Emma belonged to a Chelsea Manhattan playgroup for two years, from 1974 to 1976. She was 17 months when it began, 3 and ready for nursery school when it disbanded. Playgroup met 5 mornings a week in the basement of the Y on West 23rd Street. Parents had the option of coming 1 to 5 mornings. Scheduling was a nightmare that I had naively accepted. I kept the minutes of playgroup, and I wrote a paper about it for a social work class in group dynamics 20 years later.
I thought you might be amused by parenting, Manhattan style, 1974. How earnest and how absurd we were in so many ways. But we were absolutely committed to allowing our kids to be free to be you and me.
Playgroup was supposed to give us time off. The first year the ratio was one mother to two children; the second year it was one to three. Many mother who weren’t on duty stayed anyway, particularly those with younger children. When we weren’t playing with our toddlers, we engaged in ongoing group therapy. All of us had been or were currently in therapy and could talk comfortably and knowledgeably about conflict, repression, projection, and denial. We endlessly analyzed our marriages, our families, our psychological makeups, our childrearing philosophies, and our children’s personalities.
We were enlightened Manhattan intellectuals, very influenced by the ferment of the late 1960’s. All the children addressed all the adults by their first names. Zealous attempts to enforce good manners were frowned upon. By 24 months, all children knew and used the words, penis, testicles, vulva, vagina. Toilet training was a continuous show-and-tell entertainment. The potty was in a prominent place in the room. I vividly recall two-year-old Emma saying, “I see your penis, Michael. Would you like to see my vulva?”
At any one time at least two mothers were pregnant or breastfeeding, and all the children’s questions were freely answered. My second daughter Michelle started attending playgroup when she was 1 week old. Playing with baby Michelle was a surefire activity. Surrounded by 2 year olds every day, Michelle developed prodigious social skills.
Most of us belonged to a babysitting cooperative as well. We were an amazing source of support to each other. When one of us had a baby, all the others turn turns bringing the new parents an elaborate evening meal. I have never again experienced such a caring community of parents, committed to mutual aid.
Such a playgroup probably possibly could not have existed in the two other places I raised children–Bangor, Maine, and Long Island. I know it could not exist now in Manhattan. I spend three days a week in the same housing development, cavorting with my grandson in the same playroom, the same playground. Now I talk to nannies, not parents. Understandably, parents discourage their nannies from starting playgroups and inviting people they don’t know well into their homes..
The Chelsea playgroup was one of the most fascinating, frustrating, turbulent, nurturing experiences of my life. After two years we were all very different people from the self-conscious, judgmental twits we were at the beginning. Comfortable in our mothering, we no longer had to criticize each other to bolster our wavering self-confidence. Watching very different children develop helped us to understand our own children’s unique personalities.
In many ways our children were freer from sexist stereotyping than their children are now.