Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Swarm

We were at the children's museum, enjoying a snack of rubber watermelon slices, cookies and steak, when THEY arrived. The Swarm. Four children ages just-walking to old-enough-to-know-better, all of them related to one another. The collection of adults that belonged to them hovered just outside the Diner, where Z had established herself as head chef, hostess and thug/bill collector. (We had been the only family there for quite some time.) The Swarm mounted a swift and decisive coup—their adults so absorbed in each other that they didn't notice or didn't care.

The three girls and one boy made eye contact only with each other, the eldest giving orders. Her eyes cut Z with a look my daughter and I both interpreted as, "Don't even try to reclaim the pieces of your soup I'm now dismantling." I forced myself to stand back and see what happened. Z, easily three or four years younger than the leader, quietly moved out of the kitchen area and started playing with a dessert tray at a booth the two younger girls had taken over.

The leader followed her. "Um, excuse me," the girl said. "But I was using that." Z gave a shruggy whine, grabbed some brownies off the tray and moved back to the kitchen, where the boy was sucking on a plastic watermelon slice and wobbling everywhere Z wanted to be.

The collection of adults that belonged to The Swarm then entered the Diner and stuffed themselves into the booth, still talking only to each other, barely talking to the children. Oblivious. I felt trapped with E strapped to my body and my hubby off to the side, answering an e-mail from work. I couldn't even reach Z—The Swarm seemed to cover every exposed surface, breathe every molecule of air, possess every toy, even though they were only four kids with four adults in a space that could hold three times that number. I found myself wishing E were older, so we could form a protective Swarm of our own, a self-contained unit that could conquer a room the way we had been conquered.

I was about to suggest a retreat to the General Store or the Bank or the School when another mom and daughter bravely entered the Diner. The new little girl, her hair gathered into bouncy pigtails, quickly read the room and took up a position next to Z. Her mom gave me a friendly smile and ignored the ignorant family. She and I chatted a bit.

The arrival of bouncy-pigtail-girl and mom irritated The Swarm, which wasn't sure what to make of our burgeoning alliance. The collection of adults that belonged to them weren't any help, absorbed in each other as they were. I noticed that as more and more children entered the Diner—with more adults who were conscientious of their children's play—the influence of The Swarm subsided. And when we bumped into The Swarm and their adults hours later outside of Ben & Jerry's, their powers seemed diminished.

I've been intimidated by a lot of Swarms over the years. Those families that come off as impenetrable bubbles. Whose social calendars are full of each other. That seem to wield strength in numbers and shared languages and experiences. I remembered The Swarm we grew up across the street from, and I finally understood what my mom often said about them: "You become an outlaw, not an in-law, when you marry into that family."

Initially I was seduced by the power and confidence of The Swarm in the Diner. I saw the potential of my family as the seed for that kind of strength. But I quickly realized how unhealthy a Swarm is. To take over a space rather than blend into it, to see outsiders as the enemy rather than potential friends, to look only to each other for guidance and approval. At the end of the day, it's inbreeding.

I also realized that numbers alone are not what make a Swarm. I know plenty of large families that absorb others—us—into their Collectives. That easily share their language and experiences. And love. We may be only four: Z, E, hubby and me. But even if we grew to 24, I'd rather be part of a Collective than a Swarm any day.