What dads learn at the school gate
Dave Robbins navigates play-dates and chit-chat on his journey to being accepted as one of the girls
There were many things I was worried about when I left the world of newspapers to become a stay-at-home dad. Would I somehow poison, run over, lose or otherwise harm my daughter, for instance?
Would I go quietly mad and take to the sherry? Would I be laughed at by mums? Or, and for some reason this seemed worse, by dads? These fears were really one fear: would I fail?
Now, eight years later, I haven't mislaid or inadvertently killed my daughter. Looking back, the things I worried about turned out to be unimportant. And some things I never gave a thought to at all turned out to be the toughest of all.
The intricate social ritual that takes place at the school gate, for instance. A friend, also a stay-at-home dad, tried to warn me. "They look at you. They look at your clothes. They look at your car. They look at your daughter and her clothes. Then they decide," he said. "Decide what?" I asked. "Whether you're in or out," he replied.
So no pressure, then. I approached the school gate of my daughter's new school with a certain apprehension. I was damned if I was going to buy a new car for the occasion, but I will admit to taking a little extra care on the wardrobe and personal hygiene fronts.
Then I remembered I had been here before. In her pre-school years, I'd taken my daughter to a "mother and toddler" group in the local library. It was one of the scariest and most awkward experiences of my life. We were late. Most of the other places had been taken. I was the only man in the room. The mums sat in a circle, encouraging their infants to crawl forward into the centre. Time passed. No one looked at us, or spoke to us.
Eventually, I got up, went to a shelf and brought some books and toys for my daughter. I began to read a Winnie the Witch story to her. I noticed that three other children had made their way over to listen. I looked up, thinking I would catch the eyes of the other mums, and there would be an exchange of smiles and gestures that say: "Kids, eh?"
But no. While they didn't take out their mobiles and call social services, they lured their kids back to home turf by every means short of physically picking them up and removing them.
Another while passed. I noticed out of the corner of my eye the wheel from someone's toy came rolling towards us. My daughter picked it up and handed it back to the child who was playing with it. I smiled at this piece of toddler diplomacy and looked around to see if the other child's mum had seen it too. Eh, no.
So I was braced for rejection when it came to primary school. I was braced for judgement. What I wasn't braced for was envy.
The mums from my daughter's class seemed to know each other already. They chatted so easily and naturally to each other. They knew how to talk to each other's kids too. The only people I could chat like that to were other rugby prop forwards and perhaps the odd referee.
After a few days, I heard them arrange to go for coffee together. Then it was tennis or the gym. Mums have it licked. They are so good at networking, at the lovely, human chit-chat that oils the cogs of social interaction.
Some time later, I had to deliver my nephew to a house on Dublin's southside. When I arrived, the house was full of kids of various ages.
"Where are the grown-ups?" I asked one. "Out the back," she replied.
Sure enough, seated around a garden table sat six or seven mums. Drinking wine. Around them, their kids were having a great time. How do they do this? How does this happen? It was all so relaxed and easy. My parenting seemed so fraught and anxious by comparison. I want to be a mum, I thought.
I dedicated myself to breaking into the school gate set. I learned off names, tried my hand at chit-chat. I even joined the school committee. I invited the other kids on play-dates. This was tricky. I mean, would you let your five-year-old go off with a strange man who appeared over-friendly at the school gate? I probably wouldn't, and I am the strange man.
I invited them in batches. And they came, bless them. My daughter, who is an only child, loved having them. But once they arrived, there was the question of what to do with them.
My instinctive suggestion was a game of tip rugby in the park. Thankfully, that offer was declined. Otherwise, there would definitely have been a Boris Johnson incident and the play-dates would have dried up.
It took me a while - several years, actually - to learn that you don't have to do anything with them. They amuse themselves. And you can go into the garden and drink wine.
The other thing about play-dates is this: invite four or five kids over, and you get four or five invitations in return. It's the gift that keeps on giving. Host two or three play-dates, and you get a term's worth of invites back.
A year after that first day at the school gates, and I was pretty well accepted, a pavilion member rather than a full one. I still didn't have that easiness of entry into the stay-at-home mums' world, but I wasn't excluded either.
I still envied the information network the mums had: where the best dance classes were on, where to get the hockey kit, where the local scouts or girl guides met. Then, at Christmas, when my daughter was in senior infants, I received a text: "Christmas coffee morning for senior infants mums, after drop-off, my place".
I can't tell you how glad I was to receive that text. I was finally one of the girls.