As I sit here, I am listening to my older daughter color by herself in another room. Of all of the sounds of young motherhood, the self-chatter during play is my favorite. Innocent and honest, it’s a chance to hear her thoughts. “What should I draw next? Owelette. Yes, that’s good.” Self-chatter is a chance for me to understand how her internal dialogue is shaping.
If I was coloring with her, things would be different. She would be working to direct me and impress me at the same time. She would feel my attention shift from her to dinner, back to her, back to dinner. But in her solo play, she is making her own heart happy. She is being creative, she is working to grow without realizing it.
We’ve heard that play is the work of childhood. It’s such a beautiful sentiment. And sometimes, if we are being honest, I feel like I mess play up. Because for kids, play is magical. It is an institution, both a verb and a noun, a language for them to process how their little selves fit into a big and changing world. I am a boring adult, restrained to the confines of schedules and taxes and knowledge of gravity. I am certain I bring my boringness to play. So why do my kids always want to play with me?
No matter if I am dull, my kids want to play with me because I am Mom. I am their beginning, their familiar, their protector, their problem solver. I can solve the riddles of play. I can cut and tape, I can sew beads onto almost anything, I can control all the switches in the house with ease. At this age, they don’t think I ruin play. They think I enhance it with my mad skills.
They always want me to play. And in this, I consistently feel the stab of guilt when I have to say no to the innocent voice saying “Mommy, will you play with me?”
Play is not the work of my world anymore. And although I know this, and I can justify it, I still scold myself for missing that chance. I recall the internet memes and chatter reminding me that someday, they will no longer ask me to play. I’ve been warned countless times at the grocery store that someday, I will miss this. I know that, and it terrifies me. But dinner must be made, clothes must be washed, work emails must be sent: my role in life is multifaceted. I’d love to drop everything, every time they ask.
But what would that teach them about give and take, about patience, about boundaries?
Practically speaking, in a moment where play isn’t an option for Mommy, sometimes just our brief but genuine attention is enough. If we get on their level, make eye contact, and let them know when we can play, this effort goes a long way. In this, our children know they are important to us. We model for them respectful boundaries. We show them how to ask for what we need. Kids have a one-track mind, and they can’t be expected to honor boundaries we don’t set.
As a mom, we are a teacher first. We teach our children about the world, about their faith, about themselves, and about others. In this, there is a lesson to be learned by waiting, by entertaining themselves, by watching Mom respond to the stresses of life with grace and humility. Our kids don’t notice that we can’t always play, however, they do always notice our reaction to the question. They notice our reaction to everything. In motherhood, our reactions are as important as our actions.
We cannot cheapen all we do for our kids by lamenting what we don’t. Play is sacred to childhood. Distracting ourselves from a present moment by mourning a moment lost to the past doesn’t bring anything back. This guilt trip is not helpful, it is not practical, and it does no good for anyone involved.
Our kids don’t always need us to be involved in their play for it to be memorable; instead, we can help by observing from a distance. We can encourage without hovering. Kids are masters of play, they will outdo us every time. Yet, the ability to self-regulate and a strong sense of self-confidence are things our children will gain with opportunities to practice.
Through intention, my daughters will learn the role of a mommy has many layers. Through direction, they will learn how to respect boundaries. Through attention, they will rest confidently in the fact that they are critical to my world; but they will have to cope with the fact that I can’t always do what they want when they want it.
And they will remember the times that I did play. Because when I play, I make funny voices. I chase, I pretend, I wrestle, I laugh for real. I love them so fiercely and fully, I can’t help but be captivated by them.
Because when I play, I do it presently.
I do it well.