When I became a parent, I thought the days of awkward dating were behind me. You see, no one told me about the play dates: the set-ups, the high hopes, the awkward conversations, and the disappointments.
I hadn’t left the world of dating after all – and this time around, it was worse because I was no longer in charge.
The first few years of a child’s life are essentially a reflection of their parents. We pick out their cute little outfits, their activities, and whom they hang out with. I would call up my friends, or moms that I’d recently met and enjoyed, and asked if they wanted to get the kids together for a play date.
Before they hit school age, even their birthday party guests were my friends’ kids. While the kids played together, us moms would hang out and chat. It was a form of self-care — a way to feed our need for sympathetic adult companionship in a life that had become about catering to our little bosses.
Then they got older and gradually changed from adorable, malleable baby blobs into more defined beings. They started going to daycare and school, making their own friends, and expressing their own opinions. Their personalities and preferences emerged more clearly and they began to exert their independence.
It was at this point that I began to realize play date companions were no longer strictly my choice. When my children’s worlds got bigger and they started choosing their own friends, it dawned on me that I would have to start interacting socially with the parents of their little friends — people (gulp) that were not of my own choosing. As a shy, socially anxious introvert, this put me into a cold, clammy sweat.
I soon realized just how awfully similar play dates are to blind dates except, somehow, so much worse because they not only tap into your insecurities about your date-ability, but also eat away your already soaring self-doubt about your worth as parent. Hooray.
1. The Set-Up
The kids do this part for you and, but, unlike friends who arrange blind dates, your kids are NOT thinking about what your needs are in a fellow play date parent. Your kids couldn’t care less if your new friend-by-default is fun, interesting, and kind to you. Your kid just cares if she has delicious snacks.
My style – in dating and in play dates – is to test the water a bit before jumping in. I like to have a bit of a texting exchange first. I toss out a few jokes to see if they fall flat or are lobbed back, I gauge level of laid-back vs. formal, we have a casual back-and-forth about where we should meet. This gives me a general vibe and a heads-up on what I’m in for, good or bad.
2. The Place and the ‘Out’
A safe first date – play or grown-up – covers off a few things. First, it should be somewhere neutral: that way, no one has to clean up, is stuck with a guest who stays too long, or has to make awkward excuses about going home. Also, blind date wise, safety: just don’t invite a stranger into your home unless they come with solid and thorough referral.
Second, your date activity should have a firm end. It’s always flexible in the moment, of course, but you want an early ‘out’ option at the ready. There’s nothing worse than being on a bad first date with no clear end in sight. For a grown-up date, start with a coffee, for example – if you’re feeling drained when your cup is, you can end the date gracefully after half an hour.
Other safe bets are a nap time (your kid’s or yours, whatever) or another commitment. I’ve also known people who set up an ’emergency out’ phone call, timed in advance, so you can tell your date that someone you know locked themselves out, is stranded, and needs you right away. I wouldn’t be able to pull this off – lying makes me nervous and I’m shitty at it – but if it’s your thing, go for it.
3. The Nerves
My socially anxious and introverted nature are put through the wringer with first dates. People with whom I might nothing in common with (other than living with a mini human). People who might not think that anything I say is funny (the worst). People who are really smart and intimidating and make me forget how to talk about anything but the weather or kids’ television shows. People who are serious and boring and think I am too. What if the other kid’s parent is one of the super cool moms and she doesn’t like me? What if I don’t like her?? My heart is fluttering just writing this. Maybe I should set up an emergency escape call just in case.
4. The Outfit
I will acknowledge up front that this whole section might just be shining a big magnifying class on my own neurotic quirks that no one else has. I honestly don’t know if this is ‘normal’ or not but I obsess over what to wear any time I will be seeing another human, and especially if it’s to meet them for the first time. At the core of my 42-year-old grown-up self, I’m as insecure and self-conscious as ever.
For me, my anxiety is about finding an outfit that hits the right balance of the traits I want to showcase, for a grown-up blind date or a blind play date. For grown-ups, a little bit ‘rawr’ but not so much that it sends a message I don’t want to deliver. For play dates, a little bit polished and fashion but not too fancy. In both situations, the trick is to make it look effortless and not like you spent an inordinate amount of brain power on it or have a bed piled high with reject outfits that you have to contend with when you get home.
5. The Date
It starts with (what you hope is) a confident greeting: warm, relaxed, maybe funny. Then, you settle in, a bit nervous but it’s better now that you’re here. Casually take in the location of the nearest bathroom and exit. As you get the kids set up with their toys or order your drink, you make a few mental notes: the way your date interacts with others, how they engage with you, their in-person vibe. And, then, it’s down to it.
By this point, you have some sort of sense of how this is going to go down, whether it’s going to be a fairly pleasant hour or a count-the-minutes kind of thing. If you like your date and feel good in their presence, you relax into it. The conversation flows, there are serious moments and laughter, and an unspoken understanding that things are going well.
6. The Awkward Exit
If the connection isn’t there, then it’s just a matter of sucking it up and getting through it. You make the polite, safe small talk. Remember, your goal is just to get to the end if it. Talk about weather, the last movie you saw, or your plans for the summer.
Stay away from politics if the connection is already fragile. If it’s a play date, talk about the kids, where there’s a sale on rain boots, and the best place for swimming lessons. And then, if the fates are smiling down upon you, the kids start fighting, one them is crying, and you have your get-out-of-jail free card. But, you act disappointed, make a joke about how kids get in the way of your social life, and gracefully make your exit. Or, if you’re me, trip over nothing and drop about 4 things on your way out the door. As you walk away, try to keep your sign of relief inaudible or at least out of earshot.
7. The Post-Date Rundown
Give your friends the recap. Did you hit it off? Was she/he dry, witty, and clever? Have you already set up your next date? Or, maybe it’s more of a post-mortem and you want to go over it in all its hilarious and awkward detail: yes, he did talk politics and you could feel a deep rage boiling inside you, or he reminded you of that creepy neighbor who always held your gaze, silently, for far too long after you finished talking.
Maybe the other mom was a sanctimonious know-it-all who made you feel like garbage for admitting you’re sometimes too damn tired to read bedtime stories so now you’re worried that your kid is going to flunk out of school by age 9 because of your abysmal parental failings.
Now that my kids are a bit older (11 and 9), play dates are more of a drop-off event than a stay while the kids play (or ‘hang out’ if they’re 11). Still, though, it feels like striking gold if I find another parent with whom there’s a ‘click.’ Someone to stay for a glass of wine when she drops her kid off for a sleepover, someone to visit with while the kids play outside on a summer day, someone to help take the burden out of the the dinner routine.
It’s still self-care, and it still feels like fuel. With older kids, there’s no pressure to make it work with another parent, which is such a sweet relief for me – I can revert into my natural, introverted state.
The timing is great, actually, because I’m now facing the grown-up dating world again and my neurotic, self-conscious self barely has the capacity to handle one line of awkward and clumsy blind dates, let alone two.