‘How can I feel less guilty about not wanting to play with my kids?’
After my daughter was born, I threw myself into motherhood with the fervour of a convert. When she was a baby I studiously read to her and got her toys that made scrunchy sounds to aid in her development. When she was a toddler I made play dough and edible slime and played dress-ups.
I think of this past me often with the head shake and wistful smile of someone who is now the beaten-down working mother of three kids.
As I look back today, knee deep in the murky underworld of home schooling and lockdown, where screen time limits and controlling sugar intakes are a thing of the past, I think of making play dough from scratch and laugh. Who even was that woman?
On a particularly brisk morning last week I found myself standing inside a playground watching my sons maniacally push themselves around on a squeaky roundabout.
As I stood there stomping my feet, trying to bring some feeling back into my toes in the cold, I fantasised about being at home with a warm drink and silence – not hearing another plea for “mum”, not having to hurry up and finish peeing so I can attend to another sibling quarrel – just me inside the house with no sound.
The fantasy was quickly quashed as my kids ran up to me asking for snacks. Why did no one warn me about how much kids ate, especially when they are at home all day? I decided perhaps it was time to cut our playground visit short but then I remembered our living room, now a holding space for disassembled Lego sets, errant Uno cards and glue sticks with lids off leaving sticky trails on the dining table. Going home would mean I’d have to play with them.
As much as I love my kids – and I’ve done everything to structure my life so their needs come first – I’m over playing with them. I don’t want to make Lego, I don’t want to join their make-believe Star Wars games, I don’t want even want to sit though prolonged board games with them.
I’m just deeply bone tired and I’d rather they go off and play by themselves. For the most part they do – which is one of the benefits of having three children. In lockdown, despite their daily tiffs and arguments, at least they have each other.
But they also need me – not just to play with them but to be caregiver, cook, counsellor, teacher, nurse, secretary and a whole host of other roles.
For the most part, the other roles I can do. But playing, in my hierarchy of needs, is one I need to get off my list.
Anthropologists have written about how adult-led play with children is not something that’s done in many societies and may not be completely beneficial to our children. As the anthropologist David Lancy told the New York Times: “Children are built for autonomous learning. They are born knowing how to create their own toys, design their own games and to settle their own arguments. They need surprisingly little interference from adults.”
All this is well and good, but what about the guilt I feel when I’m not playing with my kids? The mother guilt that haunts most women means that no matter what choices we make, we feel bad about perceived shortfalls.
Many will judge me for not wanting to play with my kids. We are sold an image of motherhood – of a woman who is on the ground with her children, laughing, engaging and having fun. I’m sure there are women who do enjoy the mess of creating a mud kitchen or filling a tray full of foam and hiding dinosaurs in it. Perhaps I was once one of them. But now I’m someone who has to fulfil a whole host of other needs.
For a long time I couldn’t shift the guilt that I wasn’t doing enough. But then I told myself to get real. My kids are lucky enough to have the active presence of both their parents in their lives. If they injure themselves there will always be someone there to soothe them. If they come across a complicated maths equation or tricky homework task they will know they can come to me or my husband for help.
And that’s what I’m trying to focus on. They may never remember the Lego sets I didn’t help them build (to be fair, if they ever read this, I did build A LOT of Lego) but they will remember that I was there for them when they needed me.
On that day in the playground when my kids came running asking for snacks, I dug my hand into my backpack and magically procured an old packet of raisins. Their needs met, they ran back to the squeaky roundabout, laughing as they pushed each other around.
It was far from a perfect morning but it was close enough.