My therapist: “When was the last time you just played?”
I didn’t really have an answer to that. I have a four-year-old, but we don’t really “play.” I feed him. I bath him. I help him with his homework. I read to him, cuddle with him, and watch movies with him. I tell him I love him, and I mean it. BUT we don’t really “play.” My love (ML) does that part. They play ninja and Mr. Grinch. If ML isn’t home, my little one (MLO) knows how to play on his own: car sounds and character voices erupt from his bedroom often. He laughs. He crashes things. He makes a mess with his toys. He’s happy. Meanwhile, I peacefully wash dishes, cook, or prepare his bath. I’m responsible and loving, but I don’t know that he’d call me fun.
One day, as an experiment, I told MLO that I wanted to play with him after watching my favorite show. He said, “Sorry mommy. Only daddy plays with me.” I thought, “Well, guess what little n-word? You gettin’ me today.” I don’t know if he subliminally heard my message, but he quietly walked away.
After my show, as promised, I walked into his room where he was already playing. Without hesitation, he put a toy car in my hand and took off with his own, pretend driving it on the floor and his bedroom furniture. I said, “What am I supposed to do with this?” MLO, “Race!” So, we pretend raced around his room for a little while. I didn’t get the appeal, but he seemed to enjoy it. I had a really hard time staying present. There were so many other things I could be doing right now. I felt unproductive.
Then it hit me. I’m BAD at playing! I’m an artist. I make a living doing what I love. My work is fun. In my work, I’m down to experiment and play. I get INTO it, but somewhere along the way, I let the world grow me up in my personal life. It’s not a miserable life, but I don’t only want to feel juiced when I’m working. I want to feel just as alive when I’m just hanging out at home.
As a was spiraling, my kid kept shoving toys into my hand and diving into some weird imaginary world. I forced myself to stop thinking. I looked MLO in the eye and said, “Mommy needs you to teach her how to play with you.” It was a humbling admission, but he took the challenge with enthusiasm. MLO, “Okay!”
He shoved a plastic bucket handle in my hand and put three empty toy buckets in front of me. He also had a plastic bucket handle. Then, he just started beating the snot out of this small row of buckets until they all fell over. Once they did, he laughed. HARD. I saw the freedom he had, so I just followed his example. I knocked over buckets too. I didn’t understand the game, but it didn’t matter. We were just knocking things over because it felt good.
Then he put the buckets in his chair and started knocking them off the chair one by one. I tried doing the same but ended up just being his hype man. It was fun! I didn’t have a game plan. I was in my head for half of it, but I officially played.
Since that humbling day, I’ve challenged myself to play with my kid for thirty minutes a day. Sometimes he leads our time together. Sometimes, we just play an age-appropriate board game. He’s helping me to loosen up while I’m helping him navigate life.
If I can be honest, I’m not practicing play to be a better mom. There’s already enough of that guilt to go around in the world. I’m practicing play to be a happier me. I’ve just figured out that my kid hasn’t been jaded by life yet and still has his imaginative spark. I’m essentially taking lessons from a master, and a cool perk is that we are getting closer. At some point, I hope to be as free as I was when I was his age, but, until then, I’ll just keep practicing connecting with my inner kid.