So, there is this little playground we often go to, about a 20-minute brisk walk along Hen and Chicken Bay. It takes a little effort to get there (especially now, with all the construction going on), but worth it, as it is under shade and has our favourite swings.
A few months ago, when S wasn’t walking just yet, we were there. S was enjoying his swings, and I was watching a game a grandma was playing with her little granddaughter, a girl of about 4. There is a little cubby ‘shop’ at this playground, with a counter and a register, and the little girl was huddling inside, being a ‘shopkeeper’. At first, grandma was buying fruit, then groceries, then bread and milk. Each round of the game had a pattern: greetings, some banter about what was on sale today, then requests for items and the items being given (twigs and leaves from the mulch ground), then the naming of the price, always a surprise from grandma (“So dear!” or, “So cheap today!”), the exchange of ‘money’ (more twigs) and then the goodbyes and seeyounexttimes. As the round ended, grandma walked off, and then returned to the shop, asking: “Is the shop open today?” and so the game continued.
This game went on for some time. We were on playground time, so we had a fair go of the swings, then tried the seesaw, the slide and walked around with S holding my hand – probably not less than half an hour, most likely more. I was not paying any particular attention, but could hear it at the background, the naming of items for sale, the negotiation of price, the “goodbye and see you tomorrow”. There was something reassuring and comforting in the ritual. What struck me was the number of turns this game took, and the patience and interest this woman took in her granddaughter’s game. She just kept on doing it, inventing new items to buy, new ‘haggling’ pleas, over and over again. Those with older children know this all too well, I am sure – the sheer repetitiveness of some activities kids like. I know it so far with reading books to S, the same books over and over producing the same smiles and delight from him every time.
Well, S started walking on his own now, and we found this playground a good one for building his confidence, as it has objects his height at just the right distance for his ventures out on his own. Last time we went, he formed a little circuit between the light pole, the monkey bars, the slide ladder and some single standing rocking horses and twisty fish. He was chuffed at being able to walk such a long distance, and completed a few rounds to my cheers and hoorays.
So, we walked over there this morning to try out our new circuit. It had been raining the night before, and there were only 2 kids there, a girl of about 5 and a boy of 2, by the looks. Their dad was there with them.
We walked in and went on the swing (our usual starting point). The little girl wandered over to us straight away and told us excitedly about a rotting apple she found further away, offering to show us how yucky it was. I said something back, she kept talking, as I kept the swing going. The father was off at some distance, I assumed, looking after the younger boy. “Lets play shops”, the girl then said to me, pointing to the play “shop”. “OK”, I said, “but my son had just started walking and needs my help. So we will walk over there slowly”. S, of course, started meandering off as he does, attempting to grab all the wonderful leaves and sticks off the ground, and to surreptitiously stick a piece of mulch in his mouth.
Eventually, we made it to the ‘shop’ and started the game. I ‘bought’ some apples, and bananas and watermelon, ‘paid’, and we said our goodbyes and thankyou’s. “Lets have another game,” the girl cried out. “What would you like this time?”
We had another turn, and another, while S was pulling my hand to go on his own venture. As I started walking off with him, the girl followed, jumping on the slide. “See how fast I go!” she shouted from the top, but we were around a corner where I could only see her from the corner of my eye. “I can see you from here!” I shouted back, but she was not satisfied with where I was. We walked all the way to see her, and she slid off, “Wee!!!” Sam went on his little circuit, and her father walked by, asking some perfunctory questions about S’s age and telling me his childrens’. He proceeded to walk off to sit on one of the swiveling stars, and got on his phone.
“Let’s go and play shops again!” the girl begged. By now, I was experiencing a niggling annoyance, as S wanted to walk in a completely different direction and I was torn between letting him walk me (what we usually do) and obliging the girl. We walked over to the ‘shop’ and this time, I was the shopkeeper, having to put S with me inside the cubby, so that he would not wander off. We had another round, and I said that we probably had to go now, as S was tired and needed to sleep. “Why doesn’t he just sleep in the pram?” she asked. As I started explaining, I had that slightly uncomfortable feeling I used to have often with other people’s kids, before S arrived. The strange feeling of being put on the spot by a little person who has grown up questions, but cannot understand a grown up answer. And the growing question in my head: “Where is your father?”
As S and I walked off having made our excuse, another mother arrived, with her daughter, a girl of about S’s age. The little girl I played with immediately went over to them, engaging them in similar conversation and asking to play shops. The woman obliged, getting into the cubby shop and putting her daughter inside. By this time, S was getting tired after his early start and a bad night before, so we were walking towards the exit gate. As I was strapping him in his pram, I could still hear the game going on. As we walked around the playground fence and found our footpath, I heard the woman calling out, and saw her running out of the ‘shop’ after her daughter who must have walked off on her own and ended up near a big puddle. I noticed the man walking over towards them from the bench he had been sitting on the whole time.
So, I became curious about the gamut of feelings I was now experiencing.
Guilt. Because how could I refuse a child wanting to play or watch her slide down the slippery dip? After all, the thought immediately arose, this is the big problem with our society today, isn’t it, that we are not a ‘village raising a child’ anymore, but do our own solitary things. After all, haven’t I often observed in the past the women arriving at the playground with their children, all looking after their own, or the lone pram pushers, crowded yet alone in the shopping centres? Haven’t I thought, where is the community, the sharing of care, the looking after each others’ kids our mums took for granted?
But – this wasn’t it. This was no shared community. This was me looking after both my child and this man’s. I brought my son along to this playground, expecting to look after him, and sure, potentially look out for some of the other kids or engage in mutual play. Of course. But while I played with the girl, no one was playing with my son, or watching him – I had to do both. No one was watching the baby girl daughter of the other woman, while she was roped into the shop game. There was no introduction or negotiation of shared care, nor even the simplest of acts of joining, standing nearby, or being attentive to mutual activity by this dad. The man who brought his children to this playground was, for most of the time, nowhere in sight. In fact, at one point, he went outside the playground fence altogether, leaving both kids under my, and then the other woman’s watch, as he walked to refill his water bottle or get something from the pram.
Seems convenient. Sort of like, I guess, an occasional care arrangement.
So, why was that ok?
Is it because women, mummies, grandmothers are better at playing shops? Or watching a child sliding and cheering them on? Or expressing interest in their surprise finds and insights? Why would that be so? Is it because women just naturally don’t find stuff repetitive, that we are better with stuff that can get boring, because we are just naturally more patient and kind? Maybe it’s the breasts… Something along those lines anyway. It’s always about breasts and hormones when we talk about what comes naturally, don’t we.
Or maybe not. Maybe it’s that we are conditioned and condition ourselves for all those things, and at the end of the day, well actually, we are left with no choice. Because who will look after baby?
Am I overthinking the whole thing? Maybe. Maybe the guy was just a tired dad needing a little break from juggling attention between 2 kids. But hey, who doesn’t? Who isn’t tired?
So we walked off home. Feeling kind of like something had been crossed. An ‘off’ kind of smell, as a colleague would say. Feeling annoyed for S not getting his walking done, for myself feeling guilty yet angry, for the woman now roped in to the arrangement. Thinking I should have said something, to the man, or at least to the woman. And a bit sad for the little shop girl.