By Marya Markovich
I carried my coffee over to an empty table at a cafe, pulled the chair out, and muffled a shriek. There was a man underneath the table.
He grinned at me, a young, bearded dude. I heard a small, excited voice call out. “Daddy! I see you!”
Turns out I was in the middle of a hot game of hide-and-seek. Looking around, I could see that both parents were players, ducking (somewhat perilously) behind a display of wine bottles, scurrying around the wooden plank tables. The couple’s beverages sat, growing cold, next to a stack of picture books on their vacated table. I sipped my own piping hot coffee, waiting for my friend to arrive so we could enjoy an hour of conversation, glad that it wasn’t me who was called on to play.
I have been there. I have done that. My kids are teens now, but I was once their playmate, too. This is what we modern parents do. We get down on the floor and play with our offspring, anything from stuffed-animal veterinarian to Monopoly, in a way our parents only occasionally did with us.
How did we get to this point? When it’s completely ordinary for parents to bring their kids to a cafe and not only let the kids run around, but actually run around with them? Is it dysfunctional? Joyful memory-making? A little of both?
I can say one thing for certain. If I had to do it all over again, I would play with my kids a lot less often. Not because I think that all that play was bad for them. (Parenthetically, I’m also not certain that it wasn’t. For example, my teens never play board games without a parent, which seems weird to me.) But because all that play was bad for me. Feeling like I had to be their playmate made caring for young children less enjoyable. It made me feel overwhelmed and strung out. It made me wish away precious hours and days.
I spent endless hours building Lego towers. I dreamt up characters in make-believe games, in spite of a nagging feeling that this should be the kid’s job. (I’m just showing them how it’s done, I told myself. It will spark their creativity.) I painted with dribbly watercolors alongside them. I whizzed cars down ramps. Voiced stuffed animals in amusing tones. Dressed up dolls. Squatted and waddled while I dragged chalk across sidewalks.
During these play sessions I frequently felt resentful and bored (accompanied by a hefty dose of shame for feeling that way: what kind of person would resent time spent with her own offspring?) Worse, in spite of all my effort, I sometimes felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I felt lame that I couldn’t bring myself to engage in goofy, roughhousing play—tickles and swinging and fake monsters—which is the crack cocaine of amusement for little kids: pure fun.
My first wake-up call came from Sonia Sotomayor, of all people. She had just been confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, and I read an article about her childhood in the Bronx. It included a quote from her describing a happy memory of her mom and aunt chopping vegetables in the kitchen, which, she said, made her feel safe and loved. I was struck because I remember feeling guilty every time I turned my attention away from my toddler to make dinner. Yet here was a well-adjusted woman, as successful as they come, saying that she liked simply having her mom nearby, in the same space.
But it took years, and having a few more kids, before I truly dialed it back. So why did I feel such pressure to be a playmate? I blame generational creep. That is, we parents try to do things better for our kids than they were done for us. If we don’t like something our parents did, we avoid doing it with our own kids. If we remember liking something, we do more of it. In this way, each generation of parents becomes a little more child-centered.
When I was a kid, adults played with us once in a great while. It was awesome when they did. It was the kind of elusive extra-fun that you can never really make happen, but when it does, the feeling sticks with you and you want it again. My mom would occasionally sit down and play a board game with us. My best-neighborhood-friend’s dad played outdoor hide-and-seek with us a couple of times, on balmy Midwestern summer evenings. He took the game to a new level—literally—as he crept along the darkened garage roof in an effort to avoid us. We could never, ever find him, and that was the fun.
No wonder we want our own beloved children to have these kinds of memories. It’s easy to forget that maybe these experiences were so special precisely because they were so rare.
I suspect there are also other trends that are pushing today’s parents to be playmates. Back when parents weren’t looking at personal screens all the time, for both work and for leisure, it was easier for kids to join in or just happily observe what their parents were doing. My father-in-law was a woodworker and my husband loved to see his dad’s creations emerge; he’d also watch All My Children alongside his mom. My own mother wrote a lot of letters and I’d ask her for a piece of stationary, so I could write to someone, too, and the two of us worked companionably at the kitchen table. These weren’t kid-centered activities, but still counted as quality time. Today, time spent with kids often needs to be carved out. Many of us also raise kids without relatives nearby. I fantasized about living near a big extended family, my kids trailing after older cousins to play, instead of after me. And of course, parenting culture has a way of self-perpetuating: when we see parents playing hide and seek in a cafe, we feel inspired-slash-pressured to do the same.
In the fictional do-over of my parenting life, the default would not be playtime with mom; it would be playtime with self or siblings or friends. Not to go full-on retro, back to “we’re not your friends, we’re your parents,” because I think it’s possible to do both. I just would have set boundaries, right from the start, that would have made me feel more in control of my days.
And I really wish someone had explained to me that my instinct telling me to be my kids’ playmate needed recalibrating. That I could be a good mother, a great one, even a coffee-mug certified Best Mom in The World, without also being Most Fun Playmate. And that if I had played with my kids a lot less often, the memories of when I did might be more cherished by all of us.
Marya Markovich is a health care researcher and mother of three teens in the Midwest. She is much more fun than this article makes her sound.
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