Why Every Mom Needs a Play-Day

It can feel impossible to escape from your to-do list without a little miracle. But with a best friend at your side, all kinds of magic can happen.
Naomi Wilkinson

It’s Monday morning, and I’ve just put the kids on the bus. I’m still waving goodbye when my phone rings, spinning me from parenthood into office mode. But it’s my friend Deb. “I miss you,” she says. “Let’s play hooky.”

Getting together with her—or any of my old girlfriends—usually requires serious advance planning now that I am a single working mother in the suburbs of New Jersey. I’m not complaining. I’ve built a healthy, full life since moving here from New York City. My kids and I live with Grandma, in the town (and house!) where I grew up. It isn’t glamorous, but it’s good. And even though, thank God, I work from home, my weekdays are tightly structured with parenting and deadlines. 

“Text me some dates,” I reply. “We’ll make a plan.” Deb is a lawyer, like me, but right now her job is raising three school-age kids. I have a crap ton of work and a flu shot to get during lunch. “Live a little,” Deb says, pushing my buttons.

She’s known me since college in Ann Arbor, where she was the alpha girl and I the bookish observer. While she went to the Michigan football games and frat parties, I hung out in off-campus apartments, philosophizing and munching on microwave popcorn. Friends touted her as loyal and fun, but to me she was intimidating. I struck her as self-conscious and socially awkward. We didn’t really connect until our New York years after college—and even then it wasn’t seamless. One night, she iced me when I showed up late for a mutual friend’s birthday dinner. So the next day, I rehearsed what I needed to say, wrote it down, then courageously dialed her number. 

“I was late because I had the biggest success of my career yesterday, yet you managed to make me feel bad.”

“You showed up mid-meal, all business on a Friday night.”

“We have so many friends in common. Why have you never been nice to me?”

It got tense, and we both nearly hung up. Ultimately, though, we communicated with dignity, gaining a shared respect. From that call forward, our yin-and-yang relationship took shape. She called me the next time (to discuss the pros and cons of joint checking accounts with our new husbands), and we met for the first of who-knows-how-many lunches. It didn’t take long to realize that Deb needed my grounding—and I needed her to help me let loose. Decades later, she’s still the fantastic flip side to my coin.

“I’ll even come to New Jersey today,” Deb antes up, sweetening the deal. No one ever offers this. I am always the one stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel. 

“You’ll get lost. Everyone gets lost on the Garden State Parkway.” I think I’m off the hook and can proceed with my to-do list.

“I’ll take the bus!”

I have to say yes.

Ninety minutes later, the bus doors open in front of an auto mechanic shop on Route 9 and there she is, on the rubber steps of New Jersey Transit, gorgeous in Nike leggings and a ponytail. She hands me two bags piled with barely worn, tiny designer hand-medowns. “From my daughter for yours,” she says. “A whole day together. What should we do?” 

I cannot offer her Central Park or a Broadway show, MoMA or Lower East Side swank. “Want to go to the mall?” I actually ask.

“Take me to Orangetheory Fitness.” That’s my favorite high-intensity training class. I’d been her guest at SoulCycle in the city, but she’d never seen my Jersey haunts. 

At Orangetheory, I introduce her like a celebrity. “This is my best friend, Debra. She’s visiting from New York!” I hadn’t realized how much I needed a sidekick. Sure, I’ve met lovely moms at Little League, and I’ll see them for coffee on occasion. But the kind of friendship I have with Deb takes years and years to cement. On the rowing machines, we scull in tandem, like oarswomen racing crew. Next, we run side by side on the treadmills, with Pat Benatar screaming, Hit me with your best shot!

Afterward, I am buzzing with energy. “Let’s go to the beach!” It is 11:30 a.m. on an unseasonably warm October Monday, and we head to the shore in my Subaru, still sweaty and in our gym clothes. A giant sign announces Greetings From Asbury Park. We’re in a seaside ghost town rising again, Springsteen territory. A painted cartoon face, mascot of the old Palace Amusements, smiles on a brick building. White surf stitches the shoreline. Seagulls wheel above us. We stroll the boardwalk toward the stately Paramount Theatre.

“Pinball machines!” Deb exclaims, pulling me into the Silverball Museum Arcade.

“We have to play the Dolly Parton machine because how great is Dolly?” I say.

Deb pulls back the spring. The ball flings into the bumpers. I work the flippers. It’s a pretty good run, but I finally lose the pinball down a secret side alley.

“Centipede!” Deb deflects. “Space Invaders! Frogger!” I can’t even lament having forfeited the pinball. 

Together, we dip into the smorgasbord of 1980s video games. It is better than shopping for shoes, and each thrill only costs a quarter. We find Ms. Pac-Man, and we highfive. We do a little jig. We say “yay-uh” like our 10-year-old sons. I put in 50 cents for a two-player game. Deb makes it to the pear board but I get stuck on peach. Before we leave, we memorialize our arcade time by vamping in a photo booth. I race out into the sun with the pictures so that Deb can’t veto unflattering shots. 

Elbows interlaced on the boardwalk, we giggle at our silly faces in the blackand-white montages, a filmstrip of friendship. Our shared history flashes across my mind—the night in our 20s when Deb boogied down so low she split her leather pants, then returned minutes later wearing a new pair; the year my father had cancer and she sat with me in the hospital, nursing her firstborn while holding my hand. We untie our sneakers and head out to the jetty. The walk to the rocks feels timeless. “You’re humming,” she says, and, in fact, I am. 

We sit without a word, facing the ocean. We listen to the waves peak and roll. A day at the beach hasn’t been this relaxing since the years BK—before kids. I’ve been so busy holding down Fort Parenthood that I’ve rarely stopped to feel the sand between my toes. 

“Who knew I could have this much fun and be home in time for school pick-up?” I laugh, beyond grateful for a friend who has known me since before, well, everything.

Family Fun

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