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A dish at my doorstep: How Playcentre gave me my village

Sonya Nagels needed a community and she found one in Playcentre. Here she talks about why Playcentre was the perfect choice for her family. 

We had our son overseas. It was cold and I missed my mum. My boyfriend worked all of the hours. I wanted to come home. I had nostalgic memories of sun, beaches, pineapple lumps, onion dip, family and friends. Life would be so much easier at home. Being a mum would be so much easier at home.

And it kinda was. We moved with our six month old to Auckland, which was tropical, even in winter. Everyone spoke English. Toby got a job that actually understood what work-life balance meant. Food and rent were horrendously expensive but slowly we forgot to compare. We saw our families and caught up with long lost friends.

But I still had a little baby. The days are long and it’s lonely being a stay-at-home mum. None of our friends in Auckland had kids, so they didn’t really get it. Trying to party at Golden Dawn didn’t work when it hit about 10:30pm and suddenly I was dying to go home and feed because my boobs were engorged and all I could think of is every hour I am out now is an hour less sleep, and I am not allowed to sleep in tomorrow cause I have an eight month old baby.

I wanted to meet other mums so I joined the local Plunket play group in Grey Lynn, where I couldn’t afford to buy a house. I stood awkwardly, waiting for some lovely mum to come over and introduce herself and be my friend. It didn’t happen. I kept going back, but the people changed each day, and I am crap with faces. All the conversations were about how $800,000 was a total bargain but you’d have to spend at least $200,000 to make it livable. I was out of my depth. The mums had aviators, giant leather handbags and they all seemed older. Somehow at 33 I was a young mum. I ended up hanging out with the nannies under the slide. They were friendly and didn’t talk about the Nature Baby sale or house prices.

I did meet a couple of rad mums. We bonded over our hatred of Wiggle and Rhyme at the library. But then on the days they weren’t there, singing nursery rhymes in a room full of strangers made me feel even lonelier than before.

So, Playcentre. Playcentre was always on my radar- my mum took me as a kid. My main memory is shared apple slices bobbing in water and mums with perms. I met my best friend at Playcentre and we used to sneak off to practise bad words together.

Playcentre is unique to NZ. It’s a parent run co-operative whose philosophy is based on child-initiated play and recognises parents as the first educators of their own children. Translation: basically, mums and dads get together and run an an early childhood centre. They supervise and care for all the kids. You take turns setting up activities and doing working bees. Each parent commits to a couple of days a week, plus a job, like Secretary or Librarian. You do training in early childhood education, but it’s pretty easy. And you have meetings about how to run the centre. It’s a consensus run organisation which means everyone gets a say in everything. A bit like a cult without the leader. And it meets all the same licensing criteria as any other early childhood centre, like kindy.

So I visited my local Playcentre. It was a bit shabby, the equipment wasn’t the fanciest. The inside was not beautiful and minimal. It did not look like a Nature Baby catalogue. The kids were covered in sand and paint. But someone welcomed me. Someone made me a cup of tea and gave me a biscuit at morning tea time. The mums were dressed to paint and garden and to play with clay. At the introductory talk, I was sold on the line “Playcentre will save you from drink.”

Sonya’s younger son Iggy playing with mud

I joined when my son was 15 months old, and a week later I found out I was pregnant. It was a bit overwhelming at first- all the names, the protocol, learning how things worked. It took a while to feel like I fitted in. But what kept me going back were the people. They were normal. They were friendly. They wanted to do the best by their kids, but understood life is hard and you have to work and do other non-kid things so your brain doesn’t shrivel and die. They didn’t talk about house prices. And they wanted to be friends with me.

People talk about choosing Playcentre for their wonderful child-led philosophical approach. I chose Playcentre for me. Because I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing as a mum. The internet is confusing. My mum reckons she’s forgotten everything. The books contradict each other. My childless friends couldn’t help and my mum friends who lived far away were too busy with their own kids.

What do you do when your kids bites another kid? When they don’t sleep/eat/talk/walk like other kids? When you are at your wits end and have to go into time out yourself so you don’t smack your kid? Where do you get to talk about this stuff as a group, and ask the questions that no-one wants to ask?

After the birth of my second son, our Playcentre crew delivered meals three times a week for a month. Home-cooked, simple dishes that other mums had squeezed out while cooking for their own families. I remember every dish. I cried every time someone left a dish on our doorstep. It was ridiculous how much that all meant to me.

Sonya’s son Max making a potion with a friend

People get scared off Playcentre because of the rumours of work, training and politics. And yep, Playcentre is work, and lots of meetings. It is a commitment. Sometimes you’d rather be home with your kids, rather than out at a meeting talking about them And maybe you’re thinking it’s not cool, maybe you’re picturing tie-dyed hippies, mother Earth, and drums circles. As if! Well, not today anyway. Besides, you stop caring about being cool when you’re sleep deprived and you haven’t showered. You just need some damn adult company.

Or maybe you’ve heard of think of superior, know-it-all mums who are going to judge your parenting choices. I did have to get used to being amongst a group of parents who had kids older than mine. This means they had more experience and therefore a wealth of advice and knowledge. And I did have a few run ins with some well-intentioned but badly timed advice. It happens. But it also meant there was someone to ask “why won’t my baby feed? What the hell is feeding strike? Is that a thing?!”

Playcentre meant someone to hold my baby when I hadn’t slept and couldn’t cope. Someone to complain too about my kids/husband/life when I needed a rant. Someone to cry on. Meals again when my dad got diagnosed with cancer. It was playdates. It was parenting advice. It was non-judgemental. It was education. It was the village I needed to raise my kids because I didn’t have one.

There are people at Playcentre who I probably wouldn’t have hang out with otherwise. People from different backgrounds and experiences and cultures. They are all mums just like me, just like you. Parenthood is an excellent leveller.

Juggling a career and Playcentre can be difficult, sometimes it works and sometime’s it’s too much. At the centre I joined, at least half the mums were working or studying, alongside being the primary carer for their children. I think that Playcentre historically was aimed at at parents who stayed at home, but it’s moved with the times and now tries to be really supportive of working mums. Grandparents, aunties and nannies all come along as carers.

Iggy cooking in a Playcentre session

Every session, every meeting, every playdate built up my sense of belonging to a community. A group of parents who were looking for support and doing their best, in their own way, to have fun with their kids. Playcentre got me out of the house, it kept my brain alive, I made friends, and my kids made friends. Playcentre has been amazing for my children. But more importantly, it’s been amazing for me.

I do still need a glass of wine some days though.

Sonya Nagels lives in Auckland with her husband, two young sons and a cat named Bird. Sonya used to be a photographer and a jeweler. She also used to travel a lot and enjoyed live music. One day she might get to do those things again. 

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