Underwire: One Year Undercover with the Monkeybar Mafia

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be in the Mom’s Club.

The problem is, when you’re packing a package, that’s a pretty tall order. It doesn’t matter how many Glee eps you watch, Zumba classes you take or scrapbook pages you fake, if you’re clutching cargo you ain’t vaulting their velvet rope. Outside looking in, sport.

But rob a man of his job and what he loses in dignity he makes up for with opportunity. One door closes and another window opens – a portal into that exclusive club where chicks bitch all day about their no-good husbands while secretly thanking their lucky stars that their hubby doesn’t suck nearly as bad as their BFF’s does.

Of course, much of this is pure hyperbole coming from a guy who never met a fact he couldn’t stretch. The wide world of the Interwebs are malleable so you’ll forgive me the poetic license. It’s just as I stare down my return to full-time employment (currently on tap to begin in early July) I’m feeling a bit sprightly. And I decided that it was about time that I shared some of the wisdom I gleaned from my year spent rebooting Mr. Mom.

In the beginning, I was an outsider. While my last day at work came at the tail end of June 2009, I was able to spend the bulk of the summer hanging with the fam while perusing the job boards for leads. The problem is I quickly found that the job market was as abysmal as advertised. There were few jobs out there and way too many applicants fighting for the scraps.

Still, I plugged away during the day, hoping that I would finally land that dream job – and if lucky, maybe a change of pace. The catch is that there was no way I was gonna’ earn the same lucrative salary I pulled down before. Too many businesses looking at far too many skilled applicants for far too few jobs realized quite quickly that they could adjust salaries downward and they’d still find folks willing to enter Thunderdome for the chance to work hard and feed their family. So, you needed to level set your expectations.

In the days leading up to my actual lay-off, I walked around with a false security. I had reaped such acclaim in my day job that I was 100% certain I would land a new job in no time flat. So certain that I figured I could coast for a month or two, living large off my decent severance, before wading back into the job market. Of course, once I hit the street I realized that a month or two layover might be a wee bit irresponsible – so I took most of July and then hit the ground running – again, feeling certain that I would have something before we mothballed the whites and hit Staples for The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

All it took was one month of hopeless searching for me to realize this was a fool’s errand. Jobs were few and far between and just getting your ass in a seat for an interview took knowing someone or pledging a trip to their casting couch. This was going to be a lot harder than it had ever been before and before I knew it, the good tidings that swept me through July had evaporated. Each day became a slog – pouring through message boards, cold calling and e-mailing friends and acquaintances and employing social media to continually sell my story that I was out there and in need of a job.

When school started, I found the one salve I never really realized I needed for my mounting stress. That first day of Colin’s foray into first grade, I escorted my little man alongside his Mom and sis and pledged to be back later in the day to pick him up. With school starting just at the turn of September, we were enjoying the salad days of late summer – which often produces a bumper crop of absolute perfect weather. So when the time came to shutter the laptop and suspend the job search until the next day, I returned to hear all about that exciting first day and gladly pointed our feet towards the school’s assorted swings, slides and monkey bars to let Colin and Aria toast a successful sojourn with an afternoon of energetic play.

Glancing around I realized I was the minority. While a smattering of Dads were on hand to pick up their kids (most simply taking the afternoon off for the ceremonial first day), the grounds were a Sea of She. No need for supplements when one could get their estrogen via instant osmosis. And one thing I noticed is that these hens traveled in packs – whether it was a trend born of habit or a survival instinct to keep wolves like me at bay, I didn’t know in those early days.

So I stood by my lonesome – watching Colin and Aria have some fun with friends old and new and really just let the concerns of my day wash away. There was something real therapeutic watching them play – a nice relief that I didn’t quite put my finger on until much later when I would look back at my job search and realize how stressed my days always began and how relaxed they ended. The key was shutting the lid on the laptop and just enjoying a brief spell of early Autumnal afternoon – the perfect weather for the much-needed stress release.

Eventually, the assorted Moms grew comfortable with my presence and brought me into their confidence. In the beginning it was the assorted chit-chat. Nothing too intimate – just remarks about the weather or more often than not, a probing query, “Where’s Andi today?” I had to send her once or twice a week just to chase away their fears of foul play. The last thing I needed is Meredith Baxter Birney playing me in the inevitable Lifetime Movie of the Week.

But as the leaves faded from green to gold and the air chilled to cold, I began to bond with my fellow playground partners. And that’s when we began to have some fun. Some I knew for a few years while others were newfound friends – either way, it was clear that our afternoon camaraderie was birthing something special… a Monkeybar Mafia.

I’m being a bit glib just to be funny. The truth is, it’s not all women hanging around the playground with their  kids. With that many little moppets duck, diving and wailing away all afternoon, statistics prove that a few papas have to be in attendance too – although the odds are definitely stacked against us. That being said, when I glanced around and found my closest Brother-in-Arms was a dour octogenarian clad in the same Phineus & Ferb T-shirt every day, I decided to make a bee-line to the beyotches and see if they would have me.

It helps that my wife has been a card carrying member of the local Mom’s Club chapter ever since Colin and Aria were trucking through a baker’s dozen of diapers every day. She’d been with that group for so long that eventually the sterling support aspect fades away revealing deeper shades of greatness in the strong bonds and friendships forged over the years. And as is often the case with couples, her friends becomes our friends and vice versa.

The point is – I had some familiar faces greeting me near the fence line each day – the sole difference being that unlike our group outings where the guys and dolls would pull a Junior High dance and sequester ourselves to our own separate corners (they to the kitchen, we to the Man Cave) – here we were all in the mix, keeping a perimeter watch on our kids who were free to be kids so long as they didn’t stage a Great Escape to the nearby parking lot.

And it’s that friendship and camaraderie that really made the days fly and the worry fade. Sure, the stress was there when I woke every morning but when the clock struck two and I set  the laptop down for its afternoon siesta, I knew that my afternoon tea with the Sheilas would chase those concerns. I’ve said that above but it bears repeating. This was that proverbial chicken soup for the soul.

Laughter will do that to you – and that’s one way to tell that you’ve found great people – the rare ability to laugh at anything, even when it spins towards crime scene investigation.

Case in point. I remember one afternoon, a mother whom I did not know approached me with her little boy and reported that my son Colin had thrown a ball at her son and that Colin was now on the other side of the playground crying – fearful of what I would say when I found out. Now, I’m not one of those parents who believes his kids to be an angel nor do I take everything my kids say for gospel. They’re kids – they are going to do some stupid things. They’re only human, after all. But I am a realist. I believe there are two sides to every story and neither one is 100% correct. As a former Journalism student, I believe in covering all bases – hitting a story from every angle.

So, I apologized to the woman and her son, and then sought out mine – looking to reconstruct the crime from various sources. I’d hear what Colin had to say through choked-back tears and then interview the other kids in the vicinity to get a better picture of what went down. After all, as a father to a very gentle son who has been making major progress with his early emotional development delay diagnosis, I knew that Colin NEVER played the role of aggressor. His is a shy soul. But, like I said, he’s made major progress so I wouldn’t put it past him to bean a kid from time to time. When you make that grand wish for normalcy, you’ve got to be prepared to handle it when it arrives -even if it’s on the message of a ticked-off Mom looking to rat out my precious little perp.

Finding Colin, I was told that the other boy had knocked him down and thrown the ball at Colin on the ground. Colin then stood his ground and fired back. So, I went from kid to kid and gently inquired into what they saw. And I got back enough evidence to support Colin’s claim. Which led me down two paths. First, I spoke with him and talked to him about the importance of standing up for oneself BUT the need to not seek the eye for the eye. Two wrongs don’t make a right, right!!!

Now, I’d like to say I then spoke to the woman and let her know the whole story and just brushed it aside. Kids will be kids. But, I took the lower road and just glared at her for the remainder of that week. Hey – I’m still learning too.

Turns out, my fellow Moms in the Monkeybar Mafia aren’t too high on this particular hussy anyway – so it’s probably in my best interest not to make friends outside the coven. I’ve seen enough Women in Prison flicks on Cinemax After Dark to know nothing much good comes of that. Well, nothing involving talking, anyway.

The important thing was as far as Colin was concerned, the moral lesson was imparted. That’s where it all really counts. When he gets old and gray like me, he can be petty if he wants to. But for now – at this age – it’s important to turn the other cheek. To take the high road.

As I write this, I’m a little over two weeks away from reporting back to work. I’ll start roughly a year and two weeks after turning down the lights to my office for the last time. One year in a life. A short time of late, as kids make the time fly, but when you realize that we only really get about 60 or 70 really solid years, it seems like a major chunk of my lifespan spent away from gainful employment right when I’m supposed to be smack in the middle of my maximum earning capability.

But when I was working the regular nine-to-five, I didn’t harbor many complaints. I had it pretty good even if I didn’t realize how good I had it until I no longer had it. But there was one nagging concern that chewed away at the edges of conscious thought most days. While I made it my modus operandi to beat my feet home at 5 p.m. each day to join the fam for a proper dinner, I felt like all those more mundane milestones were lost to me. The school day pick-ups and drop-offs. The in-service day that leads to lunch and ice cream at Friendly’s. The snow day that yields to afternoon sledding. The two hours spent on the playground – engaged in good conversation with better friends as our children cobble and craft their own private camaraderie. I missed all of that and never even knew it.

And then one year ago – when the heart of my normal day was violently ripped out – I found a life-affirming replacement – a transplant enabling me to enjoy exactly what I was missing. And in this past year, I made my best effort to seize each day and just enjoy spending a year in the life of my kids.

There aren’t many people (certainly not both sides of a couple) that really get to stop for a spell and take in those important early years. There’s magic to be found in the everyday – an elixir that the Monkeybar Mafia peddles in without ever really knowing it.

I spent one year undercover with the Monkeybar Mafia.

And unlike a Mafia movie, I’ve come out the other side more alive than ever before.

Comments now closed (7)

  • ed, you made me cry. and although i wasn’t part of the normal playground crew, i for one am so glad that you had this year to invest in “us” – the proverbial village that will contribute to all of us raising our children together.

    no doubt we’ll miss you when you go back to work! my fb world will just not be the same! but you can bet that colin and aria will be forever changed for the better having you home with them during the last year!

  • @Sarah – My biggest regret is that I never got to crack the elusive Turkey Thursday Club. And through no fault of the gracious host. Blame the global conspiracy hatched by my true love to keep me from taking over 100% of her life. I nabbed 98% of her life but she’s managed to keep this one final slice all to herself. Although I can’t blame her. Afterall, if she ever found her way to my Guys Night Out at British Beer Company there would be hell to pay!!! : )

    Seriously though – we all know I’m not going anywhere on Facebook. I was employed and on there in the beginning… oh wait… maybe that’s why I found myself unemployed. : )

    Seriously though – the only thing keeping you from the Monkeybar Mafia is geography. We’re all members in spirit.

    And more importantly, we’ve all buit a pretty good community of friends in our little corner of the world. Knowing people like you and Bobby, Stacey and Josh, Kat, Annemarie, Tonya, Sue, Michelle and all the assorted families has transformed this land from the place where our house is to a real comfy home!!!

  • absolutely! We have to all band together out here or the cows will overtake us.

  • I’d tip ’em but then I’d be no better than any of the rest of Dudley’s indigenous homers.

  • I laughed, I cried, I love it! so true! we had a lot of fun, I miss it!
    (I’d change old & gray to old & bald-LOL)

  • @Annemarie – You were the first person who talked to me – thus paving the way for those other chicks to open up about their overies. : )

    And you’re right. I may be bald but I ain’t gray.

  • Quite an interesting perspective, and thanks so much for sharing it! Due to life circumstances in general, we’ve never been able to bond with the Monkeybar Mafia around our home, though I hope that will be changing in this coming school year. Our kids take the bus home, I work throughout the day at home and my husband works nights. I’m home for them when they get here, but I’m rarely able to take off at two and go to the playground. However, since they won’t be home in the mornings to bug me once they go off to school, maybe I’ll get through all my work earlier and make the time to get to the playground. It sounds as though you had some real fun, and I’m glad you got the opportunity. It doesn’t come around again.

    Loni from What Causes Baldness