Photo: Jorge Santiago

The Playground Trap

During the first weeks following our return to the U.S. after a year in Mexico, the playground was a space of near-euphoric refuge. Rounded edges, softened rubber, bouncing bridges at toddler height. The playground was the parental equivalent of a high-quality organic boxed brownie mix: just add a push on the swing and voila, instant stimulation.

Every day, I’d run with my daughter to the park, then run the trails through its woods, then return to the playground, where I would merge with my fellow fit-urban-mommy kin, parking the BOB by the picnic table, narrating my daughter’s every move (are you climbing? You are climbing!) while maneuvering around two-foot-long tunnels in my Nikes. One day I was pushing my daughter on the swings and speaking to her in Spanish when a guy in similar athleisure garb began pushing his daughter and speaking to her in German. Both of us, I realized, were Americans. Here, in this space, speaking to our children in our second languages, we studiously ignored one another, both self-consciously dedicated to the task of toddler neuron-building. We were parents of the type who look forward to Date Nights and spend their afternoons at the playground, who worry about sensory play, who live their lives in spaces with rounded edges.

“I can’t believe you’re a mommy,” my mom said to me several months ago, and I began to see that this meant not only someone who had spent twelve hours squeezing a human out of her vagina but someone who had begun frequenting Starbucks instead of the local coffee shop for fear of pissing off sulking grad students. I was a Mommy, and a certain kind of one, and that was it; there was no hiding or escaping it, and it sat in such plain sight at the playground that I felt between me and the German-speaking-daddy and me and the runner-moms a certain mutual pride mixed with embarrassment at this whole affair, at the way we performed it and were trapped in that performance.

This particular afternoon on the swings, just one among many standing side by side with another parent, each purposefully talking only to his or her toddler, marked the moment when my love – bigger than that, my abject gratefulness for – the playground began to wane. It was a slow diminishment, starting with the increased familiarity that dulls all novelties, catalyzed by the recognition of a tremendous, muted loneliness amid all the primary colors. We were, strangely, alone, each parent singularly focused on his or her floppy-haired progeny, as if each of us was wearing a headlamp that beamed only on little Ollie or Charlotte or Sam, each of us trapped in our own parenting, “doing it for the kid(s).”

More than anywhere else, the playground began to seem a symbol of the way we (read: American parents) live now: in spaces designed exclusively for children, with no functional purpose other than children’s scientifically delineated and cultivated development. Yes, playgrounds are play spaces, but play, we are increasingly told, is how children learn: it is never just play, it is a combination of gross and fine motor skills, it is an incubator of important social and cognitive lessons, it is a means to an end and that end is a Harvard-bound Iris or Henry.

The playground, like the Children’s Museum, like the occasional festivals in the parks on Sundays with their storytelling booths and their craft stations, are spaces where children are prized and precious and invaluable commodities, to be trained and exercised by parents like stallions. There is no room in these spaces for anyone without kids or uninterested in kids. There may be people of different races and genders and ages but they are all wearing dinosaur puppets on their hands and chanting “R for Roar!” These are spaces nearly cinematic in their construction of focus and scene exclusively around a cast of short, fiery protagonists with strong opinions. The whole of the energy is sucked downwards to a two-to-three foot range above ground, a substratosphere of bright balloons and thermoses and sunhats and gummies and Ziplocs of perfect geometric shapes.

In these spaces I often find myself simultaneously thinking this is great! and this is insane. They are both, in the way that religion is both in those moments when the believer becomes aware of the suspension of disbelief; the instant, lip on the chalice, she begins to question it all, to feel the foundations of her whole life tremble.

 

In an interview with The Sun, anthropologist David Lancy describes the U.S. as a “neontocracy,” in which the youngest members of society are the most valued. This societal organization is relatively recent; historically, most societies have been gerontocracies, in which the oldest people are the most highly revered. Children in gerontocracies are envisioned as “small, incompetent adults,” to quote Lancy, whereas in neontocracies they are idolized as near-monarchs. In the latter, parents parent; they believe that their particular parenting is the single greatest influence on their children. In gerontocracies, parents don’t parent so much as present their children with the basic tools for survival and allow them to maneuver their way into adulthood. Lancy’s most radical point might be that either way, it doesn’t much matter: parents in neontocracies tend to dramatically overestimate the importance of their particular choices and styles on their children.

Nowhere is the neontocracy more present than the playground, which is as much an anti-space as it is a space. There is no drinking, no in-depth conversation, no reading of books. There is no consumption of food that hasn’t been cut into tiny pieces and shuttled in tiny containers. There are no adults unattached to a child or children. And, at the same time, in bars and many restaurants and galleries and parties and coffee shops in the U.S. there are no children, there are few parents of young children, and the parents of young children present have put their parenthood on mute. A neonatocracy, I discover shortly after arrival in the U.S., is very spatially segregated: there are spaces for kids and only kids and spaces for adults and only adults. Perhaps this is reflective of the larger U.S. lack of shared public space, the capitalist organization of space around specific created needs. In any case, for parents it can evoke the sense of living in one dimension, at knee-level.

Walking or biking down the street in the U.S. without my baby I often feel as though I possess a huge secret. I feel as if people are seeing me but not really seeing me, because the real me has this life-changing life-defining appendage that is not visible. I did not feel this nearly as much in Mexico, and I think part of the reason is the fact that in Mexico it is possible to be a parent and also hang out at a birthday party in a cantina and to be a parent and also watch wild horse races and firecrackers in a dusty pueblo. To be a parent in Mexico–although this is changing in the middle and upper classes–is to be a person with children, whereas to be a parent in the U.S. is to be a parent, all other categories superseded and sometimes erased.

This is not to say that I am ungrateful for the playground, the Children’s Museum, the storytelling festival. In Mexico I was often frustrated by the lack of obvious places to go and things to do with the baby. I’d take her to a café and sit there for forty-five minutes sipping a cappuccino while she blew bubbles in her limonada but it didn’t change the fact that she was 18 months old and I was 33 and our ability to be cosmopolitan together was limited. And for as much as I may want to embrace “free-range” parenting or “gardening” or whatever trend may be gathering hype as “natural,” the fact remains that I am not, after all, living in a tiny pueblo where the baby runs around with the chickens or takes off with a pack of kids into the woods while I prepare stew and clean the house. We are living in an apartment full of puzzles and blocks that simulate random objects strewn around a village yard; outside is a city where buses zoom by and strangers roam the streets and a toddler wandering alone for a half-second would be snatched up by police. The work that takes up at least part of my days is not maintaining a house and raising children but staring intensely at a screen trying not to repeat the word “feeling” twice in a sentence.

Sometimes my husband says things like, “You know, we should just be like the people in Mexico and let her do her thing while we read the New Yorker.”

“As if village women in Mexico are sitting around reading the New Yorker while their kids tear through the pueblo,” I tell him. “As if this has not occurred to Americans. They would rather be singing ‘I Had A Little Frog’ for the seventy-second time instead of reading the New Yorker?”

The point is, most Americans no longer live in the kind of society Jorge grew up in, where kids roam freely through open-walled houses while their parents go about the business of sustaining life. Most Americans do not have a large network of family and close friends nearby who take turns watching their children when the children race by or pop in for a meal. In the U.S., there is a stark divide between work and leisure, home and outside, private and public space — hence parenting, a task that exists largely apart from adult work and life. And parenting is undeniably made easier by spaces designed for kids. I confess that I find Pittsburgh an infinitely better and more interesting city with a toddler than I ever did as a freewheeling graduate student. It is – forgive me, but this is the universe I live in and the website I check regularly for potential activities – “Kidsburgh.”

Kidsburgh. It is like a separate borough for children only, and for the parents devotedly trailing them. I accept that perhaps Kidsburghs are inevitable under our current cultural and societal structures, that at times they are relaxing and even joyful and that they certainly benefit kids, and yet at the same time I think it might be wonderful to stage a little coup, to fill a bar with toddlers, to flood the playground with a bacchanal of revelers, to pack a coffee shop with parents reading the New Yorker while the kids paint the walls or tackle each other in a pack or do whatever they might do loosed from their minders. I want to tip these separate worlds into one another, shake them up.

Lately a band of Italians has shown up at Frick Park, our neighborhood playground. The kids run around barefoot and fill buckets with water from a spigot, offering free dog baths. The parents sit at picnic tables drinking what Jorge and I imagine is wine, while behind them their children streak through the grass, tumbling and shouting. One afternoon they show up juggling approximately ten pizza boxes among them. Jorge is abjectly jealous. “I want to join the Italians,” he tells me as we inch past behind the toddler on her tricycle, as if the Italians were a punk rock group. I want to join the Italians, too, but instead we shadow the toddler on the monkey bars and then go home and drink Bell’s Two-Hearted in front of Narcos when she goes to sleep.

This is in no way a dystopic reality. It’s quite pleasant. Behind it, though, or maybe at the center of it, throbs a loneliness that has become an essential American loneliness, of people and spaces divided, of worlds partitioned for certain uses, of individuals living their individual lives. It is a loneliness exacerbated by parenthood, when so much time is spent in spaces exclusively for children, and when time spent in adult spaces seems conspicuously constructed around children’s absence. It is the loneliness of a life that allows little room for contradiction, for conflicting identities and selves, even as the dissolution of traditional roles makes it less and less clear for mothers in particular what they should be doing and how they should imagine themselves. It is the bittersweet loneliness of sailing down the blue slide on ragged cardboard with my daughter, hands in the air, watching the other parents watching me, caught in a private joy briefly public.

The loneliness contains at its core two desires: one for more overlap, of the childfree and parents, of public and private, of the functions and uses of space; the other for unpredictability, for one night the Italians to climb the corkscrew poles to the little playground tower and demand everyone remove their shoes and drink wine, for a glorious defection from the demands of place and time – a prospect both exhilarating and terrifying to parents.

Meanwhile, “OTRA VEZ BIG SLIDE-EE MOMMY WATCH!” Okay, okay. I’m watching.

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4 Comments

  • Anna MG says:

    Beautiful poignant piece. I work in the Early Years and so strive to make places as child friendly as possible, but I can absolutely see the loneliness created by this 3 foot high world, as you say. I am living in Ireland, and we are on a similar trajectory of parents and children living their own individual lives. Although we still bring our kids to pubs!

  • Lauren says:

    Wonderful piece. You put your finger on exactly what I was feeling at playgrounds and with suburban life in general (in VA where I live), without understanding why. It’s the segregation of life — or rather the spaces of my new life (post-kids) from my old life. Thanks for writing this.

  • ntomlin79@gmail.com says:

    Oh my goodness, thank you! Fascinating and relatable, in so many ways. Can we all have a raucous discussion about this essay at the Children’s Museum, while eating chocolate and things not cut into tiny pieces? I never realized that I never, ever eat with moms at these places. I spend my days either searching for ‘appropriate’ places for my 1.5 old or rebelliously going to places I know he shouldn’t really be–the sleek coffee shop, the Contemporary Museum….it feels subversive haha! Also, my precious 10 year subscription of the New Yorker has lapsed since my son was born–love the references!

  • Emily Hawkes says:

    While I appreciate the big picture sentiment, I disagree with your thoughts on the playground. I view public playgrounds to be a beautiful thing. I think it is America’s obsession with having huge back yards that invariably disconnects them from others – even neighbors- and is a main contributor to loneliness.

    I did like how you pointed out our tendency to value kids over elders. This has prompted some very interesting conversations with my husband.

    Overall a great read! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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