A timeout on play dates

In Susan Anspach’s monthly column, she discusses the ups and downs of planning play dates.

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

I have finally figured out what is wrong in my life, which is that it’s being suffocated into non-being. There’s the fun, sort of cuddly, wriggly suffocation, like when your kids crawl all over you and, with puppy-dog obstinacy, will not get off. Then there’s the stuffy, asphyxiating suffocation, like when a single extra person appears on the same scene and, with puppy-dog obstinacy, will not get off.

It’s the feeling I get whenever we host a play date. Suffocation in its least pleasant form is a play date, for me, boiled down to its essence.

Play dates: We have a lot of them, but the effort required seems all wrong for the thing itself. Almost always, it seems, I am the pursuer, the hopeful petitioner for the date. As such, it usually falls to me to host, so that a single play date can take over the whole weekend for us. A weekend’s about the amount of time it takes us to make the house look more like a house and less like a den for squirrels. To plan a dinner the kids will all eat. To ensure that the same dinner conveys to the other set of parents that we prize good nutrition and fiber—plus anything else they may want to see in a family they’re considering permitting repeat encounters with their child, because somehow, the best-case scenario here is that they leave wanting more play dates.

It didn’t used to be like this, as every person over 50 loves, woefully, to remind me. Kids used to just run out onto their street, team up with the other kids there, and play. Fair enough, but consider this: I would love for my kids to be able to do that. Who decided they couldn’t? I didn’t invent Xbox, paranoia or windowless vans. Do you know what would happen if I set my kids loose on the street? No, you don’t know. It’s unknowable. It’s unthinkable, because no one’s thought about doing it in the past 15 years.

Don’t feel too sorry for them. My kids play a lot, with each other, with their dad, most of the day at their schools. I do, in large part, blame the schools. When my oldest turned 4, we enrolled him in this really, really good preschool where, when he started, he hid in the book corner and stared wordlessly at the other kids all day, but where, by November, he was volunteering to be line leader and planning out show-and-tells half a week in advance. He totally, annoyingly, blossomed there, made a ton of friends, and now we have to have play dates all the time.

This is usually the way that it goes.

A child—we’ll call him Liam—comes over to our house. He’s accompanied by at least one little sibling, his mom, and on weekends, his dad, too. The kids take off. Anxious for everyone to get off on the right foot, I scuttle after them, offering snacks, juice boxes and gabbled navigational pointers for the potty.

Smelling weakness, Liam grabs the kitchen shears. His parents, distracted by his sibling’s bulldog determination to teethe on our fireplace poker, don’t see it happen. I hover, torn between fear of admonishing another person’s child in front of them, and the partiality I’ve developed for all of my kids having two eyeballs.
Liam sees his opening and strips off his pants.

A good play date is a unicorn. And it’s nobody’s fault, other than Liam’s. It’s just that there are so many moving parts to consider, so many personalities at play. The moms have to like each other; the dads have to like each other. All of the kids all have to like all of the other kids. I hear people complain about romantic dating between adults and I try not to seize their shoulders and shake them. On a regular date, there’s only one other person you have to make like you! Things it’s socially acceptable to do in the meantime: Share a bottle of wine. Engage in screen time together, should you so desire. Jump ship when the other person pees on your floor.

Forgive me if my sympathy levels are running low, but not all of us have the same luxuries.

Could I ever ghost Liam? I have asked myself.

But it’s impossible. All the kids go to school together. Everyone shops at the same Trader Joe’s.

Plus there’s always the chance that next weekend, his mom will invite us over to their place—in which case we turn up in our windowless van, and let the chips fall where they may.

Susan Anspach is a product of Northern Virginia’s schools, swim teams and cultural mores. As for play dates, she’s swearing them off, right after the three she has lined up for next week.

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