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I’m That Awkward Dad at PTA Meetings Who Doesn’t Drink, But Still Wants to Be Your Friend

Image Source: Tom Burns via Instagram
Image Source: Tom Burns via Instagram

Making friends as an adult is never easy. Socializing in high school and college was relatively effortless, if not mandatory, but when you’re grown and have kids, trying to befriend other people with kids can be an awkward, anxiety-inducing nightmare.

Fortunately, I’ve found a way to make it even worse for myself: I don’t drink. I never have, and I never realized how that decision impacted my ability to socialize until I found myself turning down a glass of wine or a trip out to the bar with other parents.

***

It all begins in kindergarten. That’s when you realize that, for your kid’s sake, you’re going to have to be social around the other parents at their school.

There are several reasons why this is so much more complicated than it sounds.

Not only is your pool of potential parent-friend candidates limited by geography and the age of your children, but you’re going to be interacting with the same closed set of parents for as long as your kids attend that particular school. Hopefully, you’ll find some interesting, like-minded moms and dads in that group, but if you don’t, what options do you really have? You’re locked in for the next five to seven years.

But you’re not the only parents who have realized this. All of the parents have. And they usually fall into two camps: the parents that don’t give a crap (and will never give a crap), and the parents that are terrified at the prospects of having to make chitchat at the bake sale (I fall into the latter group).

So, what do all of those terrified parents do to take the edge off their social anxiety? They drink.
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So, what do all of those terrified parents do to take the edge off their social anxiety? They drink.

They organize bar nights, they raffle wine baskets, the moms go bar-hopping after PTA meetings to gossip and decompress, the dads get together to trade home brew recipes and plan the Boy Scouts’ camping trip over a few cold ones.

And who can blame them? They’re using the world’s most popular social lubricant to make potentially awkward situations run more smoothly. They’re just trying to make things easier for everyone.

I get that. I understand that reasoning, even if I never get to reap its benefits.

***

I mentioned this before, but I don’t drink.

I don’t really have a reason why I don’t drink — I’ve got no moral or health objections to alcohol — it’s just never held much of an appeal for me.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to explain why I don’t have a particularly good reason for avoiding alcohol. My friends have enjoyed theorizing about the impact of my past on my decision. Yes, my dad was a bartender and, yes, I did grow up in an Irish pub, but there’s no hidden trauma or age-old pledge to remain sober there. (Most of my memories of that time involve listening to Kenny Rogers or The Chieftains on the jukebox and drinking lime juice straight out of the bar guns.)

Drinking is just … not me. That’s the only justification I can offer.

However, when you’re thrown into a social situation (say, an awkward parent mixer) and you decline a drink, people take it as a rejection — a major rejection.

I think alcohol is so common at social events because people see it as a way to level the playing field. They see alcohol as an offer, as an invitation to a group of disparate individuals to lower their inhibitions together. “We’ll have a few drinks. We’ll all be affected, both psychologically and physiologically, so no one can judge us. And we’ll bond over that shared experience.”

When you’re thrown into a social situation (say, an awkward parent mixer) and you decline a drink, people take it as a rejection — a major rejection.
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It’s a lovely idea and, from what I’ve seen, it can work really well.

However, I’ve also seen the other side of it. I’ve seen what happens when you say, “No, thanks,” and order a Coke.

Things get weird.

People aren’t trying to make it weird, but the fact that I’ve rejected their offer to share a drink throws off the equilibrium of the whole night. Not only have I said “No” to sharing something with them, but, in some cases, the other people also get hyper-aware that they’re lowering their defenses and I’m not.

On more than one occasion, I’ve been at the bar with other adults – fellow parents and friends – and someone will look at me drinking my cranberry and tonic and they’ll start nervously chattering:

“Oh my god, that’s so smart. Drinking is stupid. I’m stupid. I shouldn’t drink. I must look funny. Oh no, you must be laughing. You’re laughing at me. I’m so dumb. You’re totally thinking ‘My god, they’re so drunk right now.’ You’re judging me.”

Basically, I’ve sent them into a self-conscious shame-spiral because of my drink choice, which was never, ever my intention in the first place. (That’s actually the more pleasant of the two ways that interaction can go. It can either go, “Oh, my god, you must be judging me,” or “WHAT? You think you’re better than me ‘cause you don’t drink?!”)

Anyway it goes, it’s a crappy way to make friends in the pick-up lane.

***

I’ve always been pretty confident about my decision not to drink, but I’ll admit, since becoming a parent, I’ve realized that my decision also comes with some fairly isolating baggage.

There are no good guys or bad guys in this scenario. It’s all just a bunch of awkward, nervous parents doing their best to make an unfamiliar situation a little more tolerable, either because they want to make some friends or, at the very least, they want their kids to get invited to some birthday parties.

And I have to own that my personal preferences put me at a disadvantage in that situation. My choices make it harder for me to be seen as “social,” so, in a perfect world, I should try twice as hard to mingle and fraternize with my fellow parents, right?

I’ve come to appreciate alcohol’s role as the great parental equalizer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Pinterest mom or a checked-out dad, after a few pints, everyone’s at the same level.
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Yeah, in the real world, I don’t do that. I mostly just decline group invitations, tell my wife to have a fun night out, and nervously try to connect with a few of the cooler parents on a one-on-one basis.

It can be done and I’ve made some good friends that way, but, more than anything, I’ve come to appreciate alcohol’s role as the great parental equalizer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Pinterest mom or a checked-out dad, after a few pints, everyone’s at the same level.

And that’s all parents really want, right? To not feel judged? To not feel like we’re screwing everything up? Even if it’s just for one night?

So, I respect what alcohol can do for PTA group dynamics, even if I have to observe that from afar.

Meanwhile, I’ll be over here, at the bar, sipping my Coke, secretly laughing at you — you were RIGHT! — and wishing that I knew how to make friends as easily as a third-grader.

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