I’ve been in a bad place lately, y’all. I think spring break was the catalyst for feelings that had been building all winter. At first I was looking forward to sleeping in, open-ended days without much going on and time spent having both of my kids at home. But the hours of uninterrupted time quickly stretched into days upon days of doing nothing but pretending many convoluted variations of the same scenarios involving mommies, babies, princesses and queens. I was exhausted at the end of the days and longing for conversation with another adult, but ended up cross and snappy with my husband when he came home. The return of school and a routine brought some relief but not as much as I’d expected. I still dreaded the afternoons when we didn’t have much going on. I found myself checking my phone more often during the day, prolonging household tasks like starting a load of laundry just to avoid going back into the playroom, and feeling completely drained of energy. I was only half paying attention to the games we did play and we could both tell my heart wasn’t in it.
I resented it.
My daughter had assumed the self-promoted role of cruise director, dictating what and how my two-year-old son and I would play and demanding I account for every moment spent on something other than engaging with them. I tried to proactively plan outings outside the house to museums or parks or to prepare crafts to do at home. Nothing seemed to dissuade my daughter from the need for hours of unstructured play time. On days we were busy with other activities, she would complain that she’d hardly gotten to spend any time with me all day after literally seeing me for every minute of her twelve waking hours.
I knew I had caused this.
I have a degree in early childhood development and am a former elementary school teacher turned stay-at-home mom. I know what all the research says about how essential free play is for children’s development and how little they have time for it in today’s environment of over-scheduled activities and skyrocketing screen time. I have diligently built in and zealously protected periods of unstructured time into our routines. I talk often with my kids about how important imaginative play is and how much their brains are learning when they pretend. I have placed such importance on facilitating these periods of mental stimulation that I felt guilty for every task I had to accomplish which took me away from our play time. And sensing my guilt, my daughter began to expect so much control over our free play that it was no longer free for anyone else, but was instead a time for her to experience getting to be the person in charge.
My husband, who is a therapist, finally asked me one night what was going on and why I had been so irritable. I tried to explain how enslaved I felt to my own guilt and my daughter’s expectations. Being that he’s a man, he immediately went about trying to find a solution. After a bit of Googling, he found this article from Psychology Today on if we should play with our kids and how. The tagline “playing with your child is not ‘play’ unless you are both having fun” made me sit up and pay attention.
The author of the article validates children’s need for lots of unstructured play time but makes the point that it is only recently that parents have been expected to act as playmates. Until a few decades ago, children spent much of their time outside and in community with other kids. He pointed out that small children are prone to enjoying games with lots of repetition and role play while they figure out the world around them, but that this type of play is understandably tedious for adults. The problem lies in trying to make playmates of individuals with a 30-year age gap. Ultimately, we are doing our children a disservice in always letting them dictate the rules and types of play because they are not learning how to get along with peers who won’t put up with constantly being told what to do by a friend.
The content wasn’t all that revolutionary, but it was exactly what I needed to hear at the time.
It somehow gave me permission to tell my daughter I wasn’t interested in playing a particular game that day without feeling like I was putting myself ahead of her need for mental stimulation and desire for quality time. More importantly, it prompted a conversation with her about communication and the need for reciprocity in relationships. I told her that I felt like I had been distant lately and wanted us to better communicate with each other to find mutually enjoyable activities for us to engage in together.
The immediate change in our days and my attitude has been surprising. My daughter is learning to consider my preferences, compromise on activities we both enjoy and even to be ok with playing independently while I sit near her doing my own activity. I am trying to find balance between my to do list and hers, and to create more opportunities for her to play with kids her own age. Maybe the thing that has helped most is getting control of my own feelings of guilt. I don’t have to feel responsible for being my daughter’s perpetual playmate and in actuality could be doing more harm than good by not setting healthy boundaries in our play.