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.”

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.