Even when I was a kid, I never really wanted to fit in. I never longed to do my hair the same way as everyone else, or to wear the trendy clothes, and use the same makeup. I was happy to stand out and be different – which is just as well, because I wound up 185cm (6’1”) tall, so at a girls’ school I was going to stand out whatever I did.
I frequently chose to be different because it seemed more interesting to me. In my year 8 German class, after 29 girls had said one by one, in German, “I come from Melbourne,” I said “Ich komme aus Bendigo.” Well, that’s where I was born, and I wanted a little variety. What I got, of course, was to be brutally scorned, and called “Bendigo” for the rest of my school days. The name itself wasn’t hurtful, but the tone of voice was vicious.
Still, I never wanted to be the same. What I did want, though, was to belong. I used to fluctuate between just being myself (and damn the torpedoes!), and fretting about whether I was following the unknown ‘rules’. I hated being teased, and I was fairly certain that the key to avoiding it was to blend in. Unfortunately blending in has never come easily to me.
Now that I’m an adult, I’m even less mainstream than I was as a kid. I wear odd socks, and that’s not the oddest thing about me, although it may be one of the more noticeable. It’s interesting how many people are disturbed, even threatened, by something as trivial as odd socks. It turns out that you can tell a lot about people by their reaction to your socks. These days I am more comfortable with my own weirdness, and increasingly uncomfortable with many of the trappings of a mainstream life. I even married a man markedly less mainstream than I. I am not particularly worried about what others make of us. What worries me, though, is the effect on our kids.
It’s not that I particularly want my kids to blend in. I suspect they’d be no better at that than I was. But I do want them to feel that they belong. I don’t want them to feel like outcasts. I want to help them to find kindred spirits and a sense of community. I don’t want them to be teased, ostracised and mocked the way I was at school. I know that by giving them a home life which is different from those of their friends, we are going to make that sense of belonging harder to find, and the mocking more likely.
We are teaching our kids about what we believe is important. We are showing them as best we can the way we want to live, and the things that we care about. There is no denying that we don’t care about many of the things their friends in the playground will care about. We don’t buy new clothes just because the old ones are unfashionable. We choose our clothes for functionality, aesthetics and durability, not for fashion. The idea that something that looked good last year is dreadful now, simply because it’s no longer fashionable, is one that just doesn’t make any sense to us. (I know, we are so last century!)
We don’t buy the kids the latest toys, or take them to McDonalds. We use human power rather than burning fossil fuels if we possibly can – we ride bikes for fun and transport, use a hand mower for the lawn, and even hand saws. Admittedly the first dead tree did take a long time, because we had to keep stopping to fend off offers of chainsaws from astounded neighbours up and down the street. We go out to dinner frequently, but almost always with our kids. Neither of our kids, aged 6 and 2, have stayed overnight with anyone else yet, even their grandparents. I breastfed the eldest until she was 2, and am still breastfeeding the youngest, at 2.5 years and counting.
I know that these things, and many other things we care about, will often seem strange to the other kids in the playground. I know that “seeming strange” is an obstacle our kids will need to overcome in order to find that sense of belonging. We can’t take that obstacle away.
Perhaps the best we can do is to help them to be comfortable in their own skins. I suspect it’s much easier to find a place where someone like you belongs, when you know who “someone like you” really is. It has taken me over 30 years to be comfortable with who I am. The best gift I can give my children is to help them reach that point a lot faster.