Playgroup

The Parenting Centre consisted of one large room within the sprawling red brick, single-storey community centre. For Lauren the approach to it, about six blocks from her narrow town house, passed beneath a line of mature maples and elms whose foliage dripped shade across most of the road, down bungalowed avenues whose well-tended gardens and quiet absence of children’s toys in the front yards spoke of lives lived and resting. It would be difficult not to enjoy such a walk. Lauren enjoyed it, or tried to, even though the side-walks were riddled with cracks and some pieces had been shifted sharply upward by the spreading of tree roots, causing the stroller to jerk suddenly sideways or pitch up, then sharply down. She worried that it must be uncomfortable for Jeremy, her passenger, even irritating to be so tossed about. She had not yet learned to ration worrying. Jeremy never seemed to mind. He was a placid baby at ten months, disturbed by little. If he was sleeping on the way, the bumpy route never woke him.

The walls of the room containing the Centre, where Jeremy’s playgroup met every weekday morning, were lined with shelves and cubbies, painted white, each containing age-appropriate, brightly coloured toys. A clump of rag dolls, a frozen scene of plastic dinosaurs. Trains in primary colours. Wooden blocks carved with letters. All divided by type and all soothingly clean. Lauren had worried about germs from other children. One corner of the room was carpeted, provided with cushions and jammed with crowded bookshelves, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Runaway Bunny. In the far corner there was a small kitchen for the grown-ups, complete with sink, kettle, microwave and coffee-maker. It lacked only a fridge, for the acquisition of which Marian, the Centre’s director and the playgroup’s duenna, was busily fund raising. There was to be a dessert party the following week, for which treats had to be donated and decorations made. Marian had managed to persuade almost everyone to participate. Lauren, to her surprise, found herself pledged into providing some kind of baked good. She fretted over whether her fudge brownies were enough, or if she had to provide something fancier, like the squares and butter tarts her grandmother used to turn out for bridge parties and teas.

The middle of the room was large enough to contain three round tables, each encircled with red or yellow miniature plastic chairs. It was on these chairs the parents would often awkwardly perch, clutching their mugs of coffee against the rickety tables’ movement and watching the children.

Lauren envied these parents, mostly mothers, who chatted so easily with each other, who assumed their duties to their children with a degree of naturalness she could never match. It wasn’t that these women found some kind of inner fulfilment through their children that Lauren couldn’t. From her place on the edge of things, she had witnessed the breakdowns, the ugly tears that were pulled out by the excruciating repetition in an existence that revolved around young children. Nobody was perfect. She herself both loved and loathed the long hours spent in building towers from plastic blocks for the sole purpose of having them knocked down by Jeremy’s open palm, invariably followed by squeals and his body bouncing in delight at the destruction. But whether she was making play dough to be poked and prodded and dropped on the floor, or singing tired rhymes, or reading the same stories, or mopping up this evening’s dinner where it had been disdainfully dropped on the floor, there was always a whisper of disquiet in the back of her mind which she doubted the other mothers ever heard at all.

“Why don’t you join us more often? We are open here every morning, Monday through Friday.” Marian was kind rather than interfering, but Lauren detected the faint scent of officiousness. She tried not to breathe in with her nose as she assured her that she would come if she could, but was careful to allude in vague terms to the busy week ahead. Marian nodded; busy was a term she well understood. She quickly dropped her attention from Lauren in favour of another woman who had just arrived, who looked uncertainly on from the doorway and absently patted the bundle in her sling. Lauren was relieved; Marian was a difficult person to refuse. Remember the brownies. She returned her attention to her son, who was crawling with determination over to Mackenzie, a girl a few months older than Jeremy with frizzy white-gold hair who was doing something fascinating with a trio of teddy bears, a Fisher Price tea pot and a stethoscope. Lauren held her breath. She always hoped against hope for that perfect interaction, one of acceptance and sharing, where no one got bopped on the head, toys snatched out of their hand or bitten. Jeremy just watched the girl, entranced, as he shoved his fist into his mouth and let his saliva coat it thoroughly. Mackenzie in turn seemed oblivious to him. This was as close to perfection as she was going to get, Lauren thought.

Lauren couldn’t come more frequently. She couldn’t explain it, that even though she rarely had anything formally planned, the days fairly teemed anyway. The simplest tasks took more energy than she felt she had. Sometimes even packing up the stroller to spend an afternoon at the park defeated her before she had even begun to collect toys and snacks together. Was she neglectful of her child’s social needs in sticking to the backyard? The books told her she was. She worried over this constantly.

It was easy then to marvel at the parents who took it all in stride. Their outings to the mall, the library, playgroups and family swim at the local pool as little thought of as stepping out to pick up milk from the corner store. By contrast Lauren had gratefully passed on the burden of grocery shopping to her husband whenever he returned from his frequent business trips. The prospect of playgroup inspired terror. The long silences, in which she could think of nothing to say to the other mums, let alone the other children. For what did they have in common beyond their recent contribution to the species’ continuation, the springing-off of their offspring? The ever-present fear of Jeremy hurting himself or another child and Lauren not knowing the correct way for her to respond. When are they old enough to understand a reprimand? What form should it take? She didn’t want to be seen either as a monster or a pushover.

Somehow when she and Jeremy were on their own these concerns disappeared. They rubbed along. It was easy. But was that in itself right? It took much of a week to overcome her fears and plan for the next six-block journey. So Friday mornings it was. She was light-hearted on the Fridays when the driving rain made a walk impossible, or a doctor’s appointment (always scheduled for the last weekday, if she could), or a wakeful night during the long months of intermittent teething provided the excuse. Not that Marian ever enquired. Lauren was storing these excuses up for herself, for Jeremy.

With the other children at playgroup, and these could be anywhere from the puckered newborn to stalwart thick-limbed pre-schoolers, Lauren dreaded interaction. Interaction could be easily mistaken for interference, for judgement. She found when she did have to address them, regardless of their age, her voice would adopt a patronising lilt, as if she had suddenly transformed into a children’s television presenter, filled with false enthusiasm and condescending perkiness. She hated that. Better not to speak at all.

Such an immense distance between what she felt and what she ought to feel. Shouldn’t she feel charmed by the children, motivated by their tireless parents, confident in her own abilities now that she was one of their rank? Instead it was something almost as enervating and almost as rank as fear. The institutionalized setting however outwardly benevolent yanked up memories for Lauren that made it impossible to believe in the happy innocence of childhood and the loving wisdom of parents. Something more like the Lord of the Flies. The school yard had been no playground, that she remembered well. She also remembered the careful distance cultivated between children and adults, the policied result of ugly accusations of “inappropriate conduct” from years before. The reluctance on the part of any adult to get too involved in affairs on the playground, the isolation and vulnerability that was the inevitable result for some children, the easy prey, the target for those who feed on the weakness of others. “Just ignore them,” they said. “It just shows they like you.”

This Friday, she was later than usual. Many of the parents had come and gone, hurrying home for the mid-morning nap or some other such duty. Lauren thought she should feel left behind, but it was a relief to discover she and Jeremy practically had the room to themselves. She could read aloud from the new books, play clapping games with her son, without the anxieties of stage fright. All the same, it nagged at her that there was some vital information about how to succeed as a parent, how to produce a healthy, well-rounded child, but she had somehow missed the memo. She had become lost on the way to the seminar, which everyone else was attending. With a sigh she knelt down to begin unbuckling Jeremy from the stroller seat. At least Marian didn’t seem to be around now to welcome her. Busy organizing someone else, Lauren thought. She tickled her sleeping son under the chin to wake him and pulled his warm, heavy body onto hers.

As Lauren slowly stood with the heft of Jeremy now in her arms and stepped over the baby gate that separated the Centre from the dangers of the vestibule, she realized she wasn’t as alone as she had previously thought. She hesitated in the doorway, for a moment discomfited.

Giulia, well known in the playgroup as much for her enthusiastic participation in all their activities and outings as for her long, glossy, black hair and exotic accent, was sitting on the floor beside baby Mackenzie. Their heads were bent together, dark and fair, mingled. Mackenzie, seated on one of the yellow plastic chairs and swinging her feet freely, gripped a thick crayon in her hand and studiously made deep lines with it on her paper. Giulia was murmuring encouragement. Lauren stopped. Mackenzie was not Giulia’s child, she belonged to one of the other impossibly capable mothers in the group. And Giulia’s own child, four-year-old Gabe, was also absent. Lauren was transfixed by their ease, their obvious delight in one another. This pocket of radiant and easy joy. This was something she had only experienced with Jeremy in odd moments alone at home, during an impromptu game of peekaboo while sorting the laundry or the sleepy cuddle-and-a-bottle before bed.  Mackenzie began describing her picture to Giulia, pointing to different shapes within it, while Giulia made all the appropriate noises of delight and encouragement. Only with Giulia, they were not just appropriate; they were sincere. Envious, she watched Giulia smile widely as she put her hands out to Mackenzie, the question contained in the gesture, “Do you want to come down?” Mackenzie’s giggled response.

Noisy voices approached from the echoing hallway on the far side of the room. Soon Marian appeared, with Mackenzie’s mother and Gabe in tow. Their arms laden with boxes showed they had been on a mission to the craft supply closet. Giulia was engaged in their conversation, and casually swung Mackenzie up onto her hip. Marian and Mackenzie’s mother were pulling out tissue paper and pipe cleaners, ready to be transformed into the flower centrepieces for the dessert party, and talking animatedly. But the sense of easy accord Giulia and Mackenzie had produced did not dissipate. It hung in the room, incense-heavy and sweet.

Lauren turned away. She didn’t try to put Jeremy back in his seat, but pushed the stroller out the door one-handed. Her heart was full. She thought the emotion was nameless at first. But as she walked down the avenue, whose trees dripped shade like a benediction, she realized what she had been witness to. It was something like grace. She hugged Jeremy closer to her, then stopped to buckle him in to his stroller properly. Maybe she would experiment with her brownie recipe tonight, she thought. Maybe she would bring the results to the playgroup on Monday. It might even be that easy.

Jennifer Falkner has fiction appearing in Paragon, The Fringe and Subtle Fiction. She was a semifinalist in the Summer Literary Seminars writing competition and lives in Ottawa. She believes in the value of a solid classical education but has yet to meet an employer who does too. When not writing, she is training for a future in librarianship. Like Rachel Weisz, in The Mummy movies.

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