We are sitting in a circle, a tangle of bongo drums, maracas, triangles and other rhythm instruments heaped in the center. The toddlers swarm, elbowing each other out of the way, playing tug-of-war with "claterpillars" and finger cymbals. The teacher presses "play" on the boom box and an upbeat instrumental number begins. The kids create a cacophony of bangs and jingles and clickety-clacks. The moms sit on the periphery, shaking castanets in the air, their bodies there but their minds obviously miles away.
My daughter loves this class. And I love to watch her love it. But after three semesters, I still don't know the name of a single one of the other mothers. How the hell am I ever supposed to make mom friends?
When my daughter was born, I paid to take Em to mommy and me yoga classes. Now I pay for the exponentially more expensive music classes. And recently, my husband started to make the hard sell about possibly joining our local swim club. "So we can get to know the other parents in the neighborhood!" he said. But the swim club is the most expensive investment of all and, well, I'm cheap.
If you, too, are as cheap as me, you might be interested in this list of free and low-cost options for activities your children can benefit from as you interact with other, full-sized human beings.
1. Neighborhood Walks. I prefer to cocoon myself in my home for long stretches of time but, at the end of every work day, my husband takes Em for a walk around the neighborhood. Every day, he comes home with tales of new friends Em has made. New parents he has met. We've even been invited to a birthday party up the block. Score! Post-dinner is also prime time for meeting other families as you sweat your way up the street in the hot summer sun.
2. Your Local Museum. While museums typically require an entry fee, and special programming will also run you the cost of a ticket, you may find the occasional freebie on your local museum's event calendar. My local art museum, for example, offers a regular program that introduces preschoolers to the museum, and also serves as "an artistic social outing" for both parents and kids.
3. The Library. Another place I don't take advantage of nearly enough, the library typically offers a treasure trove of programs for young kids and their parents, including a shit-ton of story times. All events are blessedly free.
But if you pay very close attention, you could find your mom friend soul mate.
4. The Bookstore. Thank God for my local indie. They have a twice-weekly story time for kids, often featuring the author and/or illustrator of the picture book being featured. They have outdoor music events in the summer, where moms can guzzle a free glass of wine. They plan big events for the holidays, usually geared toward kids. It's my favorite item on this list, though I don't know that I can count it as a freebie considering how much I end up spending on books each time I go.
5. Wandering the Shoe Aisle at Target. While you may not make a lifelong friend, those few minutes you and that other mom spend venting and rolling your eyes at each other while your children make a break for the toy aisle will feel like the deepest human connection you've experienced in months.
6. Children's Birthday Parties. OK. I know. Children's birthday parties with their bouncy castles, clowns, and sugar-laden juice drinks are like the eighth circle of hell. But if you pay very close attention, you could find your mom friend soul mate. In my case, she would be the one muttering inappropriate observations under her breath while hogging all the cupcakes.
7. Any Restaurant with Outdoor Seating. Technically, you have to spend money in order to eat out at a restaurant. But since food lies at the base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, I'm going to allow it. Restaurants with outdoor seating areas are a godsend to people with young children. Kids run rampant, so it counts as socialization. You exchange glances of quiet desperation with the other parents. And some restaurants—like Bahama Breeze—even have live entertainment and tropical alcoholic beverages. Score!
8. Playgrounds. Because even though we're spending thousands of dollars to clear and level the land behind our house so Em can have her own backyard, sometimes it's nice to get all sweaty and dirty around other people.
What am I missing? Leave your hot tips in the comments.