Boobaby and I played “Bugs” today, which is where we sift through the leaf litter and examine the millipedes, wood lice, worms, and ants we find there. The game has made us popular among the little people — even five-year olds will stop their marauding to have a look at a crawly. At one point today, I had Boo, Buddy Boy, and three other toddlers all gathered around me in the playground’s jungle.
It came to me later why I’d made up the “Bugs” game in the first place. I’d met up with a stay-at-home dad from out of town; his wife came to San Francisco on business and brought him and their 10-month old daughter, and they’d found me through my blog. He was reminding me about how, at that age, you have to really engineer playdates, working to make connections with people since your baby isn’t yet interested in social contact.
I’m gregarious by nature, but back then I would go to the playground and fail to engage with anyone. Little Boobaby moved pretty slowly, and anyone I would have liked to befriend was usually rushing after their own older kids, leaving Boo and me galumphing in the slipstream of their big-kid energy.
So I very deliberately got Boo into games that would interest the older kids — Bugs, for example, and “Catch” is a good one, too, and Store, and building sand piles, even back when I had to do most of the piling. The challenge is to play with the older kid while still engaging with your own baby, both of whom would prefer undivided adult attention. I used to lead classes of 30 older kids without any trouble — getting a one-year old and a four-year old to play together passably is way harder.
But the effort paid off: we have really good friends now — if not age-matched ones — including, of course, Park Buddy and her almost 3-year old. What surprised me, I think, is how intentional this social life had to be: there was nothing at all automatic about it, and if I didn’t pursue sociability, I could go days and hardly talk to anyone.
I’m not the only one shocked by how difficult it can be to be a social adult and a stay-at-home parent. Park Buddy and I ran into an old playground friend of hers at the zoo a couple of weeks ago. They’d moved out of San Francisco into the suburbs with their 2-year old girl; it’s an old story: they’d left behind urban stress and parking challenges for a bigger house and a yard and the cleanliness of the suburban landscape.
And you know what? She hated it. She was lonely, having to recreate a social life for herself and her daughter, a job that had been relatively easy in San Francisco. Out of her natural habitat, though, she was at a loss for how to manage it. Some days they don’t leave the house. Other times they come into San Francisco to regain some semblance of their former community, but since it requires a 90-minute round trip, the experience just isn’t the same, and she described herself as pretty miserable at times.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing inherently bad in suburban upbringings, or urban or rural ones, for that matter. But each has its own social challenges, and I think it’s the last thing on most parents’ lists of things to be ready for.
To sum up: Being a stay-at-home dad is lonely, so work hard to create and maintain connections for yourself and your kids.