Avoiding Conflict Can Often Make Matters Worse

Rather than dealing with an issue upfront, Sydne Didier wrote about it here, and in the process, the problem only escalated.

Last week, I wrote something for Role/Reboot—about the parent cliques at my son’s school—that struck a cord. And I’ve been on the verge of tears ever since. Nauseous. Sad. Worried. Anxious. And at the same time, somehow paralyzed and unable to take the steps that might start to resolve it all.

In my original piece, I wrote about how adult women treat one another in the school environment, how cliques are present and often hurtful. I wrote about my own feelings of pain at being on the outside. I gave a few examples and kept most to myself in the desire of universalizing my experience and underscoring that many women feel this way.

As I look back at the piece, I am forced to admit something to myself. While I was honest about the feelings I was having, I didn’t handle things in the best possible way.

In my work, I used the label “Prom Moms,” which I believed many women would understand as that feeling in high school, that outsider status I had as one who never went to the prom, who was never asked, and who never felt quite like I fit in.

At my son’s school, however, “Prom Moms” means something specific, whether or not I intended it that way. In the context of our little community, parents who organized a certain event, and who do a lot for the school, were singled out and felt as though my piece was a direct attack on them.

Now, as I sit with the reality of having hurt people, I question several things about how women deal with conflict, how I handled my own emotions, and how I might do it differently in the future.

In response to my piece, several people commented, but only two men who know me and the school spoke out publicly and by name, one in a public message on Facebook and another in the comments section of the original piece. The men who posted did so openly, one the husband of a woman who felt targeted, another the good friend. They admitted their anger, their disappointment, and they did so directly. They told me they were saddened, that they thought I was unfair, and they expressed themselves. One told me about the hurt I had caused and the other asked that we meet and begin a dialogue, listening to one another and perhaps moving beyond this to create real change.

In his comment, one man calls me out on the fact that I did not make a phone call and simply address the issues as they happened. While it was not, in fact, his wife who would have received such a call, he’s right. I didn’t call. Instead, I let things fester inside me until they reached a boiling point and spilled out.

When I read the response by the other man, someone who challenges much of what I have to say and disagrees with me, the nausea abated a bit because it was open communication. Parts of it hurt, and there are things he doesn’t know, but I could take a deep breath, something I’ve been unable to do as my mind races and I wonder what others are saying. Instead, I know what this man thinks and can start to deal with it and move forward.

We have differences of opinion, and there are particulars that neither of these men know about. But I respect their willingness to be open, to speak their peace, and to talk to me.

I am forced to ask myself why could I not do this at my son’s own school, a place I have been a part of for nearly 10 years. Why, when I found out that people had talked about me at school, did I not simply talk to them? Why did that feel so impossible?

Why am I, and so many other women, unable to call one another and express our feelings? Why do we hide and reveal these things to each other only in secret, talking to the women we trust and then, just sitting with our pain? Why have so many other mothers told me their feelings about how they are treated and yet remain unwilling to talk to those they have an issue with? What are we afraid of? And why, when other mothers at school had an issue with me, did they not call me? It’s a vicious tit-for-tat cycle where we don’t call because they didn’t call because we didn’t call.

For me, part of it is because even as an adult woman, I still feel afraid of conflict, of disappointing people, of dealing openly with things that feel hard and awkward and uncomfortable. I want things to be smooth. I want to avoid and avoid and avoid because somehow, it’s easier if I just sit with my thoughts, letting them eat me up inside.

The downside of this, however, is that inevitably, that’s impossible and sometimes, somehow, those feelings get revealed and because they have not been dealt with openly, misunderstandings happen. More hurt feelings are created, and things can get worse.

All too often, I hear women discuss how men don’t talk enough, how they are too closed, too unable to reveal how they really feel. This time, I’ve seen quite the opposite. In contrast to the women posting me private messages of support, these men have shown a willingness to say their names, to be direct, to approach me, and to have a real conversation.

Do I think the original issue I wrote about still stands in principle? Absolutely. I don’t take that back. There are cliques in all schools, parents who make each other feel bad, and that needs to change. It happens at my son’s school, it happens at other schools, and there’s a reason so many women have those things to whisper to each other about the ways we’ve felt ostracized.

But if I had been willing to speak to those at school who upset me, I might have prevented further hurt on both sides. And I might have prevented specific individuals feeling targeted and slighted.

Even after one father suggested that we sit down, talk, and start a conversation about this, I get sick to my stomach when I think about contacting him. “I’ll email him,” I told my husband.

He looked at me and said “Why wouldn’t you just pick up the phone? Just call him! You’ll feel better if you do.”

I think he’s right, and that possibly, we all have some calls to make.

Sydne Didier is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. She is currently at work on a memoir about her family experience with international adoption from South Korea. When not writing, she enjoys swimming long distances in open water and running as far as her dog will go.

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