Moms on the Prowl

In a ritual much like dating, mothers seek like-minded friends with children.

July 24, 2005|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

As Miss Julia told stories at The Mall in Columbia's Family Day, the mothrs sized each other up. Each had several children with them of compatible ages, sitting at the same side of the hall outside Lord & Taylor every time. They were both day-care providers for other kid, too. Could this be the start of a beautiful mommy friendship?

Vickie Sykes and Gina Maier-Manuel struck up a conversation. Now they make regular outings to the mall's carousel and Build-a-Bear Workshop with their children and another day-care provider, and enjoy moms-only nights out.

"When you work with kids all day, you need someone to talk to who has children," said Sykes. "We were all looking for the same thing."

This is "mommy dating," the search many a parent undertakes, consciously or not, for like-minded friends with children. On the playground and at school, they're on the prowl for grownups who will share their interests, validate their parenting style, commiserate with their sacrifices -- and, oh yes, provide appropriate playmates for their kids.

Or, failing all that, at least some adult conversation.

Beth Teitell, a Boston Herald columnist, writes about the subject in her recent book on motherhood, From Here to Maternity (Broadway Books, 2005, $19.95.)

"After The Other Woman served cookies without inquiring about wheat, lactose, peanut or soy allergies, or pretending her child usually only ate fruit, I'd started to get that heady 'this could really work out' feeling, the kind you experience for the first time when you meet the guy you want to marry and he feels the same way about you," Teitell wrote of a fellow mother she "play-dated."

If you think it sounds a lot like romantic courtship -- the kind married people expect is permanently behind them -- you're right.

"You think you're done with dating," said Kira Dolcimascolo, a Hampden mother who writes a blog she calls "Cranky Mommy's Rant Site." "It harkens back to things like high school. How are you going to write a personal ad about yourself in a way that makes you appealing? Are you going to spend your time meeting the cheerleader types?"

As with any relationship, initial flirtation may mask deep incompatibility. Then comes the awkward mommy breakup. "There was no spark," sighed Parkville mother Mary Beth Eastman, recalling a potential friendship that fizzled.

The new meeting spots

Parent friendships used to happen more naturally. Kids found each other while playing outside or going to school in their neighborhoods, so it was convenient for the adults to bond. Extended families also were closer together, so cousins entertained each other while the already-acquainted grownups socialized or traded parenting tips.

"The baby bust that followed the baby boom meant that, especially for the middle class, it was no longer possible to say 'Go outside and play,' because there were no kids there to play with," said Steven Mintz, a University of Houston professor who wrote a book on the history of childhood.

The good news for parents is that in some ways it's never been easier to find new friends. The popularity of organized activities, for example, has turned swim meets, play groups and music classes into mommy meet markets.

Annette Lareau, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, noticed while researching a book on family dynamics that conversations between mothers at such activities often took precedence over the activity itself. At soccer games, "a lot of the moms actually had their backs to the field," she said.

As kids get older and choose their own friends, it can be awkward if their parents don't enjoy each other. Rachel Garbow Monroe, chief operating officer of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and a mother of three, is happy to have escaped that situation. "I have been blessed with always liking anyone they wanted to play with," she said.

One local social venue for parents is "Reel Moms," a weekly movie feature at Loews White Marsh Theatre for adults with babies in tow. The theater is lighted enough that parents and nannies can still fumble with the diaper bags, and their infants can scream without the caregivers suffering dirty looks.

Three weeks after her daughter Sienna was born, Heather Puhalla was at Reel Moms, watching Fantastic Four while the baby ate and slept. This outing was for Mom alone. "It was nice to get out," the Bel Air mother said.

More formal networking opportunities have expanded, too. There are "mothers groups" for mothers under 30, working mothers, African-American mothers, and those who practice attachment parenting. The latest issue of Maryland Family magazine lists 17 parenting groups in the Baltimore region, and there are more online.

The Internet, long a venue for romantic dating, helps get parents together and yet keeps them at a safe remove if things don't work out.

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