When I take Sonny to the playground, I’m always the only dad. Since many of my conversations are with a toddler whose vocabulary is half animal noises, I try to chitchat with the moms out of sheer desperation for any form of adult talk, but they rarely speak to me. I smile, ask how it’s going or what their kid’s names are, wonder how their day has been — knowing they’ve probably spent most of it cleaning Goldfish crumbs and yogurt from surfaces a 3-foot-tall person shouldn’t be able to reach.
Sometimes the moms smile back in that insincerely polite way people do when passing you in a hallway or standing beside you on an elevator. But mostly they ignore me, talking amongst themselves or doting excessively on their phones. My pleasantries are met with curt replies — “It’s going” or “I’m OK.” Then I nervously make a joke about the glories of nap time, an attempt to hint that I’m a parent, too, not just some bearded guy in a ball cap who hangs out with a young child simply for fun. But my witticisms never earn a chuckle. The moms usually roll their eyes and hastily gather their things, as if I were plotting to put their kids on the back of a milk carton.
Then I met Stacy.
A couple of weeks ago, Sonny and I ambled over to the park for our usual post-breakfast romp around the playground. At that time of day, it’s typically empty except for the occasional jogger and a few commuters on the way to the train, but when we arrived, there was a mom idly watching her little boy on the play structure.
As soon as Sonny saw the other boy, he smiled and ran right over to him. They sized each other up the way toddlers do (kind of like dogs, minus the butt-sniffing). As was customary, I assumed the mom would barely acknowledge me, whether our boys played or not. But I was wrong.
She said hello first, and we quickly struck up a conversation — our names, our kids’ names, their nap times, to bink or not to bink, the usual parent stuff. Then we moved on to ourselves: where we were from and where we lived now, what we did, her fiancé and my ex, Sonny’s mother.
For two years, I’d been coming to the same playground with Sonny hoping to make friends with the moms. Why wouldn’t we be friends? We have something in common — our children, the biggest part of our lives — yet because I’m a dude, there seemed to be an unspoken suspicion about my motivation in talking with them, as if I were going to lay down some game while my kid was playing on the teeter-totter.
Eventually, I mentioned to Stacy that she was the first mom at the playground who’d ever talked to me.
“Really? Why don’t they talk to you?” she asked.
“I guess they think I’m hitting on them,” I said.
We both laughed, but the fact is, meeting a mom or dad at the park is a lot like picking someone up at a bar. Instead of waiting in line for drinks, you make small talk while your kids play. If you get along — and, more important, if your kids get along — you set up a playdate, meaning the kids entertain themselves while you talk to an actual adult.
Stacy seemed like someone I’d hang out with even if we weren’t both parents. She was down-to-earth and had a cool nose ring and a small-town friendliness. We ended up chatting for another hour while Sonny and Nick chased each other with sticks and went up and down the slide.
As it got close to nap time, I wondered if the four of us would hang out again. Stacy and I had a good conversation, and our boys got along well — but as with dating, I rarely make the first move. Was I supposed to ask Stacy for her number? Would she take it the wrong way? My fear of rejection, even platonically, was too strong.
Thankfully, Stacy was more experienced at the parent friend thing than I was. “We should get together for a playdate,” she said, pulling out her phone. “Can I have your number? I promise I’m not hitting on you.”
I finally made my first mom friend. And hey, it only took a couple of years.