Wednesday, 29 August 2012
I Hate My Playground
Playgrounds are like high school. There are cliques, and there’s judgment, and it’s hard to find your place. And that’s just for the parents.
My playground has three distinct cliques: the moms, the nannies, and the grandmas. The
nannies are sweet and chatty and good with Cookie, but spend most of their time chatting
with each other in Tagalog. The grandmas ask questions and look sceptically at how Cookie
is dressed (Not enough layers? Too many?), but at least they talk to me. But I just can’t break
into the mom clique, despite my smiles and hellos and determination to be open and warm.
Sometimes they give me a condescending smirk, but that’s about it. What’s wrong with me this time?
Much like in high school, I end up drawing the outcasts: the slightly delayed teenager walking his dog; the eccentric mom wearing the Value Village fake fur coat in summer. I’m done with that phase of my life. I just want normal friends.
One possible answer to my shunning by the moms is that I have only one kid. All the moms
seem to have two kids: one three- or four-year-old racing around and terrorizing the two-year-
olds, and one baby strapped into a carrier. I have a two-year-old, who only gets in the way of
the bigger kids and can’t join in. I have nothing to offer. Plus, I don’t know the “rules.”
Cookie is magnetically drawn to the giant, steep, eighties-era metal slide. So one day I indulged her and took her down the slide. I went down with her so I could control the speed and she wouldn’t be launched off the end like so many other kids I’ve seen. But as soon as we got to the bottom, a little boy ran up to us and yelled, “That slide is not for babies!”
“I know. That’s why I went down with her,” I started to explain, before I realized I was justifying my behaviour to a four-year-old.
I avoided the slide after that. Cookie would pull my arm and whine, but I’d try to calmly
explain, “No, that slide’s not for you. When you’re bigger, you can go on it.” But I hated myself for giving in to the judgment of a four-year-old. If Cookie’s brave enough to want to go down the big slide, I should encourage her sense of adventure, shouldn’t I?
One day at the playground, as I watched kids zoom head-first down the throw-back slide,
I received a forward from my sister of an article that had appeared in the New York Times.
It was about how playgrounds are now too safe, and psychologists are finding that kids today are more anxious because they aren’t able to conquer their fears of speed and heights the way we did: at the playground. Slides and climbing structures are too short and sturdy. Traditional teeter-totters and merry-go-rounds— or “Physics 101” — no longer exist. Paradoxically, as with SUVs, children are suffering more serious injuries because the cushioned surfaces these structures are built on give the illusion of safety. When we were balanced precariously eight feet over asphalt, we were much more careful because we knew for sure that falling would be a bad thing.
That just made me feel worse about not allowing Cookie on the big-kid slide.
Then, one Saturday morning, I discovered something amazing: there are times when the
playground is populated solely by dads and kids. That Saturday morning I was the only mom, and I noticed an amazing thing: all the dads were sending their two-year-olds, unaccompanied, down Big Silver. So this time, when Cookie started pulling me towards the slide, I didn’t resist. I helped her up the steps, then clambered back down and around to catch her at the bottom. She loved it, I loved it, and no one judged us. No one talked to us either, again, but I didn’t care about that.
There’s another magic time when there are just dads in the playground: between 5:30 and
6:00, when the moms go home to cook supper and the nannies go home to their own families. Dads take over, and the tension dissipates. Or maybe that’s just my perception, but last time I was there at that time, one of the dads was openly drinking a beer, so trust me, it was a pretty relaxed environment.
I’m not going to give up on mom time, though. Women are a pretty self-hating lot, and I don’t
want to be a part of that. I go through the world forcing myself into the attitude that people
wish only the best for others, rather than the default defensive attitude that most of us seem
to carry. I continue to smile at other moms and open myself to conversational opportunities
and encourage Cookie to interact with kids she doesn’t know. And one day, someone will
genuinely smile back and ask my name (rather than just Cookie’s), and I will finally find my
place in this “family” neighbourhood. Until then, I romantically imagine myself as Kate Winslet’s character in Little Children, distancing herself from the other mothers at the playground, listening in on their inane conversations but not deigning to participate. Minus the affair with the hot stay-at-home dad, of course. Although I may start packing a flask in my diaper bag for cocktail hour.
-East End Mama