Mostly it's stay-at-home mothers who do this. Not content to befriend other mums and match their kids up, they also like to cast their eyes around to see if anyone else is left standing, alone.
The number of times I've been pushed together with another equally nonplussed 40-something man is now well into the dozens. Match-making mums mean well, but it’s got to the stage where it wouldn’t feel strange if, before they introduced us, they patted our hair down and licked a hankie to wipe our faces.
"Now Trevor, this is Mike. Mike this is Trevor."
We’re standing there with our hands by our side looking at our shoes scuffing the dirt.
"Hi ... "
"Hi ... "
"Now you two play nicely and I'll be back in a while."
“And no squabbling.”
"And don’t forget to share."
Then they retreat and observe how we get on. We're like toddlers, only with a better knowledge of football. Oh, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes the other boy doesn't know about football at all. Or cricket. Or horse racing. And if I sound disappointed, you should see how they feel about my lack of interest in options trading, tree biology, cars, et cetera.
Tediously often, once Blind Date Bloke and I confirm we are both primary care givers while our wives are out working, the conversation can not just grind to a halt, it can leave the rails entirely, scattering carriages about like toys in a pitiful scene of carnage.
Similarly, my friend Elle had her first baby and against her best instincts joined a neighborhood mothers' group. She went once.
"Pretty much all we had in common was that we once all had sex at about the same time," she said.
Still, groups of mothers bond reasonably well by the look of it. Perhaps men tend to be more comfortable in their own company than women.
Come to think of it, we do seem to go to the toilet alone more often. And once inside we can stay there for ages, reading bog-lit, playing games on our phone, or just staring into space and reveling in the unfettered peace. My brother-in-law had a sleep in there during a dinner party recently. A doctor friend once had a male patient who was on the toilet so long his legs went numb and he had to be helped up.
And so we all have things to aspire to.
I swear women seem to go into the bathroom, do their business and come straight back out again. I think they get lonely.
My wife hates doing things by herself. On one famous occasion she insisted I go with her on the weekly supermarket trip. If it sounds unfair that I’m complaining, I should point out I was on crutches at the time and was as useful in a supermarket as a Zimbabwean dollar. All I managed to do was be sullen, then get in a fight with a woman who accused me of exploiting my crutchedness by queue-jumping. (In case she’s reading, we arrived at the same time. It was a 50-50.)
At least I wasn’t invited back. Months later my wife revealed my real role that night was “to keep me company”. Bizarre.
WHEN GUYS GET TOGETHER ...
|... it can be a beautiful thing.|
|There are nights on the town ...|
|... walks in the snow ...|
|... or a little bit of dancing and dress-ups.|
|Sometimes, there's a bit of competitiveness,|
a bit of peacocking ...
|... and then there are times when there's|
just no chemistry at all.
|Usually for guys though, nothing helps lubricate a|
friendship more than a bit of wrestling in ketchup.
One day my friend Helen approached me in our Beijing apartment compound.
“Trevor! There’s a new stay-at-home dad who’s moved in. You should meet him. He’s called Peter,” she gushed.
I tried not to sound too much like a grumpy old man.
“Now Helen,” I said, “what do I possibly have to gain from meeting new people?”
She rolled her eyes. But really, expat Beijing is a terrible place for this. With people always coming and going for their China postings, you have to meet new people all the time. Your own people meet new people, then you have to meet them as well. It’s bloody awful. And if you have two kids at two different schools – well, it doesn’t bear going into. Sartre said “Hell is other people”. I think he meant “other new people”.
What’s worse, the arrivals are staggered. It could happen at any time. You could be out walking and BANG – new person. It wouldn’t be so bad if they all arrived on the same day, say July 1, the start of the Australian financial year. You’ve done your taxes, now assess the new season’s people - choose which ones you might like, and pass over the others with the same beautiful emotional impunity a lawyer has in jury selection.
I know I was a new person once and people had to meet me, but that was different.
The day came for me to meet Peter. He had two daughters the same age as mine, so there were prospects for kids friendships there, which of course means a commitment between parents. But within minutes - first impressions and books-by-their-covers being two specialties of mine - I could tell this would be no Bro-mance made in heaven.
He’s ostensibly nice, but for me a bit too nice. Soft, gentle, quiet, reserved and retiring. He insists he likes football, but it takes an age to wheedle out of him that he kind of sort of supports Arsenal. I ask an Arsenal question and it’s clear he hasn’t paid attention for years. We flick through other potential topics. By profession he’s a lawyer - not one who stands up in court and shouts “LIAR!” but one who wades through reams of contracts ensuring the wording and punctuation is correct. It’s clear very early we have no coinciding interests. Not only that, we have a difference of manner that suggests all future interactions will be awkward. Within minutes there are pauses and nervy utterances of “And ah …”
I already know I shouldn’t have taken this off-ramp from my quite happy existence. But it’s too late, now, isn’t it? While their dads are staring into space beside each other, our four girls are happily playing, sitting in a circle and sweetly making up stories.
“Girls get out of that!” I bark at my two as I pull them away. “You don’t even know these people!”
No, of course I don’t. You just can’t do that sort of thing, can you? We’re now in this, Peter and I together. They’ve just arrived for a 12-month stay. What if our kids become great friends?
Later I tell myself not to be so curmudgeonly, that it might be nice to expand my circle of companions to include someone with different interests. Who knows? Peter might surprise me.
He did. A few days after that first meeting, with another playground conversation flatlining, I try the old faithful: “So … any plans for the weekend?” I wasn’t expecting a grenade.
“Well after church on Sunday morning we’re going to this thing where you blah blah blahdi blah … “ and then he just faded out. He could have been discussing bombing the Forbidden City for all I knew.
I know, I know, it’s me, it’s not them. I shouldn’t be so childish. It’s just that I had 18 years of solid churchgoing, and the thought of it continuing when your parents can’t make you anymore, when there’s so much hedonism to get done instead, it just weirds me out a little. My wife is regretfully aware of this attitude of mine, which she fears can give rise to insensitivity.
“Right … and so what did you say then?” she asked.
I told her I'd snapped my neck back in Peter’s direction and cried: “CHURCH?! Did you say ‘CHURCH’?!”
No. I’m not into persecuting Christians. I merely closed my mouth again, and looked around to confirm that our kids were still not hating each other while I counted one less thing in common with my new companion.
Time went on, the seasons changed, Peter and I spent a bit of time together, and it wasn’t that bad. Well at times it was. But I’ve had worse. Sometimes we’d kick a ball with my youngest while awaiting the other girls. It turned out Peter had some football skills still present from his school days. Like many footballers, however, he just couldn’t talk about it.
I should point out I talk about more things than sport, but with Peter, we never really got out of first gear. Was he a nice guy? Yes. Harmless enough? Yes. Should I not be so churlish? Yes. Would my life have really been better without having to give of myself and make an effort with him for a year? Yes.
It took me back to my first ever interaction with another stay-at-home dad. It was in Australia, I was only two months into this new home career, and the dad I was matched with was not the remotest bit interested in my presence. Certainly we had little in common (this was the tree biologist), but this guy just really didn’t try. I can now console my guilty self with the knowledge that I was nicer to Peter than this tree guy had been to me. Perhaps tree guy was at an even later stage of the cycle than I’m at now, the grumpy old sod.