I grew up in a wealthy, mostly white enclave in Southern California. I think that many people who have a similar background will know what I’m talking about when I say that in various sectors of community life (soccer, church, baseball, what have you), there was always a ‘weird’ family. That family that was slightly ostracized for some non-normative background or behavior. The transgressions that could throw you into this ‘weird’ category could be pretty mild; like having a single or divorced parent, living in a rental apartment, speaking a language other than English at home, or uncertainty around white racial status. (I feel shocked that I just wrote that, but I think it was true–though at the same time I can recall some non-white families that seemed to be completely accepted). Then there were families that should have been ‘normal’, but would be on the outs for belief or other reasons– Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, hippie families. Maybe the kids tried to follow a vegetarian diet, or weren’t allowed to do Christmas stuff. I gotta hand it to my parents, in the midst of this culture they did not support or reinforce this discrimination. If they were unkind to any subcategory of ‘weird’ family, it was to the ones who were closest to being weird in the same way that we were weird (hippies). I guess it was too close to home.
Older school-aged and middle school-aged kids, though, seem to have a nose for non-normative behavior. Even if the community norms were never explicit, that age range was a crucible of normalizing, the bottleneck you had to pass through in order to be accepted.
I was never going to make it through. This is ironic, because my mom, who was our family’s representative to the community, was generous with her time and abilities, and was liked and respected in the community. If I’d had even the most basic social skills or inclination towards conformity, I could have been “popular.” So I can’t lay the blame for my weirdness on my mom. No, kids could sense it. Maybe it was something inherent to my look (unmutably ‘old world’), or my penchant for following my heart when it came to my personal style… But I was weird from the start and never got on track. Though there were fleeting moments when this was painful for me, I mostly just ‘owned it.’ And as the world has turned, I feel like the invention of terms like ‘owning it’ and ‘it gets better’ and our press for equality regardless of gender identity or preference has changed some of the equation. My childhood mantra/self-rationalization of ‘weird is wonderful’ actually begins to feel a little true.
Though popular culture seems have developed a celebratory attitude toward difference in recent years, the urge to conformity seems to morph and mutate along with it. Compared to the community where I grew up, the communities I’ve lived in as an adult are much more ethnically, racially, religiously diverse. In each international, university-proximate school my son has attended, he has been one of the few kids in his class that had the misfortune of being raised English monolingual. In general, I feel that these environments are more accepting of difference than the ones I grew up in–or perhaps it is fairer to say that everyone brings their cultural biases with them, but there are so many different cultural biases that there is little in the way of a ‘consensus’ bias. The perennial interpersonal challenges of defining self and friends, establishing habits, and ensuring safety seem to seek fall-back definers of normalcy that everyone can agree on. Interestingly, I feel that the fall back ‘normalizing’ tool in West Los Angeles is money/ expectations around consumption.
And so it has come to pass that because of my politics around consumerism even in this far more diverse community I find that I am once again in the ‘weird’ category. On the one hand there is a little disappointment that comes with this–it’s nice to fit in, you know? But on the other hand, I’m practiced at not fitting in, and therefore feel no pressure to try to adopt the consumer status quo.
In the end, who really likes spending their Saturday at Costco, or Trader Joes? Or being leveraged to the hilt to rent a nice car in which to spend lots of time sitting in traffic? Do we do these things so that we are not ridiculed for being odd? Or to protect our kids from being ‘different?’
On the positive side, I feel like some of the ways in which our weird family has worked to reject these norms may eventually become more accepted. For example: at the last ‘no gift/ no cake/no party favor’ kids birthday we hosted, I do believe I may have seen a glimmer of jealousy in a few fellow parents eyes as we packed up unincumbered by a stack of obligatory $25 gifts. And I know the kids in the neighborhood envy my son’s trailer bike that we use to commute to school, even as I hear their parents (probably wisely) say ‘no way — too dangerous’ as we pass by. It’s true that in order for some of these practices to become new norms, the whole system would need to change– and I know from experience how hard that is.
But opinion can make change happen quickly, and I have hope that by continuing to ‘own’ our role as ‘that weird family’– by continuing to have fun doing things just a little different–that we may soon have more company on that bike ride to school, or that Costco-free Saturday.