I am a boy mom. Got myself two of them, just a little over two years apart. They are mysterious and challenging little fellows that confound me every day. Even though they are the heart of my heart and the breath in my lungs, I often find myself starring at them in wonderment... as if they are strangers... pondering just exactly what it is they are doing, or thinking, or wanting because their boyness is so foreign to me. They change on me everyday: they are neurotic, hyperbolic, wonderfully manic, woefully sullen and just when I think I have them pegged -- when I get confident and assured that I know how to appease them -- boom, I don't.
And thus goes parenthood...
I'm perplexed enough as it is when it comes to simply managing them that playing can feel that much more overwhelming -- yet another thing where I feel like a spectator in a foreign land. Not only are the games, characters, rules and regulations completely over my head these days, but the constant change, the never-ending guesswork, the negotiations, the moodiness, the highs and lows of it all... it's bewildering enough to me that I'm actually quite turned off from even trying.
It's yet another way in which my lack of control during playtime is highlighted. As someone who thrives on consistency and for whom control is a happy and content place in which to sit, the essence of playtime -- the predictable unpredictability of it all -- challenges me to my very core. And the fact that I often just don't really like what my boys want to play... well, that's a double serving of difficult with a cherry on top.
But there is another reason why play feels challenging for me, and it's kind of hard to admit. It's not just the lack of control during play that disconcerts me. It's also the fact that it often feels like I have so little to show for my efforts to engage. And for some reason, this is important to me. As parents, there are not necessarily tangible measures against which to gauge our success. There are no promotions or end of the year bonuses to compensate our stellar performance. There is certainly no plaque that reads "World's Best Playing Mom." I guess the Type-A, goal-oriented, over-achiever in me still craves some of the recognition of yesteryear, my life pre-kids when my hard work (academic, professional and otherwise) earned accolades, my athletic prowess was on letterman-jacket display. Not that I need an award for playing with my kids... it's just that over time, play has become yet another thing on an increasingly long parental to-do list of obligations that go seemingly unnoticed and unappreciated.
So naturally, I compensate by prioritizing and clinging to the things that have noticeable outcomes, which also happen to feel more urgent and gratifying than play. Like a Downy-fresh pile of laundry waiting to be folded, a sink full of dishes that needs loading, beds dying to be made, a well-balanced Sunday night dinner waiting to grace a beautifully appointed table. These are the things for which I can stand back and think "Voila! Behold, the fruits of my labor!" The rewards of play are less obvious, the results less impressive than an organized linen closet or well-stocked pantry. Right?
And so it went, with them playing and me hyper-organizing our life... two local trains running parallel, but rarely intersecting in honest play until one rainy afternoon when I was busy earning domestic gold stars, replacing bed linens and fluffing pillows. My eldest nipped at my ankles like a puppy, desperate for my attention. I responded in a way that was both playful and a bit passive-aggressive by walloping him with the pillow in my hand... and the most raucous and outrageously fun pillow fight ensued.
Playing with the boys is so different now than it was when they were babies and their needs were so easily met. Sure, I had to navigate through tough spells as every new parent does, but when it came to playtime, I could stack blocks and fit shapes and recite letters and numbers and colors with the best of them. And their gratification was so clear and pure -- coos and giggles, pudgy clapping hands, which gave way to "More! More!" and "Again! Again!" Mommy could do no wrong because mommy was in control. And honestly, it was all very simple... unfettered by rules or opinions, unadulterated by emotions or power struggles.
But those glorious, happy babies morphed into two strong-willed, determined boys with big ideas and bigger feelings... and what I learned in those 15 sweaty, rowdy, feather-flying, pillow-fighting minutes was that my boys needed me to cede control. They needed me to set aside the chores and simply play. In those minutes, it wasn't about how much I could get done or the fact that -- yay! -- I could cross "PLAY!" off my to do list. It was about the true connection that was established between a momma and her boys, bound by laughter, a physical closeness, an exchange in power and a triple dose of genuine positive attention. The flood of overwhelming joy that I had in that moment was greater than any award I have ever earned.
I realized that it is in fact NOT a sparkling bathroom or clean sheets that measure the success of my parenting. Rather, it is the genuine belly laughs and the twinkling eyes of my boys when we are playing that are my most treasured trophies. I may not always like what they want to play, nor may I always be able to engage in it the way I wished I could, but now that I've discovered a new yardstick against which to measure my success and have seen the unbridled delight on their faces, play has become my welcomed new "work." I envision a shiny, new plaque in my future.
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