I picked up Tom Perotta’s book Little Children, and, while I loved the book (strictly from a fantasy perspective), I was disappointed by the turn it took. I identified with that playgroup. I lived it, especially the part where the main character forgets her child’s snack, and she becomes the worst mother in playgroup, the one without 2 extra snacks, diapers/clothes enough for the possibility of blow outs, and duplicates of the same toy so the toddlers could “share”(that’s an oxymoron). I too belonged to a playgroup that met every Friday at 9:00 for five years. We had the Barbie doll member who was always dressed to the nines and refused to give up her high heals, we had the perfect Laura-Ashley-mom who all of us strove to emulate, we had the obsessive mom who wiped her son’s hands after each “contact,” and the out-there mom who secretly revealed that the best orgasm she ever experienced was during childbirth. I thought we’d hear about Perotta’s version of what went on during these mommy & me fests, these ritual get togethers that, through the excuse of socializing our young, we were really just holding on to that hour of adult time that seemed to slip like sand through a bottomless hourglass.
Mothers came and went, but our core of three plus one stayed the same. I say plus one because, while Mary Jo was one of us for three years, we have since lost contact, save a Christmas card from time to time. Those Christmas cards are a mother’s showcase. I remember the saying being the focus before I had children. I’d come up with something crafty, perhaps a Charles Dicken’s quote from A Christmas Carole, that I’d fill out all of those square boxes with a friendly closing, post the order of fifty cards, and send it off to be printed with my own personal touch. Details such as this were a priority to me. It said something whether a person designed her own greeting card or picked one up at the local Hallmark. I was one of those women who took the time to put her personal stamp on everything. I called it crafty or even thoughtful; now, I consider it anal and showy. During the playgroup years, however, it was Mary Jo who first turned me onto Christmas cards featuring the faces of our little ones. At first, there was only John, her eldest, two months the senior of my Ryan. Her photograph was taken in her home by a professional photographer. Poinsettias adorned the floor in front of her fireplace where she and her husband, John Sr., knelt down on either side of Johnny, as he was affectionately nicknamed. I bought into the idea, but I took Ryan to J.C. Penney. Relatives loved the idea of the postcard photograph, especially my mother, who still has each and every one, to this day; although, only her favorites are still displayed. It became a competition between me and my friends, both my friends from high school and my new playgroup friends. Who had the best photograph or who received whose first? My first trophy Christmas photograph postcard came when I decided to dress all three of my children in their hockey gear. Alexa couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, at the time, but I schlepped her to the ice rink with her brothers and dressed her up in one of their in-house uniforms for the day the professional sports photographer was there to snap the photographs of all of the youth players. What a racket those photographers had. Photographs of every child for every sport they played, but they took it to a new level when they made photograph sporting cards, or Sports Illustrated covers, magnets, sculptures featuring your child for a mere $56.00 package. That year, Alexa stood in front of Ryan, with his Wallingford Hawk jersey on; only all that could be seen of the hawk was the tips of his wings that looked like devil ears atop Alexa’s head. I received phone calls from those who I sent the picture to asking if we had posed her that way on purpose; of course, we replied, giving way to the future hidden-Carbone’s, as we’d come to affectionately refer to my faux pas, that would ensue on each of our upcoming cards. Renee pulled into the lead the following year, when she had her children, Jamie and Eric, dressed in a velvet and taffeta dress and suit in front of a white backdrop: the first black and white version of a Christmas card postcard. I took the trophy back again when my children were featured in a London phone booth; the hidden-Carbone that year was the revealing college girl photo and phone number on the wall behind them, a detail I hadn’t picked up on before I sent it off to be replicated. The trophy was passed back and forth for most original, most vintage, most creative, earliest in the mail box (I received Karen’s the day before Thanksgiving one year).
Christmas card one-upmanship was among the things I learned to put on the resume of good parenting. Another was the dreaded word: daycare. I was among two of the playgroup moms who worked, who needed to work. It was a status symbol if one didn’t need to work like the Mary Jos and the Kathys and even that woman who ended up moving to New Jersey, her name escapes me now. It was a tradeoff, though; their husbands went away on business trips every other week, it seemed. In fact, the New Jersey mom’s husband, we learned after the move, found out that instead of traveling for business, her husband was trysting—with another man.
One month after Ryan’s birth, I called my former place of employment, Hamden Adult Education, to ask if I could return to teaching in the fall. My mother had taken time off from work to spend the first two weeks with me as I acclimated to becoming a mom. One of the things I wasn’t prepared for was post partum depression. The second was a colicky baby. This seven pound, scrawny-legged, cone-headed, brown-haired, beautiful boy was an angel with a monster set of lungs. The first night home from the hospital, I called the nursery I had just left eight hours before, sobbing because I couldn’t get my little prince to stop crying. I sat up that first night watching the swing soothe him as it swayed back and forth, something my arms just couldn’t manage. In the morning, my mother would arrive to help Anthony and I. He’d begin to fuss, and I’d reassure them both, “No, I’ve got him. We have to get used to each other.” I’d rock him and sway him. I’d sing to him and try to feed him. I’d make sure he wasn’t wet. I’d pace. Nothing. The moment I handed him over to my mother, he’d stop crying. I’d find solace in my room, upstairs, sitting in the rocking chair, without my baby boy and with tears in my own eyes.
The mother role wasn’t working out the way I had planned.
In the hole of my depression, I’d practically shove him in the arms of my mother or my husband, only to plead to have him back, ten or so minutes later, in my arms to hold. One day, I took my purse, my car keys and my breasts and left the house for several hours to lose myself in shopping. It felt good to be free, again, just me, myself and I. In the car, I practically screamed the words to the song on the radio I was singing so loud, trying to drown out my own thoughts that kept repeating, what did I do? Thoroughly enjoying my shopping spree, two full bags in my arms already, I passed a beautiful linen blouse hanging on the rack that I had to try on. Once in the dressing room, I peeled the maternity top off to see little wet spots forming on my bra. My boobs were tingling beneath them. At that moment, I decided, motherhood was something I wanted, something I had yearned for, in fact, but I needed balance, I determined. I’d return to work. Yes, I’d return to work to teach one class.
The experience of my daycares went through phases with each child I had. My mother was my daycare for Ryan. The pluses: she came to my house and she loved him almost as much as me. The minuses: she spoiled him, rotten, and she felt she could mother me mothering him. With Tyler, I searched for a new daycare, a home daycare with just a few children, but with a woman warm enough to love and nurture him. My husband and I took several days to visit daycares. Not one of them was good enough for my son. In fact, he was even turned down by one because of his tendency to projectile vomit (across the room, projectile) after his feedings. How dare she turn my son down for that was his singular flaw and one he’d grow out of once he began eating solids. Thankfully, Karen, from play group, offered to watch Tyler, while Ryan would come to pre-school in the building where I worked. Playgroup was now taking on a new dimension.
She was wonderful with Tyler and she had a son, Christopher, who was just a few weeks older than Tyler. Each time I’d return to pick him up, she’d have a daycare report card that listed what he ate and played with, when he had diaper changes and what was in them, and when he napped. The funniest report card listed a diaper change with a side-note: he has the biggest baby penis I have ever seen. These were the things we discussed as parents. The report cards became something I looked forward to, so I could monitor his schedule while I was away. Handing over control of a child to even one of her best friends is difficult for a mother.
Playgroup became a drop off for some mothers. Would you mind if I dropped her off while I run an errand? We resented these mothers and they were quickly voted out of the group. One mother joined because she wanted to push her multi-level marketing business, her side-job. We got sick of these mothers who wanted an in as networking device, but we weren’t slackers, we caught on quick. Having babies might have sucked all of the time out of our lives, but it didn’t suck the brains out of our heads.
Max’s mom (her name escapes me, too) was one of those nearly middle-aged moms who waited to have a baby only to realize getting pregnant wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be. She would also be the orgasm mom; that story, I will not forget until the day I die. Max was approximately twenty pounds and 3 inches taller than the rest of his playgroup friends his age. He walked like a bulldozer with focus and great strength. Each time he bulldozed one of our kids, his mom would take him sternly by the hand, look in his eye and give him a stern rationalization that he should be careful or he’d end up having no friends at all. The rest of us laughed it off; really the boy just had no concept as to where his body began and ended, a concept he’d surely revisit in puberty.
Karen, Kathy and I (the mainstays) whispered a lot about Mary Jo. She tried to project this perfect persona of being a mom and of her children. Mary Jo denied, with every breath she took, that she was stuck living in a condo in the armpit of CT and that she had just given away her dog to make room for her son. If Mary Jo could have put a picket fence up around the outside of her townhouse she would have for both appearance and to mark her territory. Passat was a word she tossed around as if it were a Mercedes, when I simply referred to my vehicle (now equipped with the latest standard car seat)– a car. Mary Jo banked on her Passat as the lotto ticket that would drive her right out of Waterbury. And that, it did, eventually moving them to her husband’s hometown in Bedford, Massachusetts. Because John traveled so often, his parents could help with the children. Soon, they moved down to Virginia. And then back up to Bedford. We exchanged cards for a few years, simply for bragging rights. At first, all of us received cards. First, Karen was removed from the list, then Kathy, and, finally, me. The truth was that we wondered if John really was traveling around or sleeping around. Probably a combination of both. These are the things mothers come to talk about to occupy their time. The closer our lives got to STAR magazine, the more alive we felt, and a bit closer to the adult world, too. We learned, as mothers, to live vicariously through others. Characters in books, or soap operas, movies or even in our own living rooms.
We met at 9 a.m., at first, for timing purposes, so we could end just before naptime. As they grew older, we’d linger, sometimes stay for lunch or make an excursion out of it by going to the zoo or the firehouse. As the older children’s siblings came, we weren’t as anal about keeping their schedules, so the young ones learned to nap in car seats, on the floor or on the sofa. I’m not sure who became better friends; the three of us or our children. They grew up together virtually as cousins. Their mothers took friendship to a new level; we shared every thing we could not or did not share with our husbands and even some of the things we had. From the consistency of poop to Martha Stewart to new sexual positions; we discussed it all. While playgroup had started as a guise to socialize our children, it became so much more.
Tom Perotta narrates through the main character who was also “sinking into the rhythm of the kids’ day. The little tasks, the small pleasures. The repetition that goes beyond boredom and becomes a kind of peace. You do it long enough and the adult world starts to drift away. You can’t catch up with it, not even if you try.” But we did. We learned that our lives had become subordinate to our children’s, our days would be dictated by their needs and our friends would be the parents of their friends.