The Changing Face of Playdates
At a local playgroup, my daughter set up shop near the block area and began barking orders to a little boy. I smiled at the dad, who like me was carrying an infant in an Ergo, and apologized.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he said. “He’s probably going to kick over the tower in a minute.”
Just then, a woman came over and put a protective hand on the man’s shoulder. “This is my husband,” she said. “These are my kids.”
“These are mine.” I gestured to my children. “Nice to meet you.”
The woman walked away. After that, the man hustled his son away to the kitchen area. I’ve seen him at other playgroups since then, but we don’t talk. In fact, I’ve noticed at the library, playgroups and the playgrounds, while moms tend to flutter around, mingling, chatting and chasing kids, the dads keep to themselves.
The US Census Bureau shows that the number of stay-at-home dads has doubled in the past decade. While the actual numbers are still minuscule—180,000 or .8% of married couples—the change hasn’t gone unnoticed. In the Midwestern town where I live, dads are popping up at places that were normally dominated by moms, nannies, grandmas and their toddling broods. Daytime activities that were once the realm of the maternal are being infiltrated by men. And it’s making things awkward.
Where I am in the Midwest, there are still long-standing and deeply held gender biases. Parents frequently don’t let their kids play rough with my daughter because she is a “lady”. I’m often told I should remember to wear my wedding band because it seems “improper” when I don’t, and breaking rank and file to talk to the stay-at-home dads at swim lessons or playgroup is frowned upon. And yet, I often do. I’ve only been a stay-at-home mom for a year, and I know how isolating it can be to go to a playgroup and sit in the corner while everyone else talks. So, I try to make an effort to smile and be friendly. It’s a small town. More than once, I’ve met someone who turned out to be a neighbor or best friends with a former co-worker. Plus, kindness is always a good policy and one I’m trying to teach my children.
And the men do feel left out. All the stay-at-home dads I’ve spoken with confess to feeling like outsiders, unwelcome in this daytime underworld of moms and their babies. Yet, it’s too easy to misinterpret kindness. Like the protective wife at playgroup, the dominant group of mothers that visit our local play places look askance at cross-gender fraternization. When I asked a friend about why she never talks to the stay-at-home dads that we meet on the kid-circuit, she said, “You don’t want to be that mom.” Her “that” held all the moral implications of a Puritan woman showing her ankles.
It’s “When Harry Met Sally,” except Harry and Sally are middle-aged and have children. Can we truly just be friends? Is it allowed? Or are we doomed to the fate of characters in a Tom Perotta novel? While I understand the objections are rooted in an outdated moral code that implies impropriety when married people mingle, I can’t just brush them away. This is my village. The place where my children will go to school, where they will find their friends and playmates—I want to find even ground.
For now, my daughter is only friends with kids who have stay-at-home moms or both parents work. The odds are small that one of her little friends will even have a stay-at-home dad by the time she reaches elementary school. So, for now, besides friendly conversation in public places, the tricky social situation of the friendship between the stay-at-home dad and stay-at-home mom is being side stepped. But it won’t always be like this. While we are far from reaching gender parity when it comes to taking care of kids, dads are increasingly treading on what once was maternal ground. The result is that the face of the playdate is changing rapidly and let’s hope our codes of conduct catch up.
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