Playful vs. Playmate

I quit working full time when our first son was one year old. It was absolutely the best decision for our family we’ve ever made.

The friend who kept our son before I quit my job was so supportive of our decision. She was a stay-at-home mom with four kids and kind of a big deal. I was in awe of her. She wrote me a sweet note on her last day of keeping our son — she shared advice, gave me her tried and true tricks of the trade, and sent me off with her best wishes. One thing she wrote in her note caught my attention more than anything else. She said, “…but trust me, you’ll still have your own little set of problems even as a stay-at-home mom.

Problems? How could I have problems? I was doing the very thing I had wanted to do since I held that tiny baby for the first time. I desperately wanted to stay home with him, and we had finally figured it out. My husband had gotten a promotion that pushed our household income just over the poverty line. We cut every indulgence we could cut, set a strict budget, and by golly, we were going to do this! What problems was she talking about? I certainly didn’t care that I would be missing adult interaction or that not working might hurt my chances of having a good job in the future. None of that mattered. I was getting to stay home with my baby and problems seemed impossible.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out what she was talking about. Mommy guilt. When I was working, there was no time to feel guilty. What little time I had could not be wasted. Minutes were counted and spent wisely. But once I was free from the confines of a full-time job, I had more time on my hands with that one little human than I’d ever had. What was squeezed into the tiny margin of mornings and evenings before could be drawn out and enjoyed all day long if I wanted. I went from grocery shopping at 5:00 am or 9:30 pm to making an entire day of a trip to the store. Play time went from thirty weary minutes before bed to huge chunks of time where we could drag out every toy imaginable if we wanted. Yet all the freedom brought with it a huge amount of guilt. Quitting my job meant my son deserved every free minute I had to offer. And no matter what I was doing, there was always something better I should have be doing.

If I was cooking breakfast, I should have been cleaning. If I was cleaning, I should have been folding laundry. If I was folding laundry, I should have been napping. (We all know how easy it is to nap while the baby’s napping, right?) But if I took a nap, I knew I would feel like there were a hundred other things I could have been doing. Being a busy-minded, busy-bodied, Type A mom is hard. No matter what effort I gave toward any task, there were always other things I should have been doing. And because working is always my default, the thing I felt like I couldn’t do enough was play. Even if I had spent the entire morning in the floor with my son and toys and books, I never felt like it was adequate. Playing with our son seemed to be the only way I could feel like a good mother.

Our boys are older now, and most of the time I manage mommy guilt better than I did when they were younger. Today was one of those glorious Saturdays where we had no restrictions on our time. No one counting on us, nowhere to be…just a day to be at home. The boys were busy. Playing inside, playing outside. Making things, building things, spending time with neighborhood friends. I was available and accessible, but I wasn’t involved in what they were doing. I had my own list of things to do. It occurred to me late in the afternoon that I hadn’t spent quality time — play time — with any of the boys. I had made them breakfast and lunch and I was working on dinner. I had gotten toys out for them and answered their questions. I had been grocery shopping for our family and had been involved in lots of conversations with them. But playing with them? I hadn’t done it. And there it was again. Mommy guilt. I was doing all these things…but I really should have been doing was sitting on the floor and playing with them all day.

Our oldest son got a new basketball this morning and he was playing outside with our middle son and another boy. Feeling a need to quell the guilt before it grew, I decided to go out and watch him practice with his new ball. As I went outside and got my shoes, I saw my sons playing and they were having a blast. Without me. They weren’t looking back at the house as if they were wondering when I might come out. They hadn’t been checking in every five minutes to see when I would be available. In fact, I think if I had gone all the way out there, which I didn’t, it would have been awkward.

As I watched them playing from inside the garage, something my husband said a few years ago came back to me. Amanda, they need you to be playful, but they don’t need you to be their playmate. I’ve reminded myself of this time and time again but sometimes I’m still caught off guard when I realize that I don’t need to be my kids’ playmate. The gap between the things that interest them and the things that interest me widens constantly. They are good at sports I can’t play, have imaginations I can’t match, enjoy toys that can’t hold my attention, and they make up games I can’t understand. I’m a middle-aged woman and they are young boys — it’s okay to admit that we are at very different stages of life. I can be playful. But I don’t have to be their playmate.

What does it look like to be a playful parent? Playful is laughing and being light-spirited. Playful is stopping to listen to their stories. Playful is joking kindly with them and not being so serious all the time. Playful is tickling and smiling. Playful is working joyfully and easily — whatever the task. Playful is picking up a Nerf gun and a bullet and hiding behind a corner to shoot them when they walk past. Playful is that breath of fresh air that helps them understand that even parents can see the potential for good and fun and laughter in most situations.

I’m a pretty rotten playmate. Our oldest son needs someone to guard him in basketball. I can go out there and stand where he tells me to stand and put my hands in the air, but that doesn’t help him. He needs other athletic kids to give him the challenge to improve. Our middle son loves parkour. I can go out there and watch him jump over air conditioner units and run up tree trunks, but I can’t do those things. I’d need a cast! He needs another crazy friend to do that stuff with him. Our youngest son loves to ride his bike and jump on trampolines and collect bugs. I can encourage him, but to really have a great time, he needs other little boys and girls who enjoy those things just as much as he does.

Mommy guilt is a tough thing. Trust me. It’s been with me for nearly 12 years now. But keeping in mind the difference between being playful and being a playmate has been helpful. Playful parents are refreshing. They are good for their spouse, their friends, and they are good for their children. Ease up on yourself if you constantly feel the pressure, guilt, about not doing enough for your children, especially when it comes to play. Being a mom or dad is a huge job and no one I know needs more guilt about the job they’re doing. Playful vs. playmate — let the freedom of that give rest to your heart today.

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