The enigma of my parents’ friends
It’s a strange relationship: talking to each other can feel like the longest three minutes of our lives, but I know I can depend on them
‘They have seen me bawling as a child, confused about my identity and rolling my eyes at them as a teenager.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Ihave been seeing these people walk in and out my front door since I was born. Their presence in my life spans three decades, from childhood to the difficult teenage years and all the way through to adulthood. They have seen me bawling as a child, confused about my identity and rolling my eyes at them as a teenager.
They have seen me become a man and they have seen me lounge around my house in my lowest moments. But despite all this, they remain peripheral figures in my life, people I know but not really. These people are my parents’ friends.
Having just returned to live at home after five years abroad, it is clear to me that the weird relationship we share is reflected in our conversations. Our time together is usually limited to three-minute periods, often while my mother briefly leaves the room to look for her walking shoes as we both anxiously await her return.
This window of conversation can throw up all sorts of questions I don’t want to address.
“So what are you up to these days?” seems a harmless inquiry, but to answer it properly might require two hours and a great deal of soul-searching. And even then, the answer still might not be clear.
But in this relationship, I need to compress the answers to what are actually complicated questions into three stressful minutes.
Sometimes, my parents’ friends will just forget who I am, even after all these years. My brother is a musician, and I will often be asked, “So how’s the music going?” This puts me in an uncomfortable position. I am not a professional musician but I do play music as a hobby. So although I am 99 per cent sure they are mixing me up with him, I can never be certain.
Suggesting they might be mistaking me for my brother or just answering the question, as if intended for me, are both problematic.
Option one causes slight embarrassment for the parents’ friend, who will try to save face by half-implying it was intended for me: “Oh yes, but you do play a bit yourself, don’t you?”, leaving the conversation on life support.
Option two is deceptive. Assuming my brother’s identity for the sake of an easier three-minute chat doesn’t sit right.They will often have grasped some kind of half-truth from something my parents told them about me. “So you were in France for a month I believe?” “What? . . . Oh yeah, I am going to Spain, next year. . . for two weeks.”
Similarly, I find I have acquired half-truths about them and their families. During the three-minute chat, I frantically try to remember the last details I heard about their children and scramble around my memory bank in desperation.
The validity of these details varies wildly. Sometimes I get lucky; I might have heard an up-to-date snippet that eases the conversation through to a soft landing.
More commonly, I will throw out an educated guess and hope it’s accurate, current and positive.
“Didn’t David go back to college recently?”
“Well he went back to study computers four years ago but dropped out after a few months, so . . .”
On that note, another strange relationship that develops through parents’ friends is the one with their children. Often, I will have befriended them growing up, before they were old enough to decide they didn’t want to join their parents for these visits. This creates an odd dynamic between us since I never really knew them as adults, only as snotty children and difficult teenagers who I had to hang around with occasionally during my childhood.
I know personal things about their children even though I mightn’t have spoken to them in years. I know they wet the bed as children and they are now divorced, but I am never quite sure what happened in between. When I pass them on the street, I feel like the nod of acknowledgment we exchange whispers, “I know things about you and your family that I probably shouldn’t, and you know that I know”.
I still maintain a soap-like curiosity about their lives. The information I am drip-fed about them, through overheard conversations between my parents and theirs, means I inadvertently possess sensitive details about the lives of these people I rarely see. Often, if I am in bad form, I prefer to hear that they too may have lost their job, that they failed their degree or that their business went bankrupt.
When I begin peeling back the layers of the relationship, I start to understand I have become a minor player in some unspoken competition between my parents, their friends and their children. This is based on the premise that one’s children are essentially an embodiment of them and their children’s success is a validation of their own status as human beings.
If my parents’ friends whose children are “doing well” ask me, “So what are you up these days?” I wonder if there is an underlying smugness. And I feel more inclined to embrace the question when the inquirer’s children are not “doing well”, making me the smug one. Both are unpleasant, but I prefer being the smug one.
Usually, there will be at least one parents’ friend who is okay. The one with an ear to the ground, who is better at talking to younger people, who is up-to-date with your interests and who won’t ask the lazy question.
The dynamic established from the beginning was that of an adult talking to a child. The onus was on them, as adults, to take control of the conversation. It feels strange to graduate from avoiding calling them anything at all to calling them by their names.
I’m 27 now, and as I get older I begin to realise these people are not just “adults”. These are people with personalities, with irritating traits and specific senses of humour who are as uncomfortable talking to me as I am to them. I begin to realise I need to step up, take some responsibility and ease the burden I have always gladly left on their shoulders.
How they see me
Sometimes I wonder how they see me, if I am just their friend’s son or someone with his own personality. Do they see my parents in me in a way that I can’t? Would they like to know me better or are they happy to keep the relationship as it is?
And behind it all, somehow, my gut feeling tells me that these people are very important to me.
They saw the joy on my parents’ faces when I was born, the hardship when I was sick and when things weren’t going well. They know my parents longer than I have and I know the longevity of our relationship carries with it many unspoken and deeply held loyalties.
I know they have an in-built affection for me by virtue of being the child of their good friends. I know their presence in my life may one day bring huge comfort and support. Somehow, I know I can depend on them even more than my closest friends.
It’s a unique relationship, where we ask nothing of each other, where depth just exists that has not been necessary to cultivate, where you know one day you might need them and they will be there for you.