Is finding the right friends with kids like looking for true love?
by Paula Bernstein
March 12, 2010
Kate Haney recently met someone special. They hit it off at the playground and exchanged e-mail addresses. “I thought it went fine,” said Haney, 46, a mother of a five-year-old son in Western Massachusetts. “But nothing ever happened. I e-mailed a couple of times, but she was always too busy. It reminded me of when I was dating. Sniff:Rejected!”
Like Haney, I naively assumed that once I was married with kids, my dating days were over. Married for nearly 10 years, my husband and I are happily settled with our two young daughters. But, we still scan the playground looking for potential love matches.
No, we’re not swingers. We’re simply looking to “hook up” with a fun, easygoing family who has similar interests and parenting styles. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as it sounds. If I click with the wife, it’s almost inevitable that the husband will be a sports-obsessed drip. If we get along with the parents, you can bet their kids enjoy finger-painting – on our walls.
I still cringe when I recall the first – and only – time we got together with a new friend and her family at their place. Our husbands talked politics over dinner and voted the same color, which was a plus. The kids played quietly in the other room – until my younger daughter ran in wailing, “He hit me!” Apparently, my friend’s son had started pummeling my daughter for sport. The parents were blas’, simply saying their son was “going through a rough stage.” We skipped out before dessert.
With no pick-up bars where we can meet like-minded parents, I often wish I could just post a personal ad: Over-educated, creative types seeking same for fun romps in the park and occasional trips. Two daughters (around 4 ½ and 8) a plus. Like to travel. Must be able to tolerate our dark sense of humor and enjoy lively discussions about politics and film. Not too much TV or junk food. Parental discipline a must.
When it works, “family dating” is ideal. You get to hang out with your friends while the kids entertain each other. In best-case scenarios, you go steady with a family and maybe even take the plunge and take a vacation together. But, as in romance, chemistry can be elusive. It’s tricky enough for two people to get along. Inject more personalities – not to mention complicated playdate schedules and squabbles over Barbie dolls and fruit leather – and things can get thorny.
Tamsen Fadal, co-author with her husband Matt Titus of Why Hasn’t He Called? and Why Hasn’t He Proposed?, said that families looking to date should proceed with caution. “Just like in dating, you’ve got to have things in common and want the same level of commitment. At least there’s no sex involved, and so that doesn’t complicate things.”
Still, there are awkward moments of uncertainty and self-doubt.
Lauren, 31, and her husband had just moved to rural Georgia with their 2-year-old daughter last fall and were anxious to make friends when they “picked up” another family at a wedding. They invited them over for an “afternoon of babies, beer, and horse-shoes in the backyard” a couple of weeks later. But soon the initial spark had faded.
“They were good on paper: similar age and similar background with similar interests, but we did not click at all. The wife was really intense and the husband was really odd,” said Lauren. “The little conversation I had with the husband was stilted and he seemed perpetually stoned. I found myself doing the whole ‘we should do it again sometime’ thing even though I had no intentions of calling them.”
In Lauren’s case, the feelings were apparently mutual – the other family never asked for a second date either. But what happens when you think you hit it off with a family but they don’t reciprocate? When, maybe, they’re just not that into you?
After my friend’s son hit my daughter, I gave her the “sorry, but we’re busy” line the next time she invited us over. I know how she must have felt – when I asked a friend at school pick-up for the millionth time if her family was free to join us for brunch, she avoided eye contact and gave me the same lame excuse. She never followed up, leaving me to wonder if it was something I said or if my girls’ grubby table manners were to blame.
Share your family dating disaster/triumph. Not long after, I spotted her and her daughter out at brunch at a restaurant with another family. Like a jilted lover seeing an ex out on the town with someone new, I couldn’t help but wonder: “What toys do they have that we don’t?”
Different parenting styles can also put a crimp in burgeoning relationships.
Kathy, 43, a mom of two in Philadelphia, said she and her husband happily “dated” one couple for years – until they visited their friends on Fire Island for a few days last summer. Their friends’ daughter “refused to play with my older son. She consciously excluded him, saying ‘we’re not going to play with Jamie today.’ I pointed it out gently to my friend, but she ignored it. I was their guest and it was awkward.”
Though nothing official was stated, in essence, they broke up.
“How do you tell your friend her daughter is being a complete shit?” asked Kathy. “We ended up cutting the visit a day short. Now we avoid them,” said Kathy, who still feels burned by the experience.
Maggie, 40, a Brooklyn mom to two, said she and her husband bonded over politics, wine and good food with a couple they met in the neighborhood. Initially, the kids all got along and went to the same summer camp. But soon enough, they couldn’t be in the same room without torturing each other.
“Our kids would throw huge fits when we would tell them we were getting together with this family,” said Maggie. “One time I saw my friend’s little girl put a whole handful of snow down my son’s shirt. He pushed her away and she fell into the snow screaming that he had pushed her.”
Rather than break-up, the couples talked things through and miraculously, their relationship survived, despite the fact that their kids are mortal enemies. “We finally acknowledged the truth and decided that if we wanted to continue being friends, we had to have plans without the kids,” explained Maggie. “Now, we just get babysitters when we want to get together.”
There is hope that a compatible family may be out there waiting for you.
“When we went over to their house for our ‘blind date,’ we totally hit it off,” said Lauren. “Since then we have gotten together several times and I’ve introduced them to my other friends. Love match! I feel like we should be on an E-Harmony commercial!”
Meanwhile, my husband and I recently got lucky on mid-winter break. We hooked up with a nice family at a ski resort. While we chatted breezily about books and music with the parents in the lodge, our kids played Monopoly and put on an impromptu dance show. After a few fun days of sledding together, we exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers with plans to meet up back home in New York.
I’m hoping they’ll call, but I’m not waiting by the phone.
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- Shy Girl: Why does my daughter need social-skills therapy?
This article was written by Paula Bernstein for Babble.com, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.