father with toddler daughter at the playground
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Stranger in a strange land: What it’s like to be the only dad on the playground

The little girl was about four, one half of a set of twin girls. Cute, actually, and I don’t say that often about other people’s kids. She wore a ponytail and a t-shirt that featured Owlette, the red-costumed character from the kids show PJ Masks. Atop a five-foot high platform, she stood ready to fly like the heroine adorning her size 4T shirt.

“Catch me!” she screamed as she leapt off the mat toward me without waiting for my reply. She hit me squarely in the chest and I cradled her like a firefighter catching a kitten falling from a tree. I eased her down to the ground at a Friday morning open gym session.

Matt's kids near the water

I have two children: A four-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. She goes to school five days a week while my son is in daycare three days a week, which leaves two days with me.

Supposedly, we can’t just sit around my house watching Netflix, so we find ourselves on a lot of dad and son adventures. Sometimes I’ll take him to the local municipal airport to watch planes. Other times, I’ll take him to the local golf course to putt on the practice greens, for which he is rewarded with a snack. (But only if he makes 75 putts in a row … I’m trying to groom a PGA Champ here, folks.)

While he loves those father-son bonding moments over a love for sports or things that fly, my wife insists that I also take him to places where he can “socialize” with other kids. I don’t know how he’s going to win The Masters by making friends, but whatever: I’m a compliant husband. We head off to activities at the library, open gyms, and parks so as to let him be around kids his own age.

In these environments, I’m typically the only father. This isn’t always the case, of course, and when I do encounter another grown male in the wild, we tend to give each other a sign of acknowledgment and appreciation. But when you’re the only father at a place with all mothers and their children, I imagine the questions following a trajectory something like this:

Week one: OMG, how cute is that, a dad and his son!   

Week two: Oh … He’s back … Who is this unemployed creep? Is there a ring on that finger or is he just here to mingle?

I’ll acknowledge that I’m probably making this all up in my head, but making friends at an open gym or a library with other moms is a delicate dance. For one, they all seem to know one another. They’ve formed little cliques. Their children play together. Some of them have hung out outside of Ms. Jen’s Little Critters Story Hour. While my son runs head first into the foam pit, I’m approaching the group to try to prove that I’m not just some single dad cruising the mom market in my area.

And I still feel unease as I ingratiate myself with the others because I’m unsure of my expectation as the lone man surrounded by other people’s children. I see the women interacting with one another’s kids. They console. They kneel to interact with them. They offer tissues to kids with boogers. Every kid, in some ways, their own.

Offer tissues? I didn’t even bring tissues for my own kid.

I do NOT feel this way.

This isn’t to say I’ll be cold or rude to a child or that I don’t think some of them are cute. It’s just to say I feel very uncomfortable doing some of these things. I’ll certainly toss a ball back to a kid or say “hi,” but pick up or touch your child? Umm, no thanks. Let your child touch me in any way that’s not a simple high five? No way. Offer tissues? I didn’t even bring tissues for my own kid. I don’t refrain from these things because I’m heartless. It’s just that I don’t really know the rules about other people’s kids.

Maybe that’s my own fault. For generations, it was the moms we turned to for juice boxes or to fix scraped knees. The pendulum is beginning to swing to the middle (maybe it’s already there), where both men and women can be kind and giving and nurturing. While I’m very much there with my own children  and I received that type of care from my own father  there remains a slight discomfort in providing that for the children of other people, particularly the children of strangers.

As I gently lowered Owlette to the safety of the floor mats at open gym, I felt a newfound ease.

I ask for forgiveness that I hold onto this primitive attitude, but I’m getting better. As I gently lowered Owlette to the safety of the floor mats at open gym, I felt a newfound ease. I’m friendly with this little girl’s mom. She thought nothing of my catching her daughter, thought that nothing was awkward or weird about this insignificant event. I even cracked a smile. And I didn’t have time to feel the discomfort of the watchful eyes of the other moms because as Owlette raced off to the next apparatus, her twin sister leapt through the air, without warning, right at me.

Matt with his family at the beach

About the author

Matt Osgood is a freelance journalist based out of Haverhill, MA, where he lives with his wife, their two kids, and dog. While life as a dad certainly provides him with the best material, he writes mostly about sports and booze, both of which provide much needed therapy.


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