Dating games: My husband, kids and I search for the perfect playdate. A personal essay on Babble.com.Emily Mendell
“We’re going apple-picking with Geoff, Isolde and their two girls,” I replied.
“Oh, you mean that new family you just started dating?”
“Very funny. Yes.”
Though slightly snarky, her observation was dead-on. And not only were we dating the Aguirres – we were quite smitten.
Unlike other parents we knew who had a standing Saturday night date with child care, our efforts to find a reliable babysitter on the weekends had been so elusive we had plain given up. Our Saturday night dinner date consisted of a table for four at the local pizza joint. Getting lucky meant a peanut buster parfait and bumper bowling until the wee hours of 9:00 p.m. And while I love my family, I’m not above admitting we were getting a little weary of one another. We were collectively lonely. It was time to start seeing other families.
Finding your dream family is even harder than finding a spouse. The more family members, the more complex the web of relationships that have to be maintained. There are couples with whom we could spend hours if their kids would just stop playing Guantanamo with our pets. And there are countless children our kids adore whose parents are definitely not from this planet. It’s tough out there.
That summer, I felt myself constantly checking out other families. Some venues were better than others. I found our local swim club to be a major meat market, with all shapes and sizes from which to choose. And it was safe. You could observe the families from afar, and for those who seem to have promise, you could swoop with a killer pick-up line:
“Your daughter blows excellent bubbles for her age! Who taught her?”
“Oh, is this YOUR squishy ball? It’s just like ours.”
Worse, you can send your kid in to do your dirty work:
“Go ask that nice little boy with the kickboard if he wants to play Marco Polo!”
We tended to stay away families at the bottom of the etiquette spectrum. We avoided children who didn’t seem as if they belonged to anyone. Such families were sure to dump their kids on you without warning later down the line. We also stayed way clear of the hovering parents and any child engaged in reckless horseplay. These criteria eliminated about ninety percent of the families at the pool. Maybe we were being too picky. It wasn’t as if we were desperate. We still had each other.
But the universe was on our side. It happened late one weekday afternoon when the pool was emptying out. As I sat there, feet dangling in the pleasantly pee-warm water watching Chase walk the length of the pool for the fortieth time, I noticed a dad I had never seen before. His daughter was also doing laps with an energy level that no child should have at 4:30 p.m. The dad was pleasant looking and I liked how he watched her, smiling. Could this family be the one? I pulled the old “talk- loudly- to-your- child- for- the- purpose- of- broadcasting- to- other- grown-ups” maneuver.
“BOY, OH BOY, ARE YOU GOING TO SLEEP WELL TONIGHT, BUDDY!”
The dad smiled at me. “That’s right. Get ’em tired. It’s the only way to go.”
We were off to the races. Making conversation is so easy when there are children involved. Inquiring about someone else’s children appears less intrusive and more benevolent than asking him about himself:
“How old is she?” (How old are you?)
“Where does she go to pre-school?” (Where do you live?)
“What does she do during the day?” (Do you both work full time?) They were doctors – we could show them off at parties!
We quickly realized we had a great deal in common. Dave and I attended the same college as his wife, who happened to be working that night. They had another daughter who was the same age as Noah. They were both working professionals (doctors, no less – we could show them off at parties!). I suggested a stroll over to the snack bar. Dave and the children joined us, and we all spent the rest of the evening together.
As it got dark, the tension began to build. Would we ever see this family again? I broke the awkward silence, speaking rather quickly.
“Sooo . . . this- is- a- great- time- to- come- to- the- pool- and- if- you’re- here- every- Wednesday- then- maybe- we- could- plan- to- be- here- next- Wednesday- too- and- even- order- a- pizza- instead- of- this- crummy- snack- bar- food- and- meet- your- wife?
The moment of truth. He said yes.
We exchanged numbers and agreed to meet the following week. It would be a low-risk date with plenty of other people and distractions if things didn’t go well.
But things went very well. We really enjoyed Geoff’s wife, Isolde. The kids hit it off. Our two older children are seven going on sixty-five, and the younger ones are both destined for nose piercings and purple hair. It felt like good karma, so we progressed to the next level: the at-home play date. The dads barbequed in the rain. Isolde and I chatted in the kitchen about work and our kids, who remarkably engaged in their own form of bonding in the playroom, entirely unassisted.
“Do you think they like us?” I giddily asked Dave while I cleaned up the dessert plates.
They did like us. After that, we found ourselves hitting the movies and the playgrounds. Soon we celebrated New Year’s Eve together, embarked on a day trip to Dutch Wonderland, and then eventually spent the night together. Oh yes – it had to happen. Nothing says “I love you” more than blowing up the air mattresses and seeing everyone in their jammies first thing in the morning. This was intimacy at its best.
Like all relationships, ours isn’t perfect. But we have such a crush on each other, our foibles are just endearing. We overlook that fact that the Aguirres run late more often than not. When Isolde brought her cappuccino machine camping in the woods, we thought it was cute. They won’t let me forget my stupid fall at the homecoming football game, which required a trip to the emergency room. When you find the right family to spend time with, your own family dynamics change dramatically. The Aguirres are also extremely tolerant of our medical questions which have bordered on the preposterous. And we all have our moments of crankiness, both kids and grown-ups. But we always make up and feel closer than ever.
When you find the right family to spend time with, your own family dynamics change dramatically. I call it buffering. Inserting other people removes the everyday friction, if only for the evening. Our boys get along better with each other when the Aguirre girls are around. We parents are more tolerant of our children’s borderline behavior because we can roll our eyes at someone else besides our spouse. And when we’re laughing about our commonalities as parents and husbands and wives, we tend to give one another more of a break.
These days, we see the Aguirres a few times each month. We go on vacations together. Dave and Geoff just ran their first marathon. My boys refer to the girls as their cousins. And as the ultimate sign of love, we yell at each other’s kids. When other commitments keep us away from one another, we actually miss them as a unit. I guess you can say we’re going steady. And I, for one, am glad to be off the market.
Photograph courtesy of Lisa Schaffer