Since becoming a mom, I have become a terrible conversationalist.
As with anything I write here, I can only speak for myself. So this may be particular to a mother of three young children who is a recovering social perfectionist, doesn’t work outside the home, and has moved cross-country within the past year. I’m also not sure that I was a master of sparkling conversation before having children. I can’t remember those days very well; if I had to guess, I’d say I was only average with the chit-chat back then.
Which is much, much better than what I am now.
If you attempt a conversation with me these days, you will find me in one of two modes, neither of them eloquent. Whichever mode I’m in depends entirely upon external circumstances: whether or not my kids are with me.
Scenario #1: The Kids Are With Me.
I will be able to have, at most, two minute blocks of uninterrupted conversation with you. I will probably never make eye contact; instead, I’ll be scanning the room continuously to make sure I keep tabs on all three children. My side of the conversation will go something like this: “Uh-huh… yeah…. Excuse me just a minute. Campbell, SHARE!… Sorry, where were we?… Oh, right….Excuse me. Fiona, I’m talking with a grown-up. Just a minute, please…. So, wait, you were saying…? Oh, yup….Sorry, hang on. Oh, Georgia, what’s wrong?”
And so on. The conversation will end in one of two ways: either I’ll become engrossed in our conversation and establish eye contact for four seconds, in which case I will inevitably lose one of the kids (Campbell) and have to excuse myself to search frantically for her, OR one of the kids will have a complete melt-down (this is more likely the closer it gets to mealtime) and I’ll have to make a quick exit with a screaming child. I will smile apologetically and say, “I’ll catch up with you later.” (“Later,” I believe, is code for “in about five years”).
Scenario #2: The Kids are NOT With Me
This is a very rare occurrence. These days, this scenario applies mostly to occasional Moms’ Nights Out, or to doctor appointments. You’d think that being free of the kids, free of distractions, would liberate me to spread my wings and emerge as a conversational butterfly. Not the case, unfortunately for you.
First of all, I’m used to conversations that have to be crammed into two-minute time slots. It’s like eating: I usually bolt down my food as quickly as possible in order to deal with the numerous crises that happen every meal with three children, but if I’m eating without my children, I still bolt down my food in a matter of seconds. It’s become a habit. The same habit applies to conversation: I’m used to rushing in order to get the most conversational bang for the time I have, so even without children around I talk waaay too fast. And I start to feel panicked if the conversation extends beyond two minutes.
Also, you may be the first adult, aside from my husband, whom I’ve spoken with in over a week. (Not counting harried two-minute exchanges with other moms or brief pleasantries with check-out clerks). If we’re standing face-to-face and I’m looking you in the eyes and none of my kids are on the premises, this is an Event. And I have so much to say; all of the me that I can’t share with my kids will come gushing out like a horrible case of verbal Montezuma’s revenge. I can’t help it. I suspect that this is why so many moms have blogs: so they’ll have an outlet for those spillover thoughts and will talk less in social situations. It kind of works.
Finally, I’m really tired. I can’t claim that mind-numbing exhaustion that you have with a newborn; I’m fortunate that all three of our kids now sleep through the night. But I’m still really, really tired. Which just exacerbates the speedy talking, the verbal runs, and possibly some bizarre comments or tripping over words, because I’m lacking my full filtering capacities.
So, How to Talk to a Mom?
First, even if all of the above scares your pants off, you definitely should talk to moms. Because it’s a nice thing to do. Moms are usually starved for conversation with other grown-ups. Look at it as your act of charity for the week. But here are a few tips to get you through it:
1. Be patient, merciful, and understanding. Remember that you’re talking with someone who’s used to having to rush through all interactions, who may not have had a sustained social conversation with another adult in quite some time, and who is probably exhausted. If the mom rattles on or overshares, give her the benefit of the doubt.
2. Don’t feel like you have to ask about the kids. If you ask me about my kids, I’m going to have to tell you about my kids. And that might become a conversational snowball, rolling downhill out of my control. I can tell you a lot about my kids, but while I’m doing it I’ll be feeling horrible remembering how much I used to hate having to listen to other people talk about their kids (before I had kids, of course). So, I promise that I won’t be offended if you don’t ask about my kids. And I’ll be delighted if you treat me like any other normal person who thinks about things other than her kids. Because I do. Ask what I’ve read lately, ask about current events, ask about my vacation plans, whatever.
3. Talk about yourself. These days, if you ask me about what I’ve read lately, current events, or my vacation plans, I may have nothing much to say. In this case, I suggest that you talk about yourself. Usually, talking too much about oneself is frowned upon in social situations, but talking with a mom is an exception. I say: Please feel free to rattle on about yourself. Give me the whole monologue — you’ll be doing me a favor. In talking about yourself, you’re taking the pressure off of me. I won’t worry about talking too long or too fast or too much about my kids if I can’t get a word in, and I’ll feel like I’m doing a swell job holding up my end of the conversation by just smiling, nodding, and asking the occasional question. I may be fascinated by what you’re saying, or I may zone out and plan what I’ll make for dinner the next week, but either thing is a gift to me.
Okay, then. I’ll catch up with you later!