In Defense of the Play Date
They don't have to be occasions for mothers to silently judge one another.
But a few minutes later, a glass of wine in hand, Liz imagines herself and Fran as a museum diorama: "Urban/suburban women circa 2007 participating in/on playdate, an urban/suburban ritual intended to alleviate boredom/loneliness among children/women while encouraging/controlling social engagement—" This is bleak. So is Fran's too-intimate question about whether Liz's egg-donor twins look like her or "you know, the smarter, younger egg woman." By the end of the long afternoon, Liz has peeked at Fran's "anxiety journal" and found play dates at No. 5 on a list of her fellow mother's 10 greatest fears.
At the scene's conclusion, Fran enthuses about making the play date a weekly event, and Liz fends her off. It's a sad little moment: Fran has extended herself too far, and the resulting awkwardness will affect her daughter's prospects of friendship as well as her own. No wonder another writer, Joanna Smith Rakoff, has one of her characters in A Fortunate Age pronounce: "the very term 'playdate' made her want to slit her wrists." Rakoff's book is an homage to The Group in setting and structure. The brief moment of bonding between the two mothers who encounter each other in her play date scene comes at the expense of another group of stay-at-home mothers who are sitting on a bench nearby. "They, like, think that they're liberal because they feed their kids organic baby food, but they're like Betty Friedan's worst nightmare," one says to the other's smiling agreement.
I've had my own play date mishaps and mismatches. If you're lucky, your kids pick friends whose parents you like. Or you succeed at making your kids friends with the children of your friends. It's easier when everyone is in reasonable agreement about when to introduce chocolate cake or toilet training (when the kids are little) or about when the TV, the Game Boy, and the computer are on or off-limits (when they're older). And when play dates involve parents and children—when they turn into brunch or dinner—the number of moving parts that have to work can be exhausting. My husband and I have backed out of friendships because a dad berated his son more harshly than we could stomach or because TV was the default mode for child pacification. I recently went out with a friend who recounted giving parenting-advice books to the mother of one of her child's pals after a play date in which she watched the mom let her 3-year-old draw with yellow magic marker on a white sofa and defecate onto the floor. (Poop comes up a lot in play date horror stories.)
But I've also found some thoroughly enjoyable adult relationships through my children. Not always with mothers or fathers I would have chosen myself as the perfect one-on-one companion. And that's part of the beauty of it. Because of your kids, you get to know someone you probably wouldn't have stopped to talk to on your own. You get past the initial shy, gawky stage of the relationship—you have to; you're inside another mom's house—and you get a window into how someone who is actually different from you thinks. We get too few of those opportunities, I think. And so I try to be open when my opportunities come around instead of inveighing against pacifiers or chocolate cake or the right moment for toilet training. In the end, we're all muddling through as parents, right? We can silently (or not so silently) mark off how another parent rates on our checklist of litmus tests. Or we can go on a date for play.
This article also appears in Double X.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.