The joy and dread of playdates

 Photo: Getty Images

To live vicariously through your child is to rediscover the joy of childhood: of making daisy chains while sitting on warm, feathery grass. It is to jump from trees and dive under waves; to suck icypoles on stinking hot days; to believe fat old men wearing red suits really do want to shower you with gifts.

To live vicariously through your child is also to rediscover anxieties you thought dead and buried. No more so than with the playdate, that American term we have enthusiastically adopted to describe a pre-arranged get-together for children.

A successful playdate is a godsend, the cheapest and most stimulating babysitter, yet that innocent expression does not betray all the unspoken rules and underlying tensions, the potential for disaster and heartache.

It starts with the approach. Summoning up your courage – either because your child has insisted Sophie must come over after school or because you think Fergus is great and fancy his parents may be kindred spirits – you go over, introduce yourself, suggest your respective children might like to hang out, and exchange numbers. (My contacts list is full of the names of women and the odd man who are saved not under their own name, but as 'Briar's mum' or 'Tim's dad'.)

That evening, diary open in front of you, you begin negotiations. Would Elle like to play on Wednesday after school, you text. No, Rosie has swimming, but is available on Mondays. Regretfully, you respond, Rosie has drum lessons on Mondays. Eventually you settle on a Friday, in three weeks' time.

When the awaited day arrives, you take Elle home with you, keeping your fingers crossed Elle likes banana bread and you won't have to use the EpiPen Elle's mother gave you a five-minute demonstration of in the playground, in case Elle eats a peanut and goes into anaphylactic shock. You had planned to catch up on some work, but in between adjudicating when Elle and Rosie fight over who gets to go first on the tramp, and cleaning the house so it looks presentable when Elle's mother comes to collect her, you get nothing done.

All going well, in a week or two Elle's parent reciprocates and invites Rosie to play. If this does not happen, you are left feeling rejected and wondering what you did wrong. When can I go to Elle's house, Rosie nags. You try to explain that you cannot just invite yourself over to someone's house, but must wait to be asked. Eventually you send a text to Elle's mother suggesting another playdate, hopeful she will respond, "Great. It's our turn though!" But if this doesn't happen and the contact continues to be one-sided, you'll start to feel like a stalker. 

When anthropologist Wednesday Martin moved to Manhattan's Upper East Side, she wrote a book, Primates of Park Avenue, about the tribe of mothers she encountered there. In one of the most poignant chapters she describes the particular pain of trying to organise a playdate for her son.

"On the Upper East Side, there is a sense that one's child's friends and playmates can set your position in a hierarchy, bumping you up or dragging you down. You are only as fabulous as the playdates you procure on behalf of your progeny, and if you don't rate, neither does your cherub."

Recently my son urged me to get in touch with the mother of a boy he had been admiring from afar. Why don't we invite them both over, he said, then we can all hang out. I understood his desire; mother and son are as gorgeous as they are cool. Angsting over the text, my belly surged with the fears of my childhood. Please, I thought, let them want to play with us.

Sunday Magazine