I went to hear a speaker at the evening meeting of a local mother's organization when my firstborn was 10 months old. Sleeping baby on my shoulder, I sat happily among other women who were going through the same experience that had changed my life so completely at the age of 22. I was used to Le Leche meetings but women here amped up the game with make-up on and reasonably trendy clothes worn. I was wearing the equivalent of a sack, feet stuffed into pre-baby boots, hair an artless mess.
A business meeting was conducted before the speaker was introduced. These were serious women. They ran a tight group with weekly outings and seasonal parties for kids, plus monthly speakers, all made possible by active committees and subcommittees. At the close of the program, two welcoming committee members greeted me, extolling the virtues of the organization and inviting me to a kids' party in the community rec center the next weekend. My son wasn't remotely old enough to care but I was looking for a tribe of my own so we showed up.
The party was held in one of those stark recreation center gyms. Even an overload of decorations didn't make that cavernous space seem welcoming. Large and surprisingly fancy games were set up. These weren't rented games, they were constructed from plywood and artistically painted, surely the result of much parental labor. Costumed figures roamed at a slow pace. Their progress could be tracked by children's horrified shrieks and mothers' eager exclamations. Tiny children were strapped in strollers, slightly older children were expected to do things like stand between taped lines to throw a ball at a brightly painted opening or sit at a table where pre-cut shapes were meant to be glued onto paper. There was a lot of noise. I was more overwhelmed than my son by all these frantic attempts to manufacture fun. We escaped after a few minutes.
The next morning a committee chair called, letting me know the group allowed attendance at two events before I was expected to join. Serving on a committee was a condition of membership. She outlined the group's structure at length while her baby daughter cried in the background. Maybe I should have jumped in and kept looking for fellow mom friends, but I didn't. Their group had a lot to offer but it wasn't for me.
I didn't learn quickly. Over the next year or two I checked out a number of weekend events for families. I took my little one to fairs and open air family arts programs. These were flustering events with more chaos than either one of us could tolerate, punctuated by the wails of tiny children who clearly preferred to toddle or run around rather than be strapped in for an afternoon of overstimulation. End-of-their-rope parents walked grimly by with balloons tied to strollers. I overheard one parent hiss between tightly stretched lips, "We're here so you can have FUN."
My little boy seemed smaller at these events, constrained and passive, while at home he was a mighty explorer and intrepid experimenter. Being stuck in a car seat, then a stroller, forced into the observer role -- this wasn't the way he thrived.
I'll readily admit my firstborn was an experimental child. Trial and error proved many of my choices for him to be poorly considered, or, more often, far too over considered. (I have apologized to him, even though he laughs it off as experimental offspring learn to do.) But thanks to those early experiences I spared his younger siblings crowded and contrived events meant to entertain children. The public events we did attend were quieter and more enticing for kids: a yearly peace fair with non-competitive games, an arts festival held at a junkyard, an outdoor international fair where one could wander along while watching music and dance, a nature area's pioneer program with stations along the trails to teach traditional hands-on skills.
I'd venture to guess there are very few loud, overdone events that really appeal to the youngest kids. When we see this through our children's eyes we see that exhausting ourselves in pursuit of fun isn't fun at all. Rather than all the fuss getting there, the expense, the promises of merriment, and what always seems like a longer trip back I'm pretty sure most kids are happier with unexpected pleasures like using the garden hose to make mud pies or having mom bring home a big cardboard box to make into a fort. Invite a kid friend over and it's even more fun.
And it turns out I found other parents I could connect with in more relaxed settings; places like the park, the library, the hiking trail, and walks around the neighborhood. My favorite parenting moments have been relaxed--sitting in the shade reading a book while keeping an eye on kids, or heck, making some mud pies too. To me this isn't just slacker parenting at its best. It's also a prescription for peace.