The playdate had barely begun before the other mother started telling me what was wrong with her as a parent. Which is to say, it was your typical play date.
“I let them watch like six hours of television yesterday,” she said, then looked at me expectantly.
I knew I was supposed to respond with one of the following answers:
1. Something even worse I had done in the same category. Example: Oh that’s nothing, my kid watched eight.
2. Something even worse I had done in a different category. Example: Oh that’s nothing, I didn’t breastfeed and I left my kid alone for an hour yesterday while I went for a run.
3. Something sympathetic and reassuring. Example: You probably needed a break and one day of six hours of TV is not a big deal.
I had always noticed that one mother I scheduled playdates with tended to start putting down her parenting skills the second I walked in the door, but as my son grew older and I expanded my circle of playdate playmates I realized it wasn’t just this particular mother – it was mothers in general. In fact, it was practically playdate etiquette.
Having spent most of my adult life trying to move away from self-loathing and into self-acceptance (thank you, Oprah) I used to try to respond to the self-deprecation with something reassuring and supportive, rather than jumping into an “I’m a worse mother than you are” competition, but the more playdates I went on, the more it began to feel wrong to just stand by and mutter supportive phrases while the other mother in the room committed the verbal equivalent of self-flagellation. After a while, I found myself jumping in and self-flagellating right along with her.
The fact is that when you walk into another parent’s house with your child, you are well aware that you are about to judge and be judged, beginning with the highly fraught First Snack Offering. There is always that moment, any time you have an initial playdate, when you must feel out each other’s snack rules. My son and I once showed up at a playdate with a Ziploc bag full of Goldfish. Not even organic Goldfish – plain old chemical-infested Goldfish, which my son had been eating on the walk over and which he refused to relinquish before entering the other child’s house. As soon as the girl we had come to play with spied my son’s Goldfish, she began demanding her own Goldfish. I held my breath, waiting for her mother to say something like, “No, we don’t eat chemicals in this house. Let me get you some spelt crackers.”
Thankfully, the other mother quickly produced something called Mac & Cheese Crackers, which looked as if they were made of even more plastic than my son’s Goldfish. In accordance with the unwritten rules of the self-deprecating playdate, we then both said something about how terrible it was that we allowed our children to eat crap, thereby allowing ourselves to feel a lot better about the whole thing. We were letting or kids eat chemicals, but at least we knew it was wrong. Take that, parenting rulebook.
In some ways, I lucked out on that playdate, because there is always the risk that you will have a playdate with someone who has a parenting philosophy diametrically opposed to yours, and when this happens there is only one thing to do: find a third party you can both judge harshly. I once spent an afternoon with a mother and her two children, where we spent the majority of the time discovering that we had non-compatible parenting styles. I did sleep training, she didn’t. I did time outs, she didn’t. I found parenting exhausting and wasn’t sure I could manage any more than one kid, she found it easy and was pregnant with her third. Then finally, we hit on something we agreed on.
“I was talking to this woman and she puts her kid to bed at 7:00,” she said.
“That’s ridiculous,” I laughed.
Picking yourself apart is an easy way to make friends. “That’s what I thought,” she said.
It was only later that I remembered my own son’s bedtime was 7:00. But it didn’t matter. We’d found a common enemy, and we would be able to go on and have another playdate. To some extent, that’s what the self-deprecation is all about: finding common ground so you can continue to spend time in the company of other adults while your child learns how to play with others. Picking yourself apart is an easy way to make friends, and, frankly, a standard way women are used to communicating with one another. Only on a playdate the context is different. So you while you wouldn’t walk into someone else’s home and say, “My thighs are fat and I hate them,” criticizing your parenting skills is acceptable and welcomed. And once someone has become your friend, you tend to be able to find things to talk about that aren’t just what you did wrong that day.
But what is all that self-flagellation about? It’s probably a side-effect of all those modern parenting rules. There are so many edicts parents are supposed to follow that it is impossible not to have a few missteps along the way. Nothing feels better than getting it all out there and magically being forgiven. Every parenting decision has innumerable pros and cons to weigh. In today’s brave new world of parenting there are no right answers, only things you could have done better: I should have joined a farm share so my child could eat locally grown organic pureed kale instead of Gerber’s; I should have breastfed longer; I should have bought only BPA-free bottles even though they didn’t make them yet when my child was on the bottle. With all the ways today’s parents can fail, is it any surprise that when two parents get together the first thing they do is admit their sins?