Anatomy of a Playdate

What day is a good day? What time is a good time? Is this the right child for my child to spend extra time with? Will they have fun? Do they play together at school as much as I think they do or will they not have anything to say to each other like a bad first date? Am I supposed to suggest a beginning time and an ending time? I had that happen once and was a little surprised, like they wanted to make sure we would be gone by a certain time? Were they slotting us in between two better playdates?

My son is five. Am I still supposed to invite the parent or am I way behind the times? If I say they can drop off the child, does that seem reckless? Or were they planning to go up to Starbucks for a couple hours and read Harper’s and now they’re disappointed? Wouldn’t a parent want to accompany their child to our house for the first time in case we were nice, safe, nonsmoking people who, it turns out, also run an illegal prostitution ring? Have wet Andrew Jacksons hanging from a clothesline in the basement? What if we have a pit bull?

Can I work out details with the other parent in the morning at drop-off time? But I also don’t want to talk about the playdate in front of other parents. It seems to detract from the communal feel. Plus what if a parent who had previously suggested getting together for a playdate hears and knows I followed up on another playdate before theirs? Or do people talk in generalities about playdates but don’t really intend for them to happen the way my husband and I say during a rainstorm that we should get a condo in Arizona sometime.

What if there’s a child who never gets asked for playdates and hearing about this playdate makes the mom feel bad? What if I think my child has lots of playdates and it turns out he has one-tenth the playdates other kids have? What if other kids are getting together all the time– they’re at playparks, science museums, building snowmen at Mt. Hood then going in the lodge to drink hot chocolate and we don’t even know about it. Maybe they’re making oblique comments “Think we’ll have snow this year?” and it’s a secret code for all the snowmen-making friends, which is everybody, except us.

Once the playdate is scheduled it’s time to start hating my house. The house that on any other day, I love like a favorite sweater. Seeing it through someone else’s fresh eyes, my house and its decor meet only with disappointment. I’ve never liked that chandelier. The couch cushions sag. That picture is sooooooo depressing. I see the giant rusty-taupe wall with one, count it, one thing hanging on it, like a tiny bullseye.

Then there are the toys. There is a permanent garage sale going on in my living room. Toys suffocate our old life like ivy sucking the life out of a tree. We still have the sofa table but it’s now heaped with library books. We still have the heirloom dining table, but now it’s covered with wipeable oil cloth. The Persian rugs are blitzed with blocks, crayons, squares of petrified toast (she told me she finished it). A pile of paper dolls becomes a flash mob when the heat vent blows. Six inches off the ground, a maze of yarn for trapping robbers stretches from the refrigerator to the piano. My daughter’s twenty-nine favorite cds are dealt across the dining room like a bad poker hand.

The kitchen, the heart of the home. The place where every visitor loves to gather, drawn to the hearth. I wonder if I can keep everyone out. “I’ll get the coffee. No, no, you sit. Sit!” Is this kitchen hideous and I never realized it? Have my relatives been thinking that for years? There is no break for the eye in a red and yellow kitchen. I was a passionate young woman when I chose the scheme. Now I find it overstimulating, like a Craftsman McDonald’s.

An hour before the playdate and we don’t have enough for snack. I mean, we did until I dismissed the apples and crackers as too pedestrian. Where’s the fresh mango? Where’s the quince jam on rosemary scones? We have apples from Costco and a box of crackers. I might as well put up a sign that says “We are mildly interested that you are here with us today.” I should have made the blueberry muffins like my son suggested. The recipe was from their class, it would have been too perfect. Their classroom, their recipe. And you know no parent makes the recipes they send home. It would have been a coup.

“When are they coming?” my son asks. “Any time now,” I say, looking at the clock. Five minutes till. I glance around at the house one last time. It’ll do. Then it’s time. Then it’s five minutes past. I go play with my son so when they come it will seem like all I do in the afternoon is sit calmly and drink up my son’s thoughts and ideas. Ten minutes past. They forgot. When someone is five minutes late, even someone who is say, driving across the country during a blizzard, I generally think that they’ve forgotten our plans. I know in that part of your brain that is sensible that this is not true and I know in that part of your brain that stops you from teaching your neuroses to the next generation that everything’s fine, yet after five minutes of waiting, I prepare myself for the possibility that his friend is not coming and now I will have to break the news and watch sadness well in his perfect, innocent eyes.

Except they’re here, of course they are, pulling into the driveway. And we’re glad to see them and the kids run off to play and the mom and I chat in the kitchen while I pour coffee. When she asks if she can help I ask if she could grab the half and half out of the fridge and I don’t even worry about the leftover pizza in plain sight revealing I at least occasionally serve my family cardboard food. The mom and I have plenty to talk about and the kids enjoy two hours of creative interactive play. I have not specified an ending time to the playdate and this does not prove necessary as activity winds down to a natural end. A good time had by all. And I wonder why I worry so much. “If you could let go a little,” my husband says, “you might have more fun.”

And I truly consider it. But in the end, I know what happens when you let go. Something creeps up and smacks you from behind. Something comes shooting out of nowhere and knocks you on your bum. Something my husband and people like him–people who have faith in life–don’t realize is that worrying is a lifelong commitment. You can’t just dip your toe in the water one day and think you’re going to swim the English Channel the next. Worrying is a calling. It requires all of you. Practice, practice. Wax on, wax off.

Our friends have gone and within minutes I am thinking about what could have been better, things I had forgotten to worry about while we stood on the porch with my son calling “Good-bye, see you at school!” and the friend calling  “Good bye, see you at school too!”

Within minutes I see that our welcome mat, far from cozy and inviting, is scroungy. You can’t even see the design on it anymore. And this we offered friends as a place to wipe their feet. The petunias in the planter, scraggly. Why did I not pluck them out? Hello, compost bin? Clearly they gave the impression that this is not a healthy, robust household.

I step back inside the house? Did our house always smell like this? Is it from the compost? Something growing in the front closet, moldy shoes? I never liked this closet. It has a poor design and an overabundance of unusable square footage. It looks like we don’t have a grip on our architecture. And I wince, remembering that our friends got out their own coats, and she’s taller than I am, which means she saw the mass of scarves, mittens, costume accessories, the recyclable shopping bag hall of fame–all entangled on the shelf, like that garbage island the size of Texas that’s supposed to be floating in the Pacific.

Stepping past the closet I grimace as I see the box of crackers on the dining table and realize that I served the crackers out of the box and not in serving bowls with cute, kid-sized tongs. It would be so neat if I owned cute, kid-sized tongs. My mother makes hamburgers and serves the mayonnaise in a bowl, the mustard in a bowl, the other mustard nobody likes in a bowl. She serves other bowls in a bowl.

And I think of how many crackers my child ate compared to his friend which makes him look like he can’t control his snacking, a sign of weak character. The other child ate more of the vegetables, which is something my children usually like to eat, and which usually gives us an edge in playdates. Not to mention that these were bunny crackers. What was I thinking. They want bad guy crackers. Darth Vader crackers. My son liked bunny crackers when he was three. I am not allowing him to grow up, which must have been apparent.

And finally, I go in to use the bathroom and see that the window is wide open, the window I opened ten minutes before they came to give a burst of fresh air. And which I forgot to go back and close. Which means when the mom asked to use our restroom she saw the open window, which makes one think we were trying to get rid of a bad smell, which makes one think of things in the bathroom that cause bad smells, which means that this new family we were making friends with is now going to know that our family poops. This is mortifying. I’m ready to crawl under a rug.

The longer I think, the more I could come up with. For example, I had provided no craft projects, no making Thanksgiving decorations out of two Q-tips and a bay leaf. My children had displayed no knowledge of a foreign language. And I had not managed before the playdate to become a dedicated runner or violinist, something I could have worked into the conversation at least twice. All of these things could have shown that we were the cultured family, the healthy family, the enriched and enriching family. So enriching that it oozed off of us, landing on any other family lucky, so lucky, enough to spend time with us.

“Did you have fun at the playdate?” I ask my son.

“Yeah,” he says. “It was fun.”

At the end of the day, my husband asks about the weather. He asks about our daughter’s nap. His third question is about how the playdate went.

“Great,” I say. “It was really fun.”

Why, when I am also thinking all these other things, do I leave all those things out? Why, an hour later, son happy, content and fulfilled. House clean, warm, safe, and dry. Why is my only response to smile and say that everything was fine? And to say it like I mean it.

Pass the bunnies.


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