Little Dude has a new routine. Every morning, he wakes up at 6:45 and starts singing "Jingle Bells" and "I Have a Little Dreidel." At the top of his lungs. For an hour. There are many things wrong with this scenario, the most obvious being that it's April and we're not Jewish. Yet, despite the early hour and the questionable choice of songs, he sings with such gusto and joy that Sleep-Deprived Husband and I suffer in silence, laughing as we stuff pillows over our ears.
I secretly admire how exuberant Little Dude is, oblivious to how he sounds or what anyone might think. His enthusiasm is a huge part of who he is. When Little Dude pretends to be a construction worker, he wears a hard hat and a tool belt, puts up yellow caution tape and pounds on his playhouse with hammers. Art projects are messy, colorful and usually incomprehensible. He chases his friends around the playground until he collapses. Bedtime fairytales are dramatic reenactments complete with different voices for each character, long-winded backstories, and energetic miming.
I'm on board with all of it. When I'm not letting Little Dude rot his brain cells watching TV, I want him to be engaged in creative and imaginative activities because it keeps him out of my hair when I'm trying to make dinner. I also bow to the collective wisdom of experts who tell me that kids' play is important for their cognitive, social, emotional and physical development. Play helps kids figure out the world, teaches them cause and effect and exposes them to everything from science to art. Play increases kids' confidence and self-esteem as well as their ability to self-regulate, which decreases their impulsive behavior. I'm open to anything that will stop Little Dude from picking his nose or throwing a nutter when he doesn't get his own way. Play is so important that it's included in the United Nations' Declaration of the Rights of the Child. (I hope this does not mean I'm violating Little Dude's human rights when I stop him from banging on those pots and pans.)
So I scour garage sales for costumes, old Legos, child-sized gardening tools, plastic food and blocks. When the weather is nice, we go out in the yard so he can dig for worms or draw on the sidewalk with chalk. I never scold him for the loud noises, dirty hands or torn clothes that result. I believe in playdates and trips to the park and having plenty of time to be bored, because that's when the real fun begins.
But here's my dirty little secret. I don't actually like to play. If play were a drug, I'd be the best dealer because I'd never want to try the merchandise. Even when I was little, I wasn't hugely silly or mischievous. I was a serious kid with her nose in a book. So now I sit on the bench at the park, encouraging Little Dude to go down the slide or climb on the jungle gym. When he asks me to play with cars, I can do it for about 15 minutes and then I start losing the will to live. When invited to be Little Dude's superhero sidekick, I half-heartedly join in while planning dinner in my head. I am unenthusiastic about going to the moon and back in a rocketship made of pillows. I do these things because they make Little Dude happy and I know I'll look back on this time wistfully when he's seventeen. It doesn't hurt that I would do almost anything to hear him laugh and see his crooked smile.
But honestly, I'm better at routines and logistics -- meals, baths, bedtime, reading stories, schlepping kids to and fro, grocery shopping, homework, and keeping track of activities. I never miss a game or back to school night. I make doctor's appointments. I am good at talking about his day, going for nature walks, and cooking together. I make popcorn and snuggle together on the couch watching movies. I just don't enjoy dress-up or pretending to be something I'm not for long periods of time.
Other mothers have confessed that they feel the same way, but they do it quietly. We're all slightly ashamed of our lack of enthusiasm for childlike antics. We leave a lot of the playing to our partners.
This is why Sleep-Deprived Husband is a better person than I am. He can turn into Fun Daddy at the drop of a hat. He plays with Little Dude all the time - even late at night when Little Dude should be asleep. (In these moments, I become Bossy Mommy, the bedtime enforcer, and kill everyone's merriment.)
I have some legitimate reasons for not liking to play. I think a lot of kids' games are boring and kids pout when they don't win. Little Dude hides in the same place when we play hide-and-seek. He is also very bossy, which means most of our play involves me sitting around until he tells me what to do. (He takes after me, but that doesn't mean it isn't annoying.) His dress-up clothes don't fit me.
In truth, though, I think the biggest reason I don't play more is that I've forgotten how to give myself over to the utter abandonment and freedom that real play requires. To enter the land of make believe, you have to leave the world of bills, and laundry and deadlines behind. That's hard to do. But the older my son gets, the more I realize that this parenting thing isn't just about making sure everyone is fed and warm and safe and nurtured. That's the easy part. Parenting is also about knowing when to put away the grown-up tasks and obligations and have a little fun.
So tonight, I'm going to turn up the radio in the kitchen and rock out with my preschooler, instead of shooing him into the living room to play by himself. I'll play Go Fish willingly and put a little extra oomph into our bedtime stories. Maybe I'll even look for some costumes that fit me so the next time Little Dude wants to play dress up, I'll have something to wear.
Come to think of it, once Little Dude's asleep, Fun Daddy might appreciate that too.