A Middle-Aged WAHD’s Guide to Playground Caregiver Cliques

First Published 2012 @ Braintropolis

“Honey, I’m pregnant!”

Probably one of the shortest sentences in the world that can turn the hardiest of men into wide-eyed caricatures of deer in headlights. Unless that man happens to be in his early 40s and who, for a few years, has managed to pull off a dream work-at-home-wearing-whatever-he-darned-well-wants-to-wear lifestyle screwing around with Internet publishing and marketing gig, thinking all that time that it was his smarts and skill and not just pure blind luck that got him there. An arrogant, clueless dolt, in other words. An over-confident buffoon who would eventually utter the words ranked only a few tiny notches beneath Custer’s “Attack!” in misplaced bravado:

“Daycare? There’ll be no need for that foolishness, woman. I work at home. I shall mind the child.”

Well, those weren’t my words, exactly, but they do seem to match the British accent I do not possess that somehow manifests itself in my every memory of the conversation. But the gist of it. Unfortunately, my memory is not faulty about that. I wish it were, but no matter what angle I take to look at it, it always leads to the same conclusion: professional doom. Because anyone who’s done this knows, no way no how would I have been able to do anything else but mind the gosh-darned child.

But c’est la vie, it is what it is, neither here nor there, whatever, and <fill in the blank with your favorite popular but dumb expression that simply masks the shame of a bad decision>. Fast forward to when Daniel, my boy, my pride and joy, was finally old enough to bring to the local playground. That’s when I learned that high school cliques don’t die — they move to the playground.

Not that I know much about American high school cliques — or even high school, for that matter — considering that I wasn’t born, raised and pre-college educated in this part of the world. But since every high school movie story line in American cinema seems to revolve predominantly around clique social structures and their issues, I think I can safely say I am now somewhat of an expert in cliques. Not at a John Hughes or even a middle schooler’s level, of course, but close enough. Just in case you’re curious, the earliest of these movies I’ll admit to watching at the theater is Fast Times at Ridgemont High. OK, Grease.

As for the cliques in playgrounds, I’m not talking about the kids — preschoolers and tinier, the lot, which pretty much explains what we’re doing at the playground in the middle of the day, just in case that little detail escaped your scrutiny. But I strongly suspect that sociologists and the psyche community will eventually reveal that the foundation of school clique mentality actually comes from — tada! — the preschool playground. It really is the circle of life, if you think about it. So, if not the kids, then who? The only people left, my dear Watson: their caregivers.

Yes, the children’s caregivers. Honestly, I do not know the official PC way to identify them as a group, so forgive me if I’m wrong in calling them that. In my mind, after all, I automatically refer to them by their gang — rather clique — colors and affiliations. None of this “raindrops and roses and whiskers on kittens” caregiver wholesomeness. Not at all.

I suppose I should be more comfortable using “caregiver” considering that that includes me, but there’s the rub, huh? I wasn’t in any of those cliques! I was never ever made to feel that I belonged, that I was one of them. So, being associated with them under a “caregiver” umbrella just doesn’t bring on the We Are The World swaying, you know?

Don’t get me wrong — they weren’t mean or hostile. They were nice and polite. And they had absolutely no problems letting Daniel into their respective turfs. It was me I could sense they had some sort of issue with.

What was it about me? It’s that I was a guy. A middle-aged guy. That, my friends, was what made me the founder, leader, and yes, sole member of the Outcast clique. At least during Daniel’s pre-preschool years, anyway.

And no, I didn’t get the memo warning me about playground cliques. I got all the other playground prep info — from parenting books and magazines and Facebook status posts that end with “share this with your friends so everyone will think you’re a good parent” — none of which I really remember since I only scanned the headlines, figuring, “Daniel at the playground, how tough could that be?” But I’m pretty darned sure none of those headlines mentioned word one about there being cliques I’d have to socially navigate.

Well, then, as a public service to other caregiver dads who expect to be thrust into this playground jungle, here’s my quick-and-dirty guide to the cliques you’ll expect to see…

What? I’m out of space? I’m only allowed a thousand words max? You mean I won’t get a chance to tell other WAHDs (that’s for Work-at-Home Dad, by the way, an acronym I don’t really use much since, frankly, in some circles it sounds somewhat pornographic) all about the Mommies and the Nannies and all their various subcliques — the Careers-on-Hold Moms, the Mom Moms, the New Age Moms, the Latina Nannies, the Korean Nannies, the Filipina Nannies, the… Oh, OK, I guess just making the WAHDs aware that these groups exist should — and hopefully will — suffice.

But I may have space for this one last tip to other dads, though: If you want any chance of breaking into any of these cliques, try not to be middle-aged. Then, you’ll still have a fighting chance to get in under the “oh, he looks so cute and lost!” membership category. There’s just too much “smug know-it-all” in a 40-something guy’s eyes, I guess.