Before I became a mom, I thought of myself as someone who was really great with kids. As a teenager and young adult, I babysat a ton. I was everyone’s favorite babysitter—responsible and caring, definitely not the kind of sitter who would spend the whole time watching TV, just making sure the kids didn’t kill each other. No, I was the kind of sitter who would get down and play. I was always up for a tea party, a game of hide-and-seek, fort-building, and all manner of imaginative play.
But then I had kids of my own, and well, I found that I wasn’t such a fun caretaker after all. Maybe it’s because I’m older, and the child in me is not so sprightly anymore. Maybe it’s because parenting is just so damn hard, a 24/7 job, and I wasn’t exactly prepared for how overwhelmed I’d be. Maybe it’s because I haven’t slept through the night in a decade.
Whatever it is, I don’t always like playing with my kids. Nope, not at all. And I’m done feeling guilty about it.
I used to feel guilt about it, for sure. When I was a younger, newer mom, and I discovered that I kind of hated racing cars for hours in the living room, or building intricate structures with Legos, I felt terrible. I wanted to be the picture-perfect mother, the one I always imagined I’d be. I wanted to follow my child’s lead and get absorbed in whatever he was into. I wanted to get down on the floor and play with abandon.
I wanted to be the perfect mom and the perfect playmate for my kid. But I was falling short, every day.
Wanting to be a perfect parent can drive you crazy and make you totally stressed and anxious (don’t ask how I know). As the years have gone by, I’ve realized that perfection in parenthood is highly overrated, and everyone is much happier when mom isn’t stressed.
So, when it comes to playing with my kids, I’ve realized that I can’t be everything to them all the time. There are some kinds of play that I’m just not cut out for, and my kids would have a hell of a lot more fun if they played with other kids, or other grown-ups who are more suited to that kind of play.
I don’t enjoy roughhousing with my boys. I don’t like building complicated stuff. And I don’t like imaginative play. I honestly want to stab my eyes out when my son comes up to me and asks me to play superheroes with him. If I have to hold a plastic Wonder Woman for one more minute and make her have one more conversation with Superman about God-knows-what, I think I’ll die.
The silver lining is that I’ve realized there are some things that I really do like doing with my kids, and it’s totally OK if I prefer to do those things with them. I love reading with my kids, and teaching them how to read. I like painting, drawing, and other simple art projects. I like baking with them, doing science projects, and taking walks together around the neighborhood.
I like the sorts of things that are hands-on, creative, involve thinking, and are genuinely interesting to me. And my kids generally like those sorts of things, too.
Of course, I do some of the other stuff sometimes, and I make the best of it. Thankfully, my boys have each other to play with, and their dad is great at roughhousing and Legos. One of my sons actually likes to play on his own (gasp!), which is fabulous.
I’ve learned that part of parenting is realizing you can’t be everything for everyone all the time, even though you totally wish you could. Even as I write these words, I’m questioning myself, thinking I really ought to give Lego building another try, and that I must sound like such a bitch about how much I abhor playing superheroes with my sweet preschooler.
But I’m just being honest, and I have a feeling I’m not alone in my feelings. I think we parents owe it to ourselves to be real, make the most of the cards we’d been dealt, and just stop it with the guilt. The truth is, we’re all just doing the best we can, showering our kids with love every day—and trying to stay sane in the process.