In Defense of the Play Date
They don't have to be occasions for mothers to silently judge one another.
One of the most biting scenes in The Group, Mary McCarthy's acerbic sendup of female friendship and aspiration, takes place on a play date. Priss Crockett, the grind of the Vassar class of 1933 and now a doctor's wife, is walking through Central Park with her toddler Stephen. She runs into a fellow alum, Norine Schmittlapp, and her 3-month-old baby, Ichabod. "Aren't you afraid he'll be called 'Icky' in school?" Priss asks before barely resisting the urge to tell Norine to raise the hood of the baby's carriage, to shield his head from the sun.
The two women are off and running for an afternoon of sniping and clashing. Norine mentions letting Ichabod sleep in the bed with her at night. Priss can't believe she doesn't know that "under no circumstances, not even in a crowded slum home, should a baby be permitted to sleep with an adult." Stephen sees Ichabod sucking on a pacifier and reaches up to touch the unknown object. Priss snatches his hand away. Norine brings up toilet training, the source of Priss' most bitter shame, since Stephen is not performing properly. Norine's theory is that children should train themselves. "Where in the world did you get such ideas?" Priss asks. The women repair to Norine's apartment, where a butler whisks Stephen away. The butler later returns to whisper in Norine's ear. "Stephen shat," she casually reports, to Priss' humiliation, even as she lets Stephen's nursemaid clean up the mess.
In the last minutes in this strange apartment, Stephen plunges his hand into the neck of the nursemaid's dress, and Priss, desperate to distract him, gives him a piece of chocolate cake. Stephen, a chocolate virgin, doesn't know what to do with it. "Look! It's good," Priss tells him, chewing. McCarthy makes Stephen's corruption complete with this last line of the chapter: "Soon he was greedily eating chocolate cake, from a Jewish bakery, with fudge frosting."
McCarthy wrote The Group nearly half a century ago, in 1963, and she was depicting the high-end New York of 25 years earlier. And yet her portrayal of the ill-fated play date is all too up-to-date. In recent books as well, the play date takes a satirical beating. It's the site of missed connections between mothers, a time for sitting in judgment and airing theories of superiority rather than enjoying the company of another adult (or the children who are supposed to be at the center of the whole encounter). These depictions of the play date ring true to me in the way that cartoon portraits do—the features are exaggerated but also familiar. At the same time, I'd like to rescue the play date from its maligned position on the front lines of the mommy wars. Because sometimes, mothers who have different styles unexpectedly come together over their kids. Fathers, too.
You can see a glimpse of this in Kate Walbert's new novel A Short History of Women. We've moved to the Manhattan of today. A single mother named Fran calls Liz, the narrator, to arrange an after-school play date between their small daughters. "I just need to keep Matilda from losing her gourd," Fran says of her child. "I understand," Liz says. "Do you?" says Matilda's mother. "You do?" The women talk while the girls play My Pretty Pony behind a closed bedroom door. Liz does her share of judging—she thinks that Fran has painted her living room "the entirely wrong color"—but she keeps it to herself, even when Fran confides about abruptly leaving her husband behind in San Francisco. Walbert writes in Liz's voice: "The truth is, she's enjoying herself. It's a playdate, she finds herself thinking, I'm on a date for play."
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.