Can We Just Admit the Playground Is Parenting Hell?

Life & Love

Toy horse in childrens playground

Travel and Still life photography

If you’re a childless person who is fond of the idea of children, chances are you have walked past your local playground, peered inside, and smiled. Who can resist the sight of all those happy little bodies, slingshotting from monkey bars to climbing structure—clambering up the stairs, down the slide, up the up!, down the down! Wheeeeee.

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Maybe, as you’ve hustled past en route to work or the gym or brunch, you’ve even mused about how great it must be to be the parent of one of these small humans. Sitting not at some corporate desk but over there in the sunshine, hands wrapped around a steaming latte, marveling at your progeny. Mere minutes ago, this child was a squalling 8-pound handful of humanity. Now look, she’s leaping and shrieking and bouncing in the full expression of childhood. The joy of parenting, you probably thought. That’s what it must be like.

At least, that’s what I used to think. Little did I know I’d turn out to be the rather pained-looking, Grinch-y individual on the sidelines–the Playground Hater. After the first 10 or so minutes within a playground’s black iron gates, I’m counting the seconds until I can convince my two young sons to exit. And I am counting those seconds on my watch, not my phone, lest I slide down an Instagram rabbithole (looking at…what? Pictures of my friends’ kids at their playgrounds?) and become an even more vilified model of parenting, the Distracted Parent.

Any playground visit with toddlers is an experiment in high-stress risk management.

What could be so bad about the playground, you ask? Number one is boredom. You’re not supposed to admit that you find time with your child mind-numbing, but there it is. Sometimes you do. But as anyone who’s seen Kramer vs. Kramer can attest, playgrounds also require hypervigilance. Any visit with toddlers becomes an experiment in high-stress risk management. You will army-roll under the swinging bridge to catch little Molly before she crawls straight off into thin air. You will lunge to prevent her tiny, grasping starfish hand from being crushed beneath a five-year-old’s pounding boot. That $5.50 latte? Go ahead and slosh it down the front of your coat. It’ll end up there anyway.

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Around age two, kids figure out how to dismount playground structures without plunging head-first into concrete. This is real progress. But they also begin to engage with other children, which leads to constant crisis negotiations about the basketball that got grabbed, the sand that got hurled, the toy dump truck little Johnny just bludgeoned/got bludgeoned with. Some of these negotiations will be undertaken, awkwardly, with other parents. Their children are invariably the kind of rare geniuses who would never bludgeon little Johnny—despite your own eyewitness account.

‘I hated the playground. God, I used to dread it. So boring. I thought we’d never get out of there.’

Until a few years ago, I’d have been loath to admit my deep dislike of the playground to even my closest friends. But one Monday morning after a particularly draining weekend, I walked into my former boss’s office. Now, this is a woman who genuinely delights in crisscrossing the New York metro area to cheer at her son’s baseball games. I’ve never known a parent to complain less about parenting. So when she asked what I had been up to that weekend, I tried. I really did. But the most I could muster was a weak smile.

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“Went to the playground.” Deep sigh. “A lot.”

“Oh, I hated the playground,” she said. “God, I used to dread it. So boring. I thought we’d never get out of there.”

Sounds like a pretty minor admission, I know. But I walked out of her office slightly dazed with relief. I knew that, when it comes to logging hours on hard playground benches, stay-at-home moms got the short end of the stick. But my own aversion felt compounded by working parent guilt, which dictates that if you only get a handful of hours a week with your beloved children, you will enjoy the hell out of it. What is broken inside a mother, I wondered, who can’t help her two-year-old waddle up and down a slide forty or so times without grumbling?

Modern parenthood is defined by universally acknowledged developmental milestones and by the—perhaps overindulged—luxury of openly complaining about these milestones. Sleep training? Tell me about it. Whining, tantrums, food aversions? Not you, too! Bitching about the privilege of taking a toddler on an airplane is so commonplace, it’s become a full-fledged rite of passage. But the playground is one of the supposedly great, picturesque traditions of childrearing—one that, in my own years-long struggle to conceive, I fantasized about one day doing with my own child. Admitting that I now detest it felt a bit beyond the pale, self-indulgent…dark. The kind of observation generally best kept to oneself.

Modern parenthood is defined by developmental milestones and by complaining about these milestones.

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Which may be why, in my experience, parents do keep playground hatred to themselves. At least until they no longer have to go to the playground. Shortly after the conversation with my boss, I tested out her bold declaration on other seasoned mothers whose kids were now safely out of their playground years: How did you feel about taking your kids to the playground when they were little? “The worst!” said one. “I remember standing there pushing the swing, thinking I was going to lose my mind.’” Some women hated it less than others, but any enjoyment professed was tepid was at best.

Becoming a parent may change your life, but it’s not like it molecularly alters your being, at least in terms of the way you like to spend your Saturday afternoon. You still like browsing bookstores and binging Netflix. Only now you live with someone who really, really loves swings and sandboxes. I found complying with this need—and with a million other aspects of parenthood that continue to arise—far more palatable once I absolved myself from feeling like a terrible person just because I didn’t love it. These days I just tell myself that those other moms pushing swings with giant smiles plastered on their faces? They’re hating it too.

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