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The Perfect Playdate

Playdates are a volatile cocktail: Will the mom and I hit it off? Will my 3-year-old, my little kamikaze of love, behave? You can have plenty of talks about sharing, but eventually you have to conquer your nervousness and go out and make friends. Both of you.

I'd seen her in the preschool parking lot as we dropped off our daughters. Since my second baby was born, I'd been home a lot and hadn't been taking Ruby to school that much. So I'd been feeling like the odd mom out  -- imagining all the other mothers getting close, sharing recipes, babysitters, and marriage secrets. Maybe it was her friendly smile. I called her up.

"Julie? This is Ruby's mom. I was thinking maybe the girls could get together."

"Sure," she said. "Ruby can come anytime."

"That would be great," I hedged. I was actually angling for an invitation for myself too, not just Ruby, who'd rather play with her food than another child. "You know, I'd really like to get to know you too. I haven't met many of the other moms in Ruby's class."

"Okay," she said after what seemed like a long silence. "How about tomorrow?"

Julie has coffee ready when we arrive, and her children, Janie and Theo, are standing by the door, patient and angelic.

It's just the way I imagined it would be: Julie and I hugging our coffee cups while the kids run around. It's true that our conversation is coming in fits and starts, but I'm glad to be there  -- even if I had to invite myself.

All's not going as well in the playroom.

Ruby is shouting at Theo. "Never! Never! Never come into our house!" That would be the gigantic pink playhouse that belongs to Janie and Theo  -- a playhouse we'd never seen until we came over.

Now it's Ruby's.

In fact, she's commandeered the thing, shutting the windows and pulling the door closed so Theo can't come in. She's ordered Janie to put her hands over the chimney so Theo  -- who's begun clambering onto the roof &3151; won't be able to drop in.

"More coffee?" Julie asks me. "Love some," I say, trying to make my voice sound casual and normal, mom to mom  -- just another playdate, no big deal, happens every time, one kid taking over, running the show.

Social Butterflies

I'd always hoped that if I had a daughter she'd be strong and confident. She'd stand up for herself. She wouldn't be like the child I was, trying to stay in people's favor by saying what I thought they'd want to hear. My daughter would be a better me, with a mind of her own. My daughter would have a voice. "Never! Never! Never come into this house, Theo!"

Okay, a very loud voice. And there are a few other things I didn't take into consideration when I was wishing for Xena, Warrior Princess Child. Like where was I in this equation? I couldn't have predicted that while my daughter was off slaying dragons and little school friends I would still be me, trying to win friends and influence people.

"Uh, Ruby," I say. "The playhouse is for everyone, so let's let Theo in."

I don't remember what happened next: I was too worried about what Julie was thinking. I'd finagled the playdate, and now look at how impolite we were being  -- me guzzling coffee and Ruby pistol-whipping her kids.

It's not that my Ruby's a bad seed. She's been known to get the soap out of her baby sister's eyes in the bath and politely pass hors d'oeuvres at parties. It's just that she wants what she wants when she wants it. I was hoping to make a new friend, but Miss King of the Hill has hijacked the playhouse and it's not looking good.

Of course, part of me (a really small part right now) knows that Ruby's just being normal. She's 3. But my neck's getting hotter and I'm starting to feel like a wreck of a mother.

Luckily, things calm down once Julie suggests that the kids make us lunch in the plastic kitchen. The three of them peacefully devise a delicious meal of plastic sausage and rubber grapes. Julie nibbles the sausage and smiles at Ruby.

For all I know, this playdate was as perfect as they come, and all those moms I've seen waiting to pick up their kids weren't really bonding but just trying to be nice. Maybe they've all felt as insecure about their parenting skills as I have. Maybe they've all worried about their kids being too tough or too sweet. Ruby and I are just learning the ropes. I know we will eventually. She'll find pals who'll match her energy and thrill to her commands, and I'll find new mom friends too  -- one playdate at a time.


Laurie Wagner, a mother of two girls, is the author of Expectations: 30 Women Talk About Becoming a Mother.