At a recent NCT group meeting for new dads called 'Hit the Ground Crawling' I had the opportunity to ask these new parents about their most daunting experiences. Most of the dads were in agreement that playgroups ranked highly.
I'm not surprised. As a new dad I felt very uncomfortable the first few times I went to playgroup. I felt that I was being silently critiqued by all the other mums (dads being very few and far between), who seemed to be so much more competent than me at, well, pretty much everything. They all seemed to know each other, even the mums that looked like it was their first time. I was all fingers and thumbs. I got clumsier under what I perceived to be their watchful gaze. I realised - and not without a twinge of surprise - that I was nervous.
The situation was made worse by the fact that most of the mums and carers used baby talk. Now I realise what a seemingly trivial point that is, but try finding a dad that uses baby talk. I never used it. I spoke to my troopers from day one, I read to them, I sang to them and even did some pretty convincing animal impersonations, but I stuck to the English language. I just never got the hang of baby talk. Another difference to mark me out.
Luckily, my sons didn't share any of my reservations. They just got stuck in from day one and absolutely adored it. Because I didn't want to stop them being in such a stimulating and fun environment, I braved it out and resigned myself to the fact that it was never going to be a cosy experience.
How wrong I was. Within a few weeks I began to be referred to as Sam and Jude's dad, and within a few months, Neil. I advanced from nodding and smiling to actually chatting with the mums of the troopers that my sons liked to play with. I found that the very same people I thought were judgmental and standoffish were actually a mine of information on everything from nappy rash to good local nurseries. OK, some of them were still judgemental and standoffish, but you can't please all of the people all of the time. I built a rapport with parents that went regularly (they didn't all know each other after all). In short, I was accepted as one of the gang, and if any one reading this ever went to the 1 o'clock club in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park in Lambeth, they can attest to what a happy gang that was.
So, if you are a new dad feeling a bit nervous at the thought of facing a playgroup with your trooper, you might find this advice useful:
- Expect to feel a bit uncomfortable the first few times you go - it is a new environment for you, and your troopers.
- Be approachable. Make a point of chatting with other mums and starting a dialogue when you feel more comfortable.
- Give it a chance, as it will be good for you. You will be able to get out of base camp and socialise with other parents, and build a support network. Although it is great to let off steam occasionally, don't fall into the trap of constantly bemoaning how difficult it is to be a parent. You know how difficult it is. Use the play group to find and share excellent and effective strategies that will make the experience enjoyable and rewarding.
- Give it a chance, as it will be good for your trooper/s. They will be able to have fun with new playmates and new toys. If you have a trooper under two they may not to play and interact with others consistently, but that's fine and completely normal. Don't push them.
- Make sure you note your trooper's favourite toys - classified information when Christmas and birthdays roll round.
- If you still feel uncomfortable after a few weeks, you can always try a new playgroup or even the same playgroup at a different time. A new set of parents will give the playgroup a whole different feel.
But the most important thing to remember is that you don't need to waste energy feeling nervous if you are the only man at a playgroup. You have the most important thing in the world in common: you are all parents.