playground confidential

How did swings and slides become social statements?


Six weeks after my daughter, Nicole, was born, I took her to the local playground. I wanted to meet other mothers, swap war stories. Nobody talked to me. I tried striking up conversation, but it was like transferring into one high school from another during sophomore year: The cliques were already formed. I ambushed one mother sitting alone, and conversation was great until I mentioned that I was able to write at home and had resumed working two weeks after Nicole was born. She forced a smile and excused herself.

I told my neighbor, a mother-of-two veteran of the playground scene, what had happened. “That’s the non-working-moms’ playground,” she said. “Try the park off Whitsett. Entertainment-industry parents go there.”

I tried it. It was very Hollywood — pretty people, lots of implants, lots of Baby Guess. I recognized a famous director pushing his son in the swing with one hand, talking on his cellular with the other. I spotted a producer I know, her daughter vying with a script for mom’s attention. Everyone was multitasking, playing with their kids while working the crowd. Business cards and actors’ head shots exchanged hands. I decided to exit, stage right.

My yoga teacher told me about a more laid-back playground. When we arrived, one mom, noticing the natural soda I was drinking, said, “I love that stuff — it’s very cleansing.” Cleansing? I couldn’t admit I’d just grabbed the first cold drink off the shelf. Still, we were off to a good start, talking yoga and health-food stores, when my cell phone rang. Amid glares, I pulled it out. My husband was unusually chatty. Other mothers moved away, and I swear one hissed, “Hang up and parent!”

At a Beverly Hills playground, all the babies were white, the women with them Latina. Noticing my brown skin, one asked, “You the nanny?”

“No, the mother,” I said. Then I realized I was the only mom there.

Another neighbor told me about a playground in West Hollywood, where a down-to-earth woman named Toni and her baby son quickly befriended us. She, too, was a working mom, and it turned out we’d been at the same company at different times. “My partner, Melissa, still works there,” Toni said. Melissa? Toni was surprised I didn’t know that once a month this playground was reserved for gay and lesbian family day, and she gently teased me about being a little out of place.

Another day, another park. “It’s a dog park,” said my neighbor, “but the playground’s nice, too.” I stood with some parents watching their pets and kids play. An actor-ish looking guy inched close and looked at Nicole. “Beautiful baby.” He winked, adding, “Mom’s kind of cute, too.” I moved next to two women and a man talking about their kids, bantering … flirting. This was an outdoor singles bar with kids, dogs and a jungle gym.

When I was a kid, a playground was just a playground. Today, it’s a social statement. But playgrounds are only different nowadays because of the parents. The kids still dig in the sandbox, soar on the swings, flop down the slide. And nothing — not cell phones, health nuts, nannies, same-sex parenting or the singles scene — can change that.