Now, a simple visit to a site like Babies ‘R’ Us will confirm that, yes, playpens do still exist. But they seem to have been rebranded, for these devices are no longer called playpens. Instead, searching for the term on Babies ‘R’ Us will yield a range of “Pack n’ Plays” (a trademark of the kid-product manufacturer Graco, and which purists insist is less a playpen in the traditional sense than a traveling crib), and various takes on the “playard” (a word that seems vaguely French but is actually a contraction of “Play Yard”). Rather tellingly, a Google search for playpen seems to yield as many entries for contraptions to corral pets as children.
The debate over the playpen, in the end, seems less about the thing itself than one of the eternal conditions of parental pathos: the fact that children demand so much of our attention and that we cannot always give it to the extent we (and they) would wish. As I’ve been writing this I—a modern father with “manifold duties”—have had to occasionally give time to the nearby girl I’ve stashed in the Fisher-Price “Cradle ‘n’ Swing” (some bylaw must require that children’s product names use ’n’ in place of and), which for all I know may simply be the infant forerunner to the playpen. (My friends nervously and jokingly call it the “Neglect-o-Meter.”) Yes, my lack of attention may be stunting her development—shaving a notch off that IQ—but my failure to write portends more sweeping consequences, like the lack of a roof over our heads.