What was your middle and high school experience like? The thought either elicits fond memories that bring a smile to your face…or groans and grimaces. That time in a kid’s life is one big social experiment designed to teach him or her about life and who he/she is in the world.

For me, it often felt like the lesson was more centered around who I was not.

Most will agree that during those adolescent years much of your time as a student is spent within an ecosystem set with specific, often unspoken rules. Everything matters: what you wear, if you have a car, which car you have, what brand-name clothing you wear, who you date, what hairstyle you donned… Everything — and I mean absolutely everything — mattered. It wasn’t something I’d ever questioned. It was just life as a teenager, and we all accepted it. Most of the time things were great. I had a great group of friends. I was a typical high-schooler.

One of my best traits to date is that I’m able to get along well with all kinds of people from any and every background. In school I found that I was able to jump from group to group with ease. I was just as friendly and cool with the popular kids as I was with the nerds. It felt like the best of both worlds.

I remember going out with my class for recess with all the other classes of the same grade on a regular Wednesday afternoon. Suddenly my nerdy group of friends walked up to me. I was actually en route to go say hello to the other group of girls (the more “popular” ones), but I was happy to see these girls, as well. My joy quickly turned to unease when I saw a stern look on all of their faces.

“ What’s it gonna be, Breegan? Us or them?” I was puzzled.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Are you going to hang with us or the popular kids?” one of the girls replied.

I stood there for a second, not moving and not speaking. I was equal parts bewildered and shocked. What were they talking about? Both groups were my friends, and I never had to choose before. Why were they asking me to choose now? Why did I have to choose at all? I felt like my back was up against the wall. I was hurt by the position they were forcing me into. How was I to choose between two groups of people I liked?  My sadness turned to anger. I was pissed that these girls to whom I had been loyal were acting like brats.

Truth be told, I felt more of a kinship with them, the nerdy girls, but my anger was growing. I could feel my chest getting warm. I took a deep breath and blurted out, “Just because you asked… THEM!” With that, I walked away. I didn’t have a firm grasp of what that decision was going to mean in the coming days or months. None of that mattered in the moment. What did matter was that all too familiar feeling of having to choose.

As an adult I’m pretty far removed from mean girls on a playground, but I guess reminiscing on the situation brought back some familiar feelings that I talk about on my radio show each week. It’s the topic of mean moms and how we’re all expected to fit into one group or the other. So many women feel pressured to be a part of a group with rules or else risk being a social pariah. There’s the “come sit with us, we only do organic food” group. Or the “how dare you give your baby formula; we only breastfeed” group. What about the “perfectly matching gym clothes/we work out six days a week” group? Don’t get me started on the “you can’t be an entrepreneur/working mom AND a great mom to your kids” group.

It’s ridiculous! As I reflected on life as an adult woman with kids, I realized that in many ways I’m still being asked to choose. I watched my sons playing with their friends. All different races and backgrounds could be spotted in this group of adorable tots; yet, none of that was a concern to any of them. None of the kids seemed to care about gender or differently-abled individuals. They weren’t looking for labels and brand names on each other’s overalls. I watched them and wondered when that stuff would begin to matter.

No one should have to be made to choose one group over another. One race over another, one parent over another, one passion over another. We are the sole deciders of how we wish to be defined. I’m choosing to raise my kids to be strong enough to know they don’t have to choose. Who they are, their very being, has never been one-dimensional. Their very ancestry is proof of that.

Being asked to choose was an attempt to diminish my own ability to be whoever I wanted, and to be accepted for that. It sought to place me in a box that I didn’t select. If we truly want a more harmonious world, we have to stop demanding that people identify their experiences in ways that make us comfortable. It never needed to be “us or them” like we’re food groups on a toddler plate with plastic dividers. We’re all in this together.

I’ll never choose again, simply because I don’t have to. Isn’t it great that none of us do?

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