I have a confession to make. I don’t play with my kids. At all.
It wasn’t always this way. When my oldest son was little I was his constant playmate. I romped around the floor of our city apartment, crawling when he crawled, catching him when he toddled, creating fantastic, complex scenes with him when he discovered pretend. Sometimes it was fun, often it was boring. But, why else had I given up my job to stay at home with him, if not to be there for every moment of his day?
Along came Baby No.2. With him came a whole heap of mama guilt. I worried that my oldest would feel neglected, that he’d be bored on his own, that the tight bond I’d worked so hard to form with him would be fractured. So, I kept on playing with him. While I was nursing my baby, after I’d been up all night, instead of cleaning the house. I was exhausted and the house was a mess and I hadn’t spent more than ten minutes on my own in four years, but my son never lacked for a playmate.
And all that playing with him and reading to him and singing to him was working. He was brilliant. Really, truly brilliant. He walked at 9 months, talked in full sentences at a year and a half, and read at age four. All of this was obviously OBVIOUSLY because I spent so much time with him. Baby No. 2 was getting older now. He was becoming a snuggly, giggly, bundle of delight who could not get enough of his big brother. His big brother couldn’t get enough of him either. In fact, the two of them were so absorbed with each other that I often felt like a third wheel, and I LOVED it. I started reading and writing and cleaning my house (a little). I even found time to make baby No. 3.
I didn’t play with them in the formal sense any more, but I talked to them and sang silly songs to them, and snuggled them any chance I got. The kids were happy, I was happy. As long as we were all together, life was good. Then they started to go off to school. One by one. Until there was only one very bored, very lonely little girl left. Until her o’clock kindergarten class starts, she wanders around the house like a lost puppy desperately looking for someone to throw her a ball. She tries to crawl into my lap when I write, to climb up my legs when I do the dishes, to melt into my arms when I fold laundry.
I feel guilty about it. Terribly guilty. But, as guilty as I feel, I just can’t bring myself to spend hours on the playroom floor like I used to do with my oldest son. I compensate by talking to her while I go about my tasks, reading to her when I take a break, sitting with her when she eats lunch. Is it enough? I’m not sure.
While she’s plenty smart, she isn’t reading yet. While we snuggle all the time, she still asks me to quantify my love for her constantly. While she’s bright and imaginative, she lacks the fine motor skills to create all the complex art projects she so desires to complete. I used to feel so certain that my way of parenting was the right one, that by giving my kids all of my attention I was making them better, stronger people. But, now I’m starting to wonder if I would have been better conserving my resources so each child would have had more of my attention, my patience, my play time.
Perhaps none of it will really matter in the end. My mom and dad both came from large families with very busy parents. I can’t imagine that either of them spent much time playing with their parents. In fact, I would bet that only in recent generations have parents had the time to play with their kids much at all. Still, in this world of social media and competitive parenting, it’s easy to feel like everyone else is giving more to their children, more time, more patience, more quality interactions.
Next year my daughter will be in school for a full day. The thought of it fills me with dread and excitement. It will be nice for her to have something to do all day, kids to play with. And it will be nice for me too. I’ll have time to work, to write, to figure out what to do with this next portion of my life. Knowing that time is coming up makes it all feel so much more urgent. This is the last year that I’ll have that special time with just her, the last year that I’ll have to really bond with her alone before the world begins to work its influences on her. Can I do it while I’m writing, and doing errands, and spending so much time in my own head? Can I do it without playing with her?
I’m not sure.