One of the most daunting playground trials for an involved dad is socializing with a mom. Your kids are buddies, they’re tearing up the sandbox, and you’re sharing a park bench. But how do you make friends without crossing a line or coming off as creepy? Is it creepy to even ask that question?
“I suggest fathers approach friendships with moms in the most platonic way possible, avoiding any hint of romantic interest or creepiness,” licensed professional counselor David Bennett told Fatherly. “Fathers have to make it clear this is about the kids and true friendship, not a secret play for romance or sex.”
Don’t be surprised if playground moms are nervous around you—they have their reasons. Creepiness is scientifically defined as ambiguity about whether or not a person is a threat and, to be frank, men are one of the greatest threats to a woman’s safety. Besides, men often do want more than just friendship. Men are more likely to be attracted to their female friends than women are to be attracted to their male friends, studies suggest. Women are well aware of this, and more likely to question a man’s intentions.
Nonetheless, it’s important for dads to try to forge bonds of friendship with moms. “Fathers may particularly benefit from the emotional and social support of befriending other mothers, particularly if he is a primary or sole parent,” psychologist Jeremy Nicholson told Fatherly.
Amy Janan Johnson, who studies friendship dynamics at the University of Oklahoma, agrees that stay-at-home dads need friends just as much as stay-at-home moms, because parenting can otherwise be isolating and lonely. Unfortunately, society tends to question friendships between moms and dads who are married to other people, and both parties need to be willing to deal with this stigma in order for a friendship to flourish. “They do not want to be considered as being in a romantic relationship with someone else or be perceived as potentially cheating on their wives,” Johnson says.
How, then, should a well-meaning dad break the ice? Start off by introducing yourself to mothers who are hanging out in small groups of two or three, Johnson suggests, rather than large groups (which can be intimidating for men) or one-on-one (which can be intimidating for women). Putting the children first, and making the friendship entirely contingent on them, also helps. As long as you’re only meeting up for playdates—and not asking about drinks after the kids go down for the night—you should be fine.
Besides, your children will benefit from seeing healthy, platonic, professional relationships between men and women. “Millennials, in general, have more egalitarian attitudes about parenting than older generations,” Johnson says. “Providing sons with a model of both men and women engaging in caregiving behaviors demonstrates these as potential future life choices for both boys and girls.”