When you’re a little kid, you’re always on a playdate in someone’s home. This continues into high school, and then, of course, college, which allots an eyeful of living situations while traveling dorm to dorm. As a young-adult, you hop from home to home via house parties, drunk sleepovers, and one-night stands. What all these home visits have in common is their beginning. They start with a budding friendship based on the “I like you/You like me” theory. And then you have kids and everything changes. The “I like you/You like me” groundwork morphs into “My kid likes your kid/Your kid likes mine.” And so the home invasions begin.
No one talks about the parent's playdate experience. It would’ve been nice to have another parent just say, “Heads up, you’re going to find yourself sitting in a kitchen with someone whose surname escapes you. Be polite and act like it doesn’t feel weird.” You blindly walk into people's homes and people blindly walk into yours with only little children's common interests as a jumping off point. And that is a playdate!
A new mom recently asked me how my son has so many friends. "Wolfie has more friends than I do and he's only 3," she quipped. "How did he make all these friends? How did you meet all these people? The park?!" Yes, the park. All the parks. And the local play center. And the pool. Basically any place with kids is a perfect opportunity to make friends.
Once Wolfie forms a friendship it's my turn to bring it all home...literally. Asking a family to come over on a playdate is a little like asking someone out on a date. It's awkward and you hope they say yes, and you are open to whatever day works for them. Thank goodness Wolfie has a tendency to ask people he likes, "You coming to my house now?" I pounce on his invitation and chime in, "What a lovely suggestion, Wolfie. Let's make a playdate!" Thus, totally avoiding that “let's go to the prom” sensation.
I think all children are fascinated to see other people’s homes and experience the way other families live. As we age, the fascination wanes. Unless we are dating the individual, seeing their home isn’t at the top of our to-do list. We’re fine meeting at restaurants and bars. Entering other’s apartments might even be considered intrusive. Well, parenthood puts entering new homes back on the list! Thanks to my son, I’m in on the adventure again, taking steps into unfamiliar territory. I am a mama, masking my own feelings of a clumsy invasion with a reassuring smile, encouragingly saying “Go ahead sweetheart. Let’s walk right in.”
Wolfie and I have invaded some lovely homes. I’ve envied people’s closet space and applauded families lucky enough to have a nursery. After all, this is NYC, where an apartment with a washer/dryer is rare as a yellow diamond. “Wow, you have two bathrooms,” I’ve gasped. “You never mentioned this at the jungle gym!” We’ve entered cozy homes full of stickers and crisp apples, and rowdy homes offering vanilla granola.
There have also been instances where parents who seemed very put together, yet turned out to be hoarders. I've held my child tightly while walking a tightrope between a cumulous of clothes and curios on my left and tumulus of tools and toiletries on my right. I’ve sat on floors because there was no room on a couch covered in shopping bags full of old hair dryers and bath toys. I've wondered, with an echo of Seinfeld, "Who aaare these people?"
I've never just popped by unannounced. Maintaining a home along with being a mom is a huge feat. Surprise visits are cruel. You can clean constantly but there will come a time where you're out of the house for days in a row and laundry will pile up, damp towels will inexplicably amass in the bathroom and the floor will get so sticky that the dust bunnies themselves will beg for a good swiffering.
However, on one occasion I was so taken aback by a home I could not wipe the disbelief off my face. The mother must've noticed. She quickly explained, “you'll have to excuse the mess, but what’s the point of cleaning? We don’t own the place. We’re only renting.” I was floored. We live in New York City! Everybody rents in New York City! A rental is no excuse for pillars of old magazines rotting in a living room. I wanted to jump up and call out the nonsense but said nothing instead. Besides, it's hard to jump up from an Indian style position on a floor. But I’d like to point out that if I have pushed a stroller 20 minutes to your door in the blazing sun, in 98% humidity, and you offer me a glass of water and I turn it down… your house is a disaster. Only a skeevy glass would force me to turn down water!
My home is part of the playdate equation too. I figure people already have preconceived notions as to what sort of person--and mother--I am from our time spent on the playground. I suppose they like me okay since they accept the invite into my apartment. (Parents usually don’t carry their kids over the threshold of someone they abhor.) When the time comes to bring it all indoors, I know personality has gotten me this far, now the home fills in the blanks. The eyes are no longer the windows to the soul, my actual windows are.
The goal is to make my home childproof and inviting, a cocoon of friendship and safety. I go through my space leaving no pillow unturned the day before a scheduled play date. There is an impression I need to make: I am a well put-together, responsible adult! And I don't think I can make that impression with a shoe pile by the door. Having been raised by an obsessive parent fixated on neatness and keeping up appearances, I feel I'm being judged. So, I look at my home with fresh, harsh eyes. "Is the bathroom clean? Has the rug been vacuumed? Are the toys tucked away to give the illusion of neatness while still being easily accessible? Is that a dust bunny? Do I have gluten-free, peanut-free snacks available?” Keep in mind, my son can eat an entire Polish Kielbasa, but other kids have dietary restrictions. Time to step it up!
Once our guests arrive, it’s on like Donkey Kong. Tazmanian devils have been released in my living room… and I love it! Legos, paint, puzzles, Play-Doh, let’s do it all! Of course, at some point the little ones are immersed in play and an opportunity arises to talk to the parents one on one. I get that sweaty palms first date feeling again. Self-conscious, hoping I’ve made a good impression, I push away the anxiety. I choose my words carefully and make small talk. Little by little, I try to loosen up and be myself. The playground does establish a degree of familiarity, but it isn’t like inviting my classmate to a party at my dorm. Nor is it like meeting my favorite coworker for a happy hour drink. I find myself experiencing something unique to parenthood. I am actually getting to know a person my son had a hand in choosing; and I am getting to know them in the most intimate of settings... our home.
With each new playdate comes a new experience. I have no clue what Wolfie and I are walking into. All I can do is be polite and grateful for each invitation. When it is my turn I can only try to be accommodating and keep an optimistic outlook. Sometimes there’s no connection between parents; Wolfie plays cheerfully while I pretend not to feel like a weird invader. Other times, I get lucky and I find myself sitting in a kitchen with someone whose company I genuinely enjoy. I find myself forming relationships with people I wouldn’t normally be friends with based on my child’s friendships. The “my kid likes your kid/Your kid likes mine” groundwork actually morphs into “I like you/You like me.” Unexpectedly, rich new friendships of my very own are created with only little children's common interests as a starting off point. With that, I happily join Wolfie in asking, "You coming to my house now?"