“Mommy, are you going to come to the birthday party?”
“Umm… I have a lot of stuff I have to do right now. Maybe later.”
Ever feel like you just don’t want to play with your kid? Is there anyone who doesn’t ever feel that way? So, it’s just normal, right? But still… ever feel guilty about it?
I used to think I was a bad mom for not feeling like Mary Poppins all the time. Or ever. (Although, have you have watched Mary Poppins lately? Because she's not exactly always Mary Poppins either. Maybe I’m thinking of The Sound of Music?)
Then, one day, someone told me that it's ok not to be a playing-on-the-floor kind of parent. That relevation brought me fireworks and champagne level liberation. It felt like a get-out-of-jail free card. You don’t have to what?!
There are all kinds of moms, she said, and we’re all good at different things. Motherhood is a many-skilled endeavor and none of us excel at all of it. Unless you’re seriously neglecting your kids, they’re getting something out of their interactions with you, even if it’s just watching what grownups do.
The pass that mom wrote for me that day excused a nagging feeling that I had been doing wrong. It let loose so much pent up guilt and continues to free me—from early mommy days of not enough tummy time or brain-stimulating educational wooden toys, all the way up to today, when I just don’t want to play the game.
I don’t want to sit at a pretend birthday party between my daughter’s Cat and my son’s Coco bunny, eating fake cake with other assorted dolls, and ugh, whatever else is involved. I hardly ever want to and I hardly ever do. As Nancy Reagan suggested, I “Just Say No.”
For a long time, I let this free me from playing with my kids. And like a good French mother from Bringing Up Bebe, now that my kids can be mostly independent, I let myself do grown up things that need to be done. Or occasionally even things I want to do.
Some days it’s cleaning the kitchen, other days it’s being lost in Facebook, but it’s usually that there are chores and they don’t do themselves. Chores that don’t do themselves mean that a kid-focused day yields dishes at midnight. Now that’s not fun.
But lately, I’ve been wondering… Am I not playing with my kids because I don’t want to, or because of those other things that I have to do? How much do I really need to do those things? Am I giving myself permission to be a grown-up and not center every moment around my kids?
Have I liberated myself? Or am I missing out on something?
Since reading Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that women don’t play. Schulte writes about how, even if women manage to succeed in balancing work and family, they are often left with the sense that something is still missing… not just time for fun, but the mental space for fun. She gets into how early this pattern starts.
If women, especially mothers, have trouble giving themselves permission to play, it’s actually in girlhood that the trouble begins.
Girls learn early that work is valued more than play, and that more is expected of them than the boys. I was shocked to read recently—I wish I could remember where—that boys who grow up with sisters are less likely to help out with chores later in life. Less likely. Because, I assume, they weren’t asked, the girls were.
I had a dad who didn’t think twice about pitching in to get the endless women’s work done and brothers who were expected to do chores, too. But I remember, as a young girl, being praised for helping out in the kitchen, for helping mommy fold the laundry. And it made me happy, to be praised like that.
I also have clear memories of the fade-away of that easy-to-play mind. I remember when playing Barbies became just a fashion show because dialogue no longer easily spilled out of my growing-up brain. So, as a parent, of course I find it hard to get back to a place where I have something to say at a tea party beyond, “Mmm, delicious dirt cake…”
But playing doesn’t have to mean playing games we don’t like. We’re the parents, after all. We get to be at least a little in charge. And even if you say no to some games you’re asked to play, it feels good to find other things you genuinely enjoy with your kids. I don’t necessarily find fun the same things my kids do, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like to play.
In All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior calls it a “wormhole,” that space that kids open for us to a more carefree and less self-conscious time. A more fun time. And it doesn’t have to be the kind of imaginary play that my kids often ask of me—maybe some kinds of play are best left to them alone. I know I’m not joining in every game, even if I could.
Sitting on the ground with kids during my kids’ time at a parent-cooperative preschool, I learned that playing is not as stressful as it seems from on high where it feels like kids are constantly demanding that you eat a sand cupcake or say this or come to an imaginary party.
Of the many things I learned about play at the co-op preschool, these were the most important—
· I’m not the only parent terrified of the idea of having to play with kids.
· Playing with kids doesn’t have to be so scary/boring/terrible for adults.
· And the best way to figure out what to do with kids is to ask yourself, “What did I like to play when I was a kid?”
The first thing I realized I still like to do is to build. Building with anything—blocks, rocks, hair curlers, Lincoln logs, chairs and blankets, whatever’s around. I also like coloring—with crayons, in the lines in a coloring book, or just doodling alongside my daughter, who can draw for hours. And every once in a while I like crafty type stuff with glue and even glitter. Those are the kinds of things that I sit down to do with my kids and am still engaged after they’re wandered off to something new.
Those times are really fun for me. And they get me really far outside of my busy, anxious adult brain. I guess it’s like a “find your bliss” thing, just with kids. I also learned that ten solid minutes of playing-on-the-floor time can often satisfy the kids enough that they’re off to their own play for the next hour.
I wonder if giving ourselves permission not to play with our kids is the wrong kind of permission. Maybe it's not what we need. Especially as women. In a world that tells girls way to young to stop playing and help out in the kitchen or with the laundry. Girls who are helping while the boys are running around and considered good if they just stay out of trouble. And it extends well into adulthood—many studie have documented that moms’ time with kids is more childcare-oriented, while dads’ time is more playtime. I don’t know about you, but I want to be fun, too.
I think that feeling that we don't want to play with our kids is inextricably intertwined with that feeling that there's something else we should be doing. That being a mom is more real-world laundry than escape into kids’ world play. So, maybe there’s a little feminist rebellion in saying no to sweeping the floor and getting down and playing on it instead?