A few mornings ago, I found myself wandering through my house, searching for my five-year-old son. “Where, oh where, is my beloved Jeffrey?” I cried. “I’m starting to get worried!”
What I was feeling, in truth, was not worry—I’d already spotted Jeffrey’s feet sticking out from the laundry pile—but rather the tense agitation of a trapped animal. There was no escaping the moments I knew must unfold before this game could end. First, I would need to pretend to look in all the wrong places: “Is he in the closet? No. Behind the bathroom door? Nope.” Then, I would have to disappear to a faraway room, as if thrown off the scent: “I’ll just head down to the basement and search for him there.” Finally, I would need to loop back upstairs, circling my child with escalating expressions of concern: “I hope he hasn’t left the house on his own!”I played out the charade, my gaze landing on the short story collection open on my nightstand, then flitting to the laptop with the poem I was writing up on the screen, a glimmer of tantalizing pixels. I scanned each room for opportunities to multitask, grabbing water cups and straightening piles of books.
As the mother of three fun-loving children, there’s a secret I’ve long kept hidden: I do not like playing. While Jeffrey favors hiding games, Frances, who’s three, lately wants me to sit with her by her dollhouse. “Hi, Daddy!” her figure says to mine; “Hi, Mommy!” my figure says to hers. We wiggle our dolls a little as we make them talk. Louisa, my nine-year-old, likes to round up her siblings and pretend they are baby cheetahs. She works me into the game as the kind veterinarian. I peer into their ears with a plastic otoscope. More often than not, I wish I were doing something else, that my mind could be somewhere else.
“Daddy’s home!” I shout when my husband Paul walks in the door in the evening. As he heads off with the kids, I crawl under the dining room table to clean up the mess from their dinner. While I pick up quinoa grains with my bare hands, I can think about the Klimt exhibit I want to discuss with my mother. Or the voicemail my friend Lila left, her voice ragged with worry over her brother’s drinking. I can compose the next lines of my poem, feeling them tumble through my head, an enjambed waterfall. I can imagine walking with Paul down New York streets, a fantastical return to the place where our marriage started. Under the table, I can be the grown-up that I am, the dreamer I am, the writer I am. Under the table, I am free.
• • •
The twinkly eyed director of my children’s preschool often reminds parents not to drill their children on letters or numbers, but rather to trust play as the most powerful agent of learning. Her advice is supported by neuroscientists who have studied the positive effects of play and the abnormal brain development of children who grow up “play deprived.” The American Academy of Pediatrics even released a report last year urging pediatricians to encourage play by “prescribing” it.
Play as a nutritive elixir for the growing brain? My children get their daily dose, but this doesn’t mean I want to plant myself on the rug and drink it down with them.
When Louisa was six weeks old, I enrolled us in a class for mothers and newborns. A dozen of us sat in a circle with our tiny babies while Marla, our instructor, perched on an exercise ball and demonstrated her foolproof swaddling technique and her favorite brain-stimulating toys. We sang a song about a fire truck, bouncing our floppy newborns and turning their little fists as if they were steering. We sang “Open-Shut-Them,” clapping our hands three times on cue. We sang, Lord help me, “The Wheels on the Bus,” hoisting our startled babies “up and down, up and down” into the air. There was a sweet and novel delight to all of this at first. By week five, I sought on the faces of my fellow mothers some indication that they shared my boredom—some droop of the eyelid, some slump of the brow. Instead, what I saw were smiles. Broad, white, beatific smiles. Then, in a moment of strange and bewildering dislocation, I realized that I, too, was smiling while Louisa soared like an angel in my outstretched arms.
What, exactly, was going on in this little room?
As mothers, we understand there is a softness expected of us, a melting of our own hard needs into the liquid dream world of our children—like the mothers pictured in toy catalogs, blissfully building block towers. On playdates, at the playground, I’m a spy in jeans, searching for signs of revolt. This mother appears to love the meal of wooden apples her daughter has served her; that mother seems to relish being an alligator chomping her son. I can go through the motions, but the world is full of reminders this isn’t enough. In elevators, on street corners, veteran parents and grandparents lie in wait, their eyes shining with nostalgia. They remind me that it “goes so quickly,” that I should “enjoy every moment!” Time is slipping away!
But joyous engagement isn’t easily willed, and in my own secret moments of claustrophobia, I feel myself to be that worst of all female possibilities: an anti-mother, a shrew.
As I’ve moved further into motherhood, there have been small moments of relief from this feeling, moments like windows suddenly cracked open. Over the phone one evening, my friend Karen described how she and her husband alternate nightly between dishwashing and putting the kids to bed. “Dish night,” she told me, “is the good night!”—and I laughed the ecstatic laugh of recognition. Ellen, after surgery, texted, asking if it was “bad” that she wanted to stay at the hospital and get a longer break from her children. I dialed her number, shouted, “I love you so much!” and then, breathless with freedom, fessed up to my own longing.
How many mothers are at this very moment hiding under a table, dreading the patter of feet getting louder down the hall?
• • •
In her 1976 book Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich describes how becoming a mother impacted her sense of self. She recalls being a young wife in 1950s America, her husband and in-laws eager for the clear next step in their journey: children. “I had no idea of what I wanted. . . .” she writes. “I only knew that to have a child was to assume adult womanhood to the full, . . . to be ‘like other women.’” Rich describes the sensation, after becoming a mother, of being interrupted by one of her sons during an adult activity: “I would feel his wants . . . as an attempt moreover to defraud me of living even for fifteen minutes as myself. . . . I would feel the futility of any attempt to salvage myself, and also the inequality between us: my needs always balanced against those of a child, and always losing.”
This feeling Rich describes, a characteristic of what she calls “institutionalized motherhood,” resonates with me deeply, nearly fifty years later. It is historically situated in the demands society has placed on mothers for centuries: to choose self-sacrifice over self-fulfillment, maternal “instinct” over individual pursuit. I’d wager that, if anything, these demands have only increased. I rarely played as a child with my own mother, unless it was the occasional board game—Monopoly or Battleship. Instead, I ventured on long walks with the dog; I slipped a dollar in my pocket and strolled to the convenience store to buy Fun Dip. But in this era of heightened anxiety, gone are the days when children pedal off on their bikes until dinnertime or meet in neighborhood packs. Our children remain, clock tick to clock tick, under our watchful eyes, as close as shadows. And in their captivity, we, too, find ourselves captive, surrounded and bound by their sweet and relentless need.
• • •
Rich’s perspective is a comfort, but it’s strenuous to keep hoisting it up as the lens through which I experience motherhood.
One recent fall day, I picked up Louisa and Jeffrey from school, and we headed to the playground. They ate chocolate chip granola bars, and then Jeffrey brushed away crumbs and sprinted off to join friends. Louisa sat with me on the bench a little longer and then tapped my leg. “Race you to the basketball court, Mommy!”
I’d been running around all morning: a volunteer STEM project in Jeffrey’s classroom, then the grocery store, then a meeting with my graduate program advisor. “I don’t feel like racing, Lou,” I said.
“Please,” she said.
Her voice was a hook in my skin. What I wanted to do was sit there on the bench, leaves swirling at my feet while I disappeared into pages of Elizabeth Bishop, looking up occasionally to glimpse my children. I gave in and zipped my daughter back and forth on the zip line a few times, but when I stopped to return to the bench and Bishop, Louisa dropped to the ground and tugged at my hand. “Stay here!”
I looked at her. Her small freckled cheeks, the wisps of hair that had escaped from her ponytail, the dot of chocolate in the corner of her mouth—these and the million other tender threads between my firstborn child and my heart were no match, at that moment, for what seethed in me. “There are a gazillion children your age here,” I snapped. “This is why we come to a playground. I am not your playmate.”
She followed me back to the bench, where I pulled my book from my bag, my fingers fumbling to find my place. But the words were now impenetrable marks on a page, distorted by the wretched situation I’d created: my daughter’s sorrow and hurt; my own shame and anger. There are countless things I could have said in that moment to make things better. Instead, I hunkered down like a gargoyle, stewing in my failure.
That afternoon, I didn’t situate myself among millions of women trapped in a cultural bind. I didn’t wonder whether my anger toward Louisa might be misplaced rage against the impossible conditions of motherhood. I didn’t consider whether there was value in creating boundaries and encouraging play with peers. I simply wondered why I couldn’t be a better mother—and just how deeply my failings had wounded my children.
• • •
Where are the good mothers, the mothers I fall short of being? Sometimes, they appear on Instagram, making ice sculptures with their children on snow days. I picture them at sunny breakfast tables, teaching their daughters fractions with perfect serenity, or floating through farmer’s markets gathering nourishment. They live in an imagined realm that overlays my own true one—chimeras whose unreality makes them no less fearsome.
In the flesh, the good mothers I know look a little different. Karen, enjoying her dish night, is a wonderful mother. Ellen, in her hospital bed hideaway, is a wonderful mother. I’ve spent enough time with these women to know that they love their children fiercely and are doing their best to prepare them for the complexities of this world.
Perhaps I should afford myself the same grace. While I don’t always love playing with my children, I still feel connected to what is real and essential between us. And though play may be vital for children, doctors aren’t “prescribing” that parents take part. This fact, it seems to me, is also vital.
• • •
Last winter, the five of us visited my brother-in-law and his family for a weekend. David is creative and enterprising, constantly immersed in some new project. He’s a terrific father to his daughters and two stepsons—so much so that, in moments of parental uncertainty, I have wondered to myself, What would David do?
On this visit, something struck me. David doesn’t play with his children. Ever! There’s no stopping what he’s doing to bash together action figures, no brushing of plastic ponies’ tails. What there is, is this: effortless inclusion of the children in the activities of his day.
It helps that David’s activities tend to be absurdly fun, such as building a koi pond in the basement and using a power drill to peel apples. But the kids are right there with him, too, as he rakes leaves, gathering them into a little wagon. As he slices mangos, the children cluster at the counter, learning the feel of ripeness. David’s method of parenting is like an apprenticeship: do what you do, and the kids will follow. Anything can be fun—anything can even be play—when it is treated with an element of marvel.
I wonder, though, if parenting of this kind fits more comfortably with fatherhood than motherhood. A man, it feels to me, risks less in simply “doing what he does,” because for fathers, love doesn’t need to be authenticated with self-denial. When Paul leaves town—whether for work or a reunion getaway—no one questions his dedication to his children, least of all himself. He zips up his carry-on, kisses the children between milky cereal spoonfuls, and heads out the door. The times I’ve left home, I’ve departed bearing heaps of mental luggage: guilt over my eagerness for escape, worry about the optics of abandoning my family for a weekend with friends, anticipatory self-blame for whatever catastrophe awaits in my absence. I leave behind batches of pancakes and pages of lists, as if these offerings could save me from my angst.
That anxiety trickles down, intensifying the curious frenzy of middle-class family life. We funnel our quest for achievement down to our children, enroll them in math enrichment programs, encourage them early to specialize in a particular sport. Parents—and especially mothers, to whom the invisible labor of schedule-arranging and homework-checking often falls—have become their children’s resume-builders for the uncertain future they will inhabit. This part of the job steadily creeps its way into our everyday family interactions.
Take this most recent Saturday. The French toast had been devoured, the countertops cleaned, the refrigerator door opened and closed, and opened and closed, in its percussive staccato. Instead of sharing a moment of peace together, our kids hustled upstairs, our shouts trailing after them: Is your uniform on? Grab a pair of socks! We hurried to the car, to the field, to the birthday party. So many snacks produced from the tote bag, so many costume changes, so much rumpled clothing left behind in our wake. By afternoon, Paul and I felt equally rumpled—two weary stagehands stooping to clean up the mess.
Later, I stepped outside and found that our porch plants had died. I stared at them—stalks hanging, leaves curled sadly into themselves. I hadn’t found a moment all week to water them. While zooming back and forth to school, changing in and out of soccer cleats, packing backpacks for Hebrew school, our family had utterly failed in this most elemental gesture of care.
What would David do? He would skip the kindergarten picnic. He would call his kids outside and hand them watering cans. The spigot would squeak as it turned; the porch would creak underfoot; the water would pour in glimmering arcs, swirling above the soil and then sinking to the bottommost roots.
• • •
It’s been said that violinist Isaac Stern used to tell students, “Anyone can play the notes. The music is what goes on in between the notes.” For parents, life’s sheet music is long and dense, with tricky jumps and glissandos to move through. It’s easy to get caught up in the technical maneuvers, but where is the true music of any family?
• • •
I am all yours. . . . This time is just to play. What would you like to do? These are the words parenting expert Laura Markham suggests we use at the beginning of Special Time, a ten-minute period, ideally each day, that a parent devotes entirely to their child. No distraction, no responding to texts behind your thigh. In general, the child leads, and the parent follows, giving the gift of pure attention. This, according to Markham, tells a child that they are fully known, that they matter.
I learned about Special Time a few months ago, in a playgroup run by a beautiful woman named Cecilia, who shares parenting tips while the children are engaged at activity stations. As I helped Frances string macaroni onto a length of yarn, I listened to Cecilia explain Special Time, and I judged. I was a minority in the room—a third-time mother around mostly first-timers. Of course,all these newbies would jump on such an idea, I thought. As the other moms listened, with their fresh skin and shiny flats, I pulled my skepticism around me like a worn-in bomber jacket. Talk about contrived!
But later, as I rinsed dishes and kept one eye on Frances, pushing her tiny stroller around the room, it occurred to me there might be subtle liberation in the idea of Special Time. In acknowledging the importance of dedicated time for our children, don’t we also imply the importance of its inverse? Our own special time, where we return to knowing what feels too often lost: ourselves.
I turned off the sink and pulled a baby doll from the basket in the corner. Frances looked up gently, as if trying not to jostle the moment’s possibility, and then she pushed her stroller across the room to me. We fed the baby brownies and then brought her to the doctor with a tummy-ache. I was the mommy; Frances, the doctor.
“Will the baby be all right?” I asked.
Frances nodded solemnly. “Yes,” she said. “She’s going to be all right.”
I felt, suddenly, deeply and truly comforted.
• • •
Play is many things: imagination, negotiation, exploration, escape. But at its core—in its rhythm and subtle calibrations, its giving and receiving, its co-creation—play, I am realizing more and more, is love.
I’ve been seeing ways to include my children in my ownplay, and this is also love. Last week, I invited Louisa to join me on my morning run. We raced, breathing smoke, like dragons, in the crystal air. Later, I gave Jeffrey cookies and asked him to make up a poem with me: “Autumn is gold leaves and apple cider / Autumn is striped like a gigantic tiger.” (He told me he’d like to write more poems and put them in a little book. This, I told him, is a dream of mine as well.)
Still, play is just one form of love. I love my children in simple moments of being with them. Frances and I watch a squirrel leap from tree to telephone wire, its tail a burst of softness in the sky; Louisa and I walk home after school, and she tells me about the comic book she’s been writing; we’re all together on a Sunday morning, and there are markers on the table, clothes tumbling in the dryer, muffin crumbs on the counter, books on the floor.
I love my children when we move through our goodnight rituals. I hold Frances and sing her “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”; I snuggle up against Jeffrey’s back and stroke his hair; I lift Louisa’s window shade, and we tilt our faces toward the moon.
I love my children when I place onions in a pan for potato latkes or boil them cinnamon tea, drizzling in great spoonfuls of honey. I love them when we wander together along the aisles of the library, the paths of the park, the edge of the sea.
And I love them, too, when I sit alone. When I release myself to silence. When I say, This time is mine.