Like so many parents right now, I feel burned out, helpless, and worried about my 4-year-old. But I've found that ramping up make-believe play is creating a place to escape to for both of us.

By Amber Sparks
May 05, 2020
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Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

This morning, I am a dragon. A mommy dragon, to be exact, and my 4-year-old is my baby dragon, and we are guarding our under-the-blankets cave from interlopers and thieves. "We have to roast the treasure stealers with our fire breath," says my dragon daughter. I use my massive spiked tail to swat an approaching Elsa (I have learned there is an Elsa in every adventure)—those ice powers could be deadly for a fire-breathing dragon family.

I get a little too aggressive with my tail, and I knock over a math book, one of the things she's supposed to be working on for remote preschool. Instead of math and logic, we are increasingly disappearing into a world of pure fantasy. Some mornings, we are fairies in our leaf-and-flower-strewn houses; some mornings, we are mermaids lounging on beaches in shallow tide pools. Sometimes, we are evil queens, or good princesses, or ninjas, or astronauts, or ghosts. A few days ago we were broken robots, which sounds like a metaphor for surviving this pandemic, but really meant a lot of bumping into walls.

After our play, my husband makes coffee, and we have breakfast. Then, we begin our workday, and our daughter watches Sesame Street. She is in her second year of preschool, young enough that I don't worry much about her academic development. I watched soap operas with my mom instead of attending preschool, and I turned out OK-ish. I don't even worry about screen time—she's had asthma since she was tiny, and nothing kept her rooted for 30-minute breathing treatments except movies. She's been watching them since, and they've actually fueled her active imagination.

What I do worry about is that my daughter is lonely. She's an only child, but she's been in daycare since 3 months old, surrounded by other children. Now there is no more school, no more playdates. Now she is alone with two adults, neither of whom have any teaching experience. My husband is far better than I am at the lesson plan stuff. I am not a creative cook, or a craft wizard, or a whiz at games. I have no idea how to make science experiments at home. The only gift I have to give is the gift of escapism. During breaks from work, I find my brain needs the escape as much as she does, and we are off to sea in a boat bed.

I'm embarrassed to say I get really into these adventures—deeply into them by conjuring costumes, sketching sets, gathering props. Sometimes at night in bed, I think about how I could make a spaceship out of pillows, or fake a fairy sighting. I don't think my kid cares about details; she's clearly just happy to be played with and loved. So why am I agonizing over our mermaid names or which kind of ghost we are? (For the record, there are rage ghosts, happy ghosts, and boring ghosts.)

I am, of course, coping. And I think it seems to be working for both of us. I am filled with guilt over her—and filled with guilt over my privilege in working from home, unlike essential workers, many of whom are choosing to live apart from their own children. Like many parents, I feel burned out and helpless, unable to assert any firm control over my child's well-being. And so, I do the only thing I know, because I've spent a lifetime as a writer doing it: I create a fantasy world, and I take her with me. In these play worlds, I have control. I can show my daughter safety by saving her from the bad wizard, or help her develop self-confidence by defeating Medusa. And in Mermaidville, we hug each other, we laugh together, and nobody has to wear a mask or swim six feet apart.

And I think that's all I can do, in these uncertain times. I can't give assurances about the world we live in now. But I can create a world where happy endings are guaranteed for everyone—even evil queens and ghosts. And yes, even fiery dragon mother and daughters.

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