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The Mom Who Doesn’t Play with her Kids

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Me: I feel like I’m just failing everybody. I don’t have enough time to give to all the different projects that need my attention and be a good mom at the same time. Some days I just want to quit everything, shut the door and just be a mom. Then I’d have the time to play with them and read them stories and go to the park and do mom stuff.

Husband: You know even if you didn’t have outside stuff to do, you still wouldn’t be the kind of mom that gets down and plays with the kids. That’s just not who you are. You’d still be looking for other stuff to do. You might be too busy right now, but I don’t think you’d be happy if you quit doing all your outside stuff.

When he said it, I just sat there for a bit and tried not to cry. I wanted to argue about it. I wanted to defend myself. I questioned my value and worth. What kind of mom am I if I’m not the kind of mom who plays with her kids? A bad mom.

WHY DO I THINK THAT?

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My mom didn’t “play” with me when I was growing up. I had siblings to do that. I had neighbor friends and even good old-fashioned imaginary friends, but I didn’t expect my mom to get down there on the floor with the Barbies or the legos. I love my mom and we have always had a great relationship, so why do I feel this pressure that to be a mom means playing with my kids when that wasn’t even what was role-modeled for me?

I remember being a babysitter as a preteen and teenager and kind of hating it. I liked the kids, but I felt uneasy about hours of providing entertainment for them. That’s when I realized I could sweep the kitchen. Then I had something to do, they could entertain themselves and the parents were happier when they got home. I did dishes, I picked up playrooms, and I enjoyed myself AND the kids more when we had a task to do together or even just in the same area. That’s when I knew I could really love being a mom, even a mom in a big family where there was always lots to do.

I know this about myself, but why do I still feel like such garbage about not being more playful? What is this mythical standard I’m trying to live up to? Why does it feel so shameful to not be “the kind of mom” who plays with her kids?

I wonder if maybe in my mind that equates to not liking my kids, which just isn’t true. I like seeing the Duplo blocks castle my preschooler built. I love to hear my daughter sing while she colors. I can sit outside and read a book while my boys shoot hoops in the driveway yelling, “Watch this, Mom!” and I DO! I DO “watch this” because I love to see them shine. I like to sometimes do puzzles beside them, to be offered a drink from their pretend tea party, and I will wrestle these kids until the day they are big enough to beat me, but I spend very little of my parenting time and energy in “play” with them. I feed them, I help them wash their hair, I oversee homework time and kiss them a million times a day. Is it okay if I also say, “Mom needs a minute to herself” on occasion? Is it okay for me to have hobbies and friends and sometimes even just be “too busy” to play with them?

There are things that have to get done to keep this little corner of the world running smoothly. Laundry, cooking, the weekly Bleaching Of The Boys’ Toilet, and those things all take time. There are also things I do just to keep my sanity in tact. Bathing is one of them. Calling a friend while I’m prepping lunch. Praying while I do dishes. Reading and writing so my brain doesn’t atrophy.

This is okay, right? It’s okay if between preserving my sanity, keeping the house afloat, and keeping my kids safe I don’t actually play with them? This is a tension I imagine didn’t exist for my farming grandparents. I don’t think previous generations had expectations that life would revolve around making Hot Wheels tracks or that adults would spend an hour making their own Play-doh creations, but somehow I still feel guilty.

No. More.

I want to let this go. My kids don’t actually need me to play with them. They need to play. They need me. But they don’t “need” me to play with them. I believe play is the incredibly important work of childhood. I provide the unscheduled time and the tools for them to play and then I back away and let them do it. They need me to care for them, to meet their needs, to love them and invest in them, but I don’t have to grab a Star Wars action figure in order to do those things. I have even noticed that when I don’t get involved in their play they tend to be more creative, learn to solve problems on their own, and they stay with one activity longer.

In defense of my husband, he already knew all this to be true. His expectation isn’t that I’m spending all my time playing and he was thoroughly confused about why simply stating a fact about how I parent made me so upset. He doesn’t carry the emotional weight I do of trying to be the “good mom” and the Instagram expectations of parental playtime that come with it. He sees the results of what I actually do all day– a clean(ish) house, kids that are fed, homework that’s done, little people who feel safe and loved and are becoming appropriately independent. He supports my involvement in people and activities that reach outside our home. What we’re doing is working for our family. I just need to let myself believe that.

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12 Comments

  1. Thank you for this! I felt like I was reading about me through out this post! There is so much societal pressure to entertain our kids that it makes us feel like poor parents when we don’t constantly do so, but as you said, kids are made to play! I, too, don’t have any specific memories of my mom and dad playing with me (except perhaps outdoor sports like baseball or frisbee in the back yard), and I, too, have a great relationship with my parents. Great post, Maralee!

  2. Thank you for saying this! I feel that pressure all. the. time! I’m not the mom who plays with her kids – an occasional board game, oohing and aahing over Lego creations, etc. – I do those things. I’m also not the mom who takes them to the park every day. Is that selfish? Sometimes I’m sure it is. On the other hand, my mom didn’t take us to the park or play dress-up with us and she was (and is) a pretty great mom. And I’ve often thought the same thing you said about our farming grandparents and great-grandparents. Their “quality family time” was doing the chores together! So, anyway, thanks and I’m with ya! 🙂

  3. I’m commenting to thank you for writing this, and all the while my mind is shouting at me that this just can’t be right. I, too, carry this incredibly heavy guilt over the fact that I often dread playing with my kids. I love them, and I like them so much, but I don’t enjoy playing. I was not much of a player as a child. I spent a lot of time quietly in my own mind, and I LOVED it.

    I have been a mom for going on six years, and the guilt over not loving play has been eating at me constantly since my first was old enough to want to play. My eldest is a serious extrovert, and he would play with me the entire day if I let him. This amazing desire for interaction has left me feeling like I’m failing him because I don’t love it like he does, and that is a heavy, heavy weight to carry.

    I am slowly starting to realize, however, that my kids actually play better if I am not involved, like you mentioned.

    Anyway, thank you for being brave enough to write this and for throwing it out as a lifeline to guilt-ridden moms like me. I appreciate it so much!

  4. This is what I am looking forward to in parenting: not playing. As a babysitter I always felt extremely compelled to play with the children the entire time. But as an introvert the extended periods of “on” time were thoroughly exhausting and left me drained. People would tell me, “it is easier and different with your own” and I am hoping the element of not playing will help make that true. I played with my sister for hours every day and it is one of my most cherished childhood memories, no mom involved though.

  5. Hallelujah! You wrote what I have been thinking for 18 years. My children don’t need another playmate — they need a parent. Each time I see mass/social media guilting me into “getting down on the floor” to play with toys with my kids I think: My job is to work so they have toys to play with, and to clean the floor so they have a place to play, and to supervise them so that they’re safe and gain social skills from play, but it is NOT my job to play! In fact, I wonder if “connecting with” our children as a fellow child is a good idea at all. Are they not looking to us as role models, as in “Mommies have strong beliefs and are smart and do hard work advocating for people” rather than “Mommies like Barbie to wear high heels with her bikini”. Are we not teaching them what we expect from them when they are 19 or 20? And if yes, then why are we surprised at the rising numbers of 20-somethings still living at home, playing and relaxing? Grown-ups accept responsibility, take care of people, and work hard — and that’s what I’m modeling to my kids when (sometimes) I’m too busy to play.

  6. I SOOO relate to this article! – ALL THE TIME!!! But my question is, if I have an only child does that “require” me to play with her more often than if she had siblings?

  7. I completely agree with everything you said. I often feel guilty, but I was raised the same and I feel I had the BEST CHILDHOOD EVER. So when I feel guilty, I remember that. I am thankful I have always been able to entertain myself.

  8. I LOVE this! God is so good to give us what we need when we need it. I still can’t believe how I stumbled upon your blog in such a different season and how the Lord continues to encourage me through it.

  9. I was thinking about this the other day. Playing with kids seems to be a modern day luxury and is not a requirement of raising a happy family. I’m glad for those who enjoy it, but it’s too bad that it seems to have become part of the “good mom” checklist.

  10. I’m so glad you wrote about this! It’s something I think about a lot. My oldest son was the only child for several years, so he got used to having a lot of attention and playtime with me. He’s 7 now, and since the nearest sibling is 2, he still wants me to be the playmate for basketball, football, etc. My youngest two are 18 months apart, and neither of them are used to me playing with them. A few times I’ve asked my 2-year-old if I can play trains with him and he looks at me like I’m weird and says, “You’re too big.”
    I think it goes back to your post a few months ago about how moms of large families are happier. The cultural norm seems to be to have two kids and then you’ll have plenty of time, energy, and money to invest in them. Parents of larger families are probably happier partly because they’re busier managing the family and the kids can play together, and there’s less pressure to entertain them!

  11. Oh. My. Word. If I could articulated my own thoughts into an article, this is EXACTLY how they would have been written!! Thank you, THANK YOU for this post. This was me, right down to the baby-sitting story; I hated baby-sitting! But boy, was that house tidy when the parents got home.

  12. Thanks for this. Just what I needed today.

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