One of the biggest sources of anxiety for me when Caterpillar was first born was that I wasn’t really enjoying being a mum. I’ve talked before about how this realisation/question literally shattered my brain and sparked anxiety that resulted in a diagnosis of PND. A fairly small thing but it had an enormous impact.
And a big part of this – and something that continues to make me question myself is – do I enjoy playing with my child?
I’ve always loved children, I’ve always longed to have children. I loved cuddling newborns, looking at tiny feet and miniature outfits. I’ve always found young kids and their antics hilarious. But, in all honestly, I’ve never been great at playing with them. I’ve never been the first adult rolling around on the floor playing pretend or building towers from blocks. I’ve never felt particularly natural interacting with other people’s very young kids, I’ve always felt a little awkward. Which is odd because I’m definitely not an introvert, I was apparently extremely loud and boisterous as a child myself and I have a very vivid imagination – often thinking up stories and writing. So why was I never able to translate that imagination into playing pretend with my friends’ kids?
I never thought much about it though and it didn’t discourage me because I assumed with my own children everything would be different.
Caterpillar arrived and I found the newborn stage extremely difficult. I will never know if that was simply because of me or due to my illness but I suspect a bit of both. As I got better I found being a mum easier of course, but I still worried about whether I was any good at playing. I’d expected to want to play with my child more than I would want to do anything else in the world, so when I realised that there were plenty of things I’d rather be doing (watching TV, having a conversation with another adult, sleeping etc) I found this so upsetting. Why did I want anything more from life than just enjoying playing with my baby? The guilt was horrible, and still lingers to a certain extent.
Slowly, I began to find a few things I did like to do, singing being the main one. Singing nursery rhymes to Caterpillar and watching for his reaction became a great bonding activity for us. And reading to him; watching his love of books grow made my heart swell. Finding these two things that I did enjoy, and that I didn’t feel awkward doing, was a huge relief.
As he has grown the need for play and interaction has grown too – and with it my insecurities. I suck at pretending, I’m terrible with cars and trucks. I have literally no idea what to build from a box of Lego (although if I have instructions to follow I love it). I’m not very good at puzzles. If I have to pretend to be a monster or a dinosaur or a witch I feel awkward, especially if other children or – worse – other adults are there, and especially when so many of the adults I know are such naturals at this.
Oddly, I love toys. Adore them. Planning Caterpillar’s Christmas and birthday presents brings me so much happiness. I think because if there is a toy then it’s a focus for our play. I don’t have to be too silly and whacky.
I’ll confess, I get bored. I know I’m not meant to say that and just typing the words makes me flinch with shame but it’s the truth. Sometimes playing is boring. If we are at a gathering with other adults and their kids I’m ecstatic as Caterpillar has other children to play with, and other adults around who are much better at being silly than I am. He is occupied and I can drink a glass of wine and chat about adult things. Does everyone feel this way to some degree? For so long I wondered if it was just me.
These thoughts worried me for such a long time. Until I wrote a list – a list of all the things I do love doing with my son:
- Building Lego (to the letter of the instruction)
- Playing pretend shops or cooking
- Talking to him, teaching him about the world
- And my absolute favourite – watching him. Watching Caterpillar entertain himself, get lost in his own imagination, completely without my assistance, makes me happier than anything else. Watching him learn something new fills me with pride and happiness.
And you know what? That’s actually a pretty big list. Bigger probably than the things I don’t enjoy. And that list began to stave off the useless guilt and residual anxiety.
Of course, even the things on the list have a very short lifespan for me, before I start craving adult time. A shorter span than many I suspect, but I try not to let that consume me. After all, what is the obsession with constantly playing with your children these days? Aside from family days out and special occasions I struggle to remember a time in my own childhood where my parents sat and dedicated several collective hours to playing with my brother and I, and everyone else I’ve spoken to of my generation says the same. Kids in the 80s and earlier were simply expected to entertain themselves and why is that a bad thing? My parents are fantastic.
Ultimately, what I’ve learnt is to be happy you should focus on doing the things you love to do with your children – whether that be singing, reading, crafting, building or pretending to be a lion – and let go of the guilt you feel about anything you don’t enjoy. It seems they develop their own imagination and playing style regardless of your input anyway, if my son is anything to go by.
Also, everyone is suited to different stages of development. As my son’s language has developed I find that having simple chats with him and teaching him about the world around him, in a fairly adult way I guess – brings so much enjoyment to me. It makes me think I’ll be a much more confident parent to an older child than to a baby or a toddler. Maybe that’s my niche.
Or maybe I’m doing okay right now, just as I am.
What type of player are you? Does make believe come natural? What have you found tricky about interacting with your children?
This post was originally written for The Huffington Post, please feel free to follow me over there by clicking here.