My kids are 4 and 7. The bloom is off the rose. Not that I don’t love them just as much — or even more — as when they first arrived, small angry old men, my small young angry old men, into this world. No, the bloom is off the rose with other parents. The way I see it is this: In the beginning, you have a kid. You’re besotted with the little mewling thing. So overcome with love, you look around and see other parents similarly besotted and think, “Oh hey, they love and I love and therefore we can love — or at the very least — like each other!” The logical outcome of that is to schedule playdates.
But by the time your kids are the age of mine, you’ve had enough wasted Saturday afternoons of surreptitiously checking your phone while some bullshit bro-tastic Dad checks his phone too and you’re like, “No, FUCK YOU, I’m the cool one! You’re lame!” And what kills you is that you know he’s thinking the same exact thing. Meanwhile, your kids are happily parallel playing. After a few years of this, you realize that love doesn’t work exactly how we would like. Fuckfaces, we learn, can love their children too.
For a playdate to work, it’s like you need the two-key system used to prevent nuclear war. The children have to click. The parents have to click.
But still, because kids are shitty at planning their own social gatherings, don’t know how to use Google Calendar properly, and can’t drive very well, you still have to arrange playdates. I’m not saying, of course, that all my sons’ friends’ parents are human garbage. Even those I don’t vibe with seem to be perfectly nice people. They probably watch NCIS, and make the bed over each other, and all sorts of shit. There are a few parents who I actually like hanging out with. It’s the summer, we live near a park, and I’m excited to have picnics with them there. But these people aren’t just Tag or Alice’s parents. They are our friends.
For a playdate to work, it’s like you need the two-key system used to prevent nuclear war. The children have to click. The parents have to click. Then the launch codes for a successful playdate can be activated. As my kids have gotten older, their opinions have become better-formed. They are less malleable. There are some kids Tony thinks are bullshit, whether or not their Dads are dope. There are some kids Patrice thinks are the bees knee’s despite the fact that their Dad is a huge Smash Mouth fan and also his idea of Dad bonding is complaining about how much of a drag it is to have kids. I only hope Patrice isn’t over by the blocks with little Atticus bitching about us.
I don’t have to have some soul connection with every bit-player in my life.
But still, nearly every weekend I’m in some asshole’s den, making small talk about television shows I’ve never seen and subject matter I genuinely don’t give two shits about like lawn care or golf or the stock market. Meanwhile, deadlines are piling up, jiu-jitsu classes are happening unattended by me, and that dream I had of me and my boys biking out to Coney Island evaporates. Also, I’m sober and everyone is always drinking and I hate having to explain why I won’t drink the proffered can. “Woah,” says Dave, “what’s wrong with Bud Light? Oh, I get it, you just like craft I.P.A.s.” No, you twat, I’m dealing with my own mental health issues.
That’s really the thing: I don’t have to have some soul connection with every bit-player in my life. But the noxious twilight of playdates is a dispiriting zone of proximity without affection, made more of a downer because there’s a fake-it-til-you-make-it bonhomie I find both phony and pathetic. So you end up having a whole bunch of ungerminated conversations because there’s no real way, or true desire, to share really what’s going on while at the same time something has to be said. This frustrating exercise makes the two-hour playdate feel like an eternity.
The noxious twilight of playdates is a dispiriting zone of proximity without affection, made more of a downer because there’s a fake-it-til-you-make-it bonhomie I find both phony and pathetic.
Two recent developments have given me a modicum of hope. Firstly, my boys have reached the age of the drop-off playdate. The drop-off playdate is perhaps the greatest ruse for free childcare since the invention of grandparents. It must be used sparingly and reciprocally but, if deployed wisely, saves those wasted hours of fizzled friendship fireworks.
The other approach — which I’ve been experimenting with not just with my children but in my life in general — is radical honesty. I realized the other day that the low-grade water torture of playdates isn’t that I have nothing to say to the Dad or he to me but that we feel as if we must. The fault, dear Brutus, is not that we’re not friends but that we feel we must pretend to be so.
The other day, I took Tony to Dave’s house. He and Connor went off to play Pokémon. This time around, instead of making small talk with Dave, I just pulled out my phone and began that endless scroll of Instagram. To my surprise, he didn’t mind. Soon his phone was out too. Standing in his kitchen, we were just two dudes on their phones. We weren’t friends. We weren’t enemies. This wasn’t heaven but it wasn’t hell either. And, to me, that counted as success.