"Grownups don't know what to do with rocks."
I honestly can’t remember if I read that somewhere or one of my kids said it, but it’s stuck in my head for a couple reasons.
First, rocks are fun for kids. Sometimes we forget that all they need is rocks. And maybe a few sticks. Fun is something they make. Simple stuff. How much time and how many tears are lost over cleaning up toys they don’t even really need?
And second, it’s true that we don’t know. Whatever it is that makes rocks fun is totally lost on almost all grown-ups almost all the time.
My niece recently shared this with my mom: Kids are fun. Grandparents are fun. “Middle people” are not fun.
It made me feel snippy—Middle people have to get you ready for bed! And tell you no! And take you to school! And fix what’s broken! Fun, on top of all of that, is a lot to ask.
And if grown-ups are no fun, let me tell you, moms are the worst. Moms are not any fun at all. Just think of all of the un-fun things we do. All day, every day.
“What do you like to play with your friends?” my daughter asked me once as I was driving us to a play date.
She listed everything she liked to play with her friends. But what about grownups? Do they like to play? She weighed the evidence—her dad liked to build things with her, and liked to go on adventures, and liked her artwork, so dads must like to play. And then, her final conclusion: “Moms don’t really like to play.”
Gut-punch translation: You’re no fun. Daddy is fun. You’re mean. And boring. All you do is feed me and yell.
Never mind that I was driving her to a PLAY date. That, in those days, I structured my whole stay-at-home week around making fun for her. That I researched upcoming festivals, found the cool play spaces, went to the kids’ museums, spent countless hours on the playground.
When balanced against the fifteen minutes of daddy-bliss when he came home at the end of the day (and frankly, I needed kid-free time, so preferred doing the whatever-else needed to be done while he entertained the kids), it didn’t matter. When compared with the two-hour trip to the playground on the weekend, where he didn’t also have to stop for groceries on the way home, I was no fun. Evil Queen of No-Fun-Land. I made fun end—told her we had to go or that we couldn’t play now or that it was time for dinner. When she looked at how I spent my time, wasn’t that a fair conclusion?
One thing people love to say to stay-at-home parent is, “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.” Setting aside the whole “all the invisible stuff we do” issue, there’s something to that. When you spend your time in a frantic work-kids-sleep mode, it can be easy to lose sight of what you’d do if you did have any time. Most people wouldn’t know what to do all day—good thing we have all that laundry and whatnot.
What's really seems out of balance with the way we live our middle-class, suburban parenting lives today is that we don’t leave any room for fun. We lose the belief that we deserve to stop the clock (or stop looking at it) and do something we really want to do—something that brings pleasure or something that brings meaning to all the rest.
The absence of doing what gives life meaning is a greater problem than how many hours we spend at a desk or on carpool duty.
After managing our paid work and our hard caregiving work, we are too exhausted to even know something else is missing. We rush our kids off to activities we'd secretly love to do ourselves. If my daughter takes ballet classes, don’t I get to add "ballerina" as a tiny part of my own identity? If my son runs around at soccer on Saturdays, it's almost like I have an active life, “We are an active family,” I can think as I stand on the sidelines.
Not only is this bad for us, it’s bad for our kids. It tells them that their fun matters to us. That we don’t like to play. No wonder they tell me they don’t like to clean up, as if I do. This imbalance means that we are raising self-centered children, because we don't know how to live our own lives after they come along. Because we think that “extracurriculars” are good for our kids, but we forget that they are good for us, too.
I think we’re afraid of being bad at fun. If someone has an outside-of-work-and-family “passion,” as we say, they'd better be serious about it. And good at it. Like to run? Better sign up for a 5K! Taking a frivolous photography or cooking class is a luxury more mock-able than Jimmy Choos. An indulgence. A waste of time we don’t have. A hobby—gasp!. Those few who manage to give themselves this permission are making very conscious choices that are not out there as cultural norms.
I’ve just finished reading Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Pay When No One Has the Time, and the section on “play” was the most eye-opening for me.
In the book, Schulte describes an exercise where busy parents are given a blank weekly schedule and asked to write down everything they did last week. No one has any trouble filling up the page to bursting. But when they’re given a blank schedule and asked write down what their ideal week would look like, they are totally stumped. They don’t know where to start.
We’re not talking about taking a dream vacation here, but what would your week look like if you lived it according to your truest priorities? Imagine making time for those and then fitting in work and other responsibilities around what you really want to be doing. What would that look like? What if we fit work around the rest, instead of leaving what matters to the margins.
When I had a brand new infant, I realized that when they’re asleep, you have to do the most important thing first. The thing that’s on fire. The baby could wake at any time. Shower? Pee? What is the thing you'll wish you'd done if the baby woke up now?
What if the thing on fire is you? You might not get to do your second thing. What would you wish you had done today if you died tomorrow? Our days are truly are numbered and we don’t know how high we’ll get to count. To steal a quote from Schulte that she stole from someone else: "How you spend your days is how you spend your life."
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