Wrestling with the mother vs. playmate dilemma.
Published: December 27, 2019
By: Pam Moore
“Mama, can you please play with me?”
My 3-year-old daughter tends to approach me at the worst times. I’m prepping dinner, my hands moist with raw chicken juice. Or I’m emptying her sister’s poopy diaper into the toilet. Or I’m finally tackling my pile of papers — bills to pay, insurance papers to file and postcards reminding me of last month’s sales and events.
“I can’t right now.”
“It’s not a good time.”
“I just need to make a phone call first.”
“Hang on while I put away the last of the laundry.”
“Let me just finish unloading the dishwasher.”
By the time my task is done, my daughter has moved on. It might be five minutes or 25 minutes later when I look up and realize we never got around to playing together. While she is busy creating a fort or working on a Hello Kitty puzzle, I breathe a secret sigh of relief. She forgot. I can attend to the next thing on my list or a text message or Facebook.
Almost immediately, my relief is replaced with guilt. A heaviness creeps into my heart as I ask myself what kind of mother prioritizes a text message, or worse (much worse), the Facebook updates of friends and random acquaintances over her young child’s wish to play. She even said “please.”
At 3, my daughter is so small, her blond hair baby fine, with crazy, wispy curls no brush can control, giving it the look of a lion’s mane. Her brown eyes — the same penetrating eyes I fell in love with the first moment I saw them — look up at me intently, waiting. She doesn’t seem to care that I rarely say yes. This child of mine does not hold a grudge, unlike her mama. Every time I apologize for losing my temper and she replies, “It’s OK. I forgive you,” my heart breaks a little bit with the sweetness of it.
I tell myself not to feel guilty. That it’s my job to be her mother, not her playmate. My mom hardly ever played with me and I turned out just fine. Didn’t I? I recall my memories of my mom when I was my eldest daughter’s age. She was there to fix meals and snacks, to kiss boo-boos, to turn on the record player so I could enjoy my Listen and Look books. She wrapped me in a hooded towel after my bath. She said my prayers with me and kissed me goodnight every night. She invited me into her bed when I had a bad dream. She was there for me in every way I needed her to be.
Though I wished she’d play with me, I never expected her to. It wasn’t that she was especially serious or strict. She just had a lot of things to do and playing wasn’t one of them.
She was a Stay at Home Mom and she was always busy. She had a long to-do list, written in her unique, looping mixture of print and cursive on a scrap piece of paper. On the list were things like paying bills, calling the electrician, being home for the plumber, ordering new checks, scheduling doctors’ appointments, signing us up for swimming lessons, and all of the other myriad tasks that are essentially invisible — provided someone does them. Tasks I couldn’t appreciate until I became a mother myself and carried the weight of my own never-ending list of invisible tasks.
When I asked her to play, my mother reminded me of the kitchen drawer brimming with colored pencils, crayons and paper. She’d suggest I play with my beloved Barbies or my dollhouse. Sometimes she sent me to the family room with a wooden salad bowl of carrot sticks she’d peeled and sliced into perfect, slim rectangles, to watch Sesame Street.
Perhaps it was because my mom so rarely played with me that I have such vivid memories of the times that she did. Specifically, I remember raucous rounds of The Color Game. In my mind’s eye, I see the pink-patterned love seat and the Oriental rug that decorated my parents’ living room, where we usually played.
Here’s how you play The Color Game: The grownup lies on her back with her knees bent and her feet on the floor. The child sits atop the grown-up’s knees. With the child gazing down at the grown-up’s face (for a welcome change), the child guesses what color the adult is thinking of. When the correct color is named, the grown-up relaxes her legs and the child collapses.
Though it’s not a formal rule, both parties experience a sudden wave of joy when the child guesses the right color. That joy gives way to laughter as the child descends and hits the soft crash pad of the grown-up’s body. At this point, it is impossible for the grown-up’s mind to wander back to her to-do list. She is fully engaged in the game. My daughter loves The Color Game. I do, too.
Sometimes I wonder what my daughter will remember of her childhood. Will she remember her tired, stressed-out mom, always pushing off her requests to some later time that never came? Will she remember the rare times when I got on the floor and entered her world? Will she know that when I was lying on my back, thinking of the color red, that I forgot about my list and was fully present with her?
If she remembers the giggles and connection we share when we play The Color Game, or the times I adopt a falsetto voice for her stuffed purple pegasus, or twirl her around the kitchen during an impromptu dance party, that would all be gravy.
Because I’m not sure if any of that is nearly as important as this: No matter what she does or doesn’t remember about her childhood, I want her to hold a memory of being fiercely loved by her mother. Can she feel loved, even if I don’t engage in the recommended 20 minutes per day of play? I think so.
I know I did.