Visiting a Playgroup
September 22, 2011
Recently I’ve been learning about motherhood. Being a father of two and grandfather of five and a half,* I never expected to study mothering except for the few tricks a man needs to know for self-preservation. But reading Elizabeth Mosier’s The Playgroup (part of GemmaMedia’s Open Door series) was entertaining as well as enlightening.
The novella (110 pages) focuses on a group of women who have set up a Playgroup ostensibly for their infants, but really to give the mothers a chance to schmooze. And their talk, as Mosier details it, is alternately funny, unsettling, profound, trivial, and full of annoying advice about child-proofing the house. What comes through most strongly is an undercurrent of fear—that a mother will fail at her awesome responsibilities or that this carefully arranged but fragile life will take a gruesome turn. The protagonist, Sarah, pregnant with her second child, has a special dread caused by an abnormality in her sonogram, a small spot “shaped like a cashew.” But uncertainty governs even the most outwardly self-confident of the women:
“Motherhood is like a second adolescence, a time when the self a woman thinks she owns is repossessed by the so-called authorities [all the experts, including family members, who tell her how to be a mother]. She’s left naked and defenseless, asking herself questions about purpose, faith and identity she thought she’d already tamed. … At times, we seemed less like mothers than like insecure teenagers at a beer keg tapping liquid courage, though at Playgroup we swilled coffee while we sought each other’s advice.” (pp. 11–13)
“Loss always lurked beneath our conversations in Playgroup, under talk of microdermabrasion, premenopausal symptoms, IRAs and long-term health insurance.” (p. 72)
The book has one symbolically “perfect” mother, Amy Marley (name reminiscent of Jacob Marley, one of the ghosts in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol), who comes back to haunt the others in an unexpected way, and the arc of her life becomes instructive to all.
During a recent reading at Philadelphia’s Musehouse, the author explained that details of the new mothers’ thoughts and emotional swerves are based on notes she took at that stage of her life. She was brutally honest with herself back then, and her readers get the benefit now.
To give us multiple views of the Playgroup in a short space, Mosier employs a clever narrative device. The first-person narrator, Laurie, begins as a relatively undifferentiated member of the group, and as such she gives us the community outlook on the main character, Sarah:
“Sarah led us into the living room, an arrangement of white chairs and a couch on a white pile rug. … Another group, gathered for a different purpose, might have praised the room’s stark furnishings, but we were there to compare and to judge. Sarah waited nervously for our review.”
Soon, however, Laurie becomes a confidante of Sarah’s, able to reveal Sarah’s thoughts and feelings. Though I was a little less than 100% convinced by this dual narrative function, it should work for 99.9% of readers.
The men in these women’s lives are mostly ignored and irrelevant in the story; they pour margaritas and hammer away at construction projects. Yet the only time I wanted to escape the estrogen-laden environment was when the women started scrapbooking—an activity that, to my relief, the narrator treated with irony.
The book is a quick and fascinating read, and I recommend it to all men who are partnered with a mother, who work with mothers, who stumble upon unfathomable claques of mothers and infants at coffee shops, or who wish to understand why mothers behave in an irrational manner so totally unlike our time-honored male form of irrationality.
*Three dogs, one long-term cat, one short-term cat recently expelled from the immediate family (that’s the half), and one snake. At last count.