that the cool kids raised and lowered the very bar by which we were to measure ourselves. Regina herself likely has it scrawled in the pages of her Burn Book.

I thought I was cool enough, at least for a little while. My Catholic school uniform didn’t allow for much fashion creativity during my elementary years, but I was okay with it. Status quo beats status no, right? Any ounce of cool I hoped for was out the window at the end of fifth grade, when my white button down blouse did little to conceal my growing need for a training bra. That was ROUGH. I started that year out as one of the “it” kids, and ended it just being an “it.” It didn’t help that my sister in Kindergarten was kicking bullies’ tails on my behalf. I never asked her to – she was just fiercely protective of me. So I graduated from an “it” to the “wuss in the white shirt.” I would’ve called my sister off of the playground whippings, but she might’ve decked me, and let’s face it, I didn’t need any more beat downs.

I made some strides in middle school. Let me clarify – I changed schools. Fresh starts can be pretty fantastic sometimes. I made a great friend, my oldest bestie to this day, who, besides being stunningly beautiful, had a great fashion sense, a poster of Corey Haim hanging on her wall, and a boyfriend who looked just like him. I was cool by proxy.

And then I changed schools. Again. And then three more times before graduation. Fresh starts can be as frightening as they are fantastic, but too many in adolescence means starting over at the fitting in game at square one every time. It’s like Candyland. Without candy. Or the rainbow of colors. Or Queen Frostine. She was always so happy. She must’ve been one of the cool kids.

Let me be clear, finding a place to belong can be just as difficult for those who live in the same place their whole lives. The trouble with fitting in isn’t exclusive to kids who change schools. Mean girls (and boys) exist for everyone. Exclusion and isolation exist for everyone at some point. The trouble with “fitting in” is it requires the ability to discern which group to belong to which requires knowing oneself. Who the heck knows who they are in middle school???

It’s not the kids’ fault for not knowing who’s worthy of being in their tribe. Unless they come out of the womb social geniuses, it requires guidance by positive role models (that’s us, folks) and very often, feedback from peers. Sadly, the feedback that’s the most painful is what seems to stick.

We all know some grown-ups who never grow out of the mean girl/boy phase and spend their lives in pursuit of the cool kid crowd, which leads me to wonder…what motivates us as adults? Is it more of the same? Are the “cool kids” still setting the bar? Is that why we post pictures to social media of us hanging with our besties? To show the world that we fit in, we have a tribe, and a beautiful one, at that?

Don’t get me wrong – I have a beautiful tribe. I am blessed with friends – REAL tried and true friends – who shine as much inner beauty as they do outwardly. But this blessing only comes as a byproduct of much trial and error and learning how to carefully choose quality over quantity. You see, by the time we figure out who we really are, we don’t care so much about fitting in. At least we shouldn’t. All of that time we spent avoiding the Lord Licorices of the world was just practice for our adult relationships. FYI, this “practice” line of reasoning does little to comfort my children when they struggle within their social circles, but they will understand someday.

Yes, the most basic goal of social interaction is to fit in, but hopefully, growing up teaches us that unless we’re running for public office, popularity is just a silly word. Selectivity replaces settling. Certainty replaces insecurity. Being loved for who we are replaces being judged for who we’re not. The old adage, “You are who you hang with,” resonates with truth as we CHOOSE to surround ourselves with people who share our values and make us better just by knowing them.

I am fortunate to have cultivated true and lasting friendships.

The full-body tackle hug because she hasn’t seen you in a year kind of friendship. This is also the pick right up where we left off as if no time has passed kind of friendship.

The drive by your house and drop food on your front porch kind of friendship, without ringing the bell, because this is a friend so close she knows you’re either resting or can’t get that far away from the restroom.

The check your head because that darned kid may have given you lice kind of friendship. This one deserves a special prize.

The I don’t need to fit in because this is the perfect fit kind of friendship.

Besides having a beautiful tribe, I am even more fortunate that my children have many positive role models in their lives. Yes, my husband and I do our very best to cram as many essential life lessons into their little bodies in the limited time we have with them, but sometimes we fail. My fantastic four are blessed with loving grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, youth pastors and leaders, and even our own tribe members who set the bar higher than we or any cool kid ever could. For that gift from those who are shining examples, we are forever grateful.

My kids are the ones who keep me cool now. Their brutal honesty about what clothing I should purge from my closet is welcomed, partly because they’re walking fashion plates, but mostly because they love me. My sister is still fiercely protective, but also fiercely loyal and loving, and if I needed someone to have my back, she’d be the first person I’d call. My tribe is small and special, comfortable and confidential, reliable and real. They know how to have fun, how to fall humbly to their knees and follow their faith, and how to order my coffee just the way I like it. And they’ve carried me farther than any training bra ever could.

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