One day I was putting away some clothes in my kids’ room when I overheard my daughter, Esme, who was 5 at the time, playing “family” with her best friend, Asha. As usual, Esme was playing the big sister; her friend was the mom. (Sometimes, my then-2-year-old son, Roman, was enlisted as the little brother.) The girls were wrapping baby dolls in blankets when Asha asked Esme why she never wanted to play the mom. My ears pricked up. “Being the mom is too much work,” Esme said. “You have to cook and pick up all the time."
I might not have made much of her comment if it didn’t echo something she’d said a few nights earlier. I was trying to put dinner on the table before I had to rush off to my monthly board meeting at the preschool. It was a cold, rainy afternoon, and my husband was working late, but I’d managed to keep the two kids entertained by pulling out the easel and setting up paper and paints. I was juggling sauté pans of broccoli rabe and breaded chicken and Esme very much wanted my attention—to taste her Play-Doh pizza or play Candy Land—and I held her at bay, explaining that I had to make dinner. She announced that I wasn’t any fun. I gestured with my wooden spoon at the still-wet masterpieces hanging from the wall. “What did you just spend the last hour doing? Wasn’t the painting fun?”
“Yeah, but you just put that stuff out. You didn’t paint with us.”
That was true, because I had been unpacking groceries so I could start cooking. Esme cocked her head and observed me neutrally, as if she was preparing to draw my portrait. “You like to talk—about our feelings or how to be a good friend—but you don’t like to play really.”
“I play,” I protested.
“No, Daddy plays the runaround game with us. But you don’t.” Roman had wandered over, wanting to get his fingers in there too. “Mommy don’t play…”
“I do like to play,” I said, struggling not to sound defensive. “But mommies also have to cook and clean up, so I don’t always have time.”
Esme nodded, but I could see that she was unconvinced. My husband helped around the house, perhaps more than most. Our deal was if I cooked dinner, he did dishes. Most nights, he managed to get the kitchen cleaned up, with my help, and still have time to engage the kids in a game of chase and a tickle war before giving them a bath. On the rare nights that I gave the bath, there was no runaround game first—I instead tidied bedrooms and put away the day’s laundry.
My daughter’s verdict stung because I always imagined I’d be a fun parent. My father had roughhoused with my brother and me when we were little, and we loved it. Before I became a mom, I used some of his tricks on my friends’ kids—giving them airplane rides on my outstretched legs or tossing them over my shoulder and down my back to catch them by their ankles at the last minute and swing them to the ground. I asked silly questions, stole their noses, and made up rhymes when we were parting ways: Bye for now, Brown Cow. See you soon, Baboon.
But I didn’t anticipate when having my own kids how much of my time (and playfulness) would be eaten away by taskmastering—keeping everyone moving through breakfast and getting dressed so we got to school on time, making sure they ate a balanced dinner, imploring them to put away their toys, to share their toys, and to please not touch that because it’s not a toy. My tone often gets impatient, beleaguered: I frequently threaten to count to five. Of course, I also hand out kisses for pinched fingers or banged knees, answer questions about how to spell ZhuZhu Pets and the difference between deciduous and conifer. I get them to talk about their day—whom my daughter played with, the song my son learned. We read books together and cuddle, and have amazing conversations about where people go when they die, how bodies fight off germs, and whether we would prefer to be invisible or fly.
Nevertheless, I wondered and worried whether these moments were overshadowed by those other more defining ones, that my daughter might end up not wanting to become a mother because the role seemed to turn interesting, dynamic women into hectoring nags.
In the households of many of my friends, the role of timekeeper and rule enforcer similarly defaults to moms, but they don’t seem to be at their wits’ end all the time like I do. Some of my aggrieved tone comes from an unwillingness to accept things as they are, as if my constant complaints might actually make the kids start getting dressed on their own or my husband get them into the bath on time. But Esme’s description of me echoed my mother’s familiar sighs and slumped shoulders. My father, who was 17 years older than she, was raised in a traditional, premodern household. That he was willing to play with us and bathe us was considered a bonus; there was no expectation of him sharing the responsibility of meal prep or housework, even when my mom worked full-time. I have numerous memories of trying to tell my mother some involved (and maybe trivial) story of my day, only to realize that she wasn’t listening.
I can certainly relate to the desire after a long day to zone out, but I still recall how wounded I felt in those moments by what I perceived as my mother’s lack of interest. While her beleaguerment didn’t prevent me from wanting to be a mom, perhaps I didn’t learn to balance the work with a spirit of play.
I decided to launch a campaign to be more fun—inventing a new pre-bath ritual where I sit on the bed with my eyes closed groping in the dark as my kids try to dart past me. I taught Esme to play “Go fish” and set up the train tracks with my 2-year-old, cheerfully building a railroad line to nowhere, following his lead. The three of us perched under blankets draped over chairs in the living room, pretending to hide from witches zooming through the house.
Not surprisingly, being more fun entails having more fun, too, a process that can feed on itself and gain momentum. It’s possible, I’ve realized, to make a game of getting dressed in the morning so quickly that there’s time before school for a quick round of Candy Land. The reflex to say no persists—since, truth be told, Candy Land wears thin by the hundredth time—but the reward of my kids’ cooperation is worth it.
Not only does motherhood not have to mean martyrdom, but it’s even possible to feel a little maternal pride in sacrificing for my children. When handing over my own piece of chicken at the dinner table, since my kids were suddenly starving, I found myself thinking, “This is what moms do,” and feeling good about it. I am still getting used to the idea of having to work at being fun, that this aspect of parenting doesn’t necessarily stem from the intuitive part of me. Or perhaps it does, but when I was taking care of all the adult responsibilities, the child in me had been temporarily forgotten.