By all counts, I am not the fun parent.
I am a disciplinarian, a scheduler, and a reluctant and often late chauffeur. I offer my children willingly to the doctor for vaccines. I cook them green beans, to their great chagrin. I enforce naps and clean-ups and much-dreaded potty breaks. I change diapers as if wrestling an alligator. I listen to endless knock-knock jokes that are not actually knock-knock jokes, and sometimes I forget to force a laugh. I tamp down requests to play in favor of cooking dinner, writing, or flipping laundry. And I have, on more than one occasion, responded to my oldest with the saddest of parental replies: I’m too tired.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t have my moments, because of course I do. But my parenting mode is quiet and slow, focused on comfort and peppered with all the strains and responsibilities that come with a primary caregiving role. So, it is no small miracle, in my book, that my kids often prefer me to their dad — a man who busts through the door after work like the Koolaid Man, kicking up a storm of little girl squeals and giggles as he goes.
I love that my husband can turn a sleepy house into a raucous party in two minutes flat. I admire his playfulness; his silly sense of whimsy, and his infectious curiosity. I love that he can craft a child-friendly adventure that keeps my kids excited and engaged all day. I don’t, by any means, want to detract from that. He is Super Dad and my girls are lucky beyond measure.
But when my kids beg for me to read the bedtime story, I think it’s their way of sensing potential in me. Through each request for mom, I feel they are urging me to do better, to want better. And when I see them tackling their dad on the living room floor, everyone rosy-cheeked with laughter, I can’t help but want a part of that too — dishes, doctor’s visits, and deadlines be damned.
I want them to look back at their childhood and remember me as the one who created fun, instead of always policing it. So to this end, I’ve made myself a list of intentions, all in an effort to infuse my parenting with a sense of playfulness and adventure it is so often missing. Here’s my plan:
Confession time: My 15-month-old took a lightening-fast nap. Now, she sits at my side as I write, snug in a little nest of pillows and blankets and devouring a stack of books. Every few minutes, she blows me a kiss and then we go back to our business. This is OK, of course. By any measure, it’s amazing actually. I have to get things done and she can play independently. But I want to be careful that half-attention doesn’t fuel my parenting.
I rarely work when my youngest is awake. Sometimes I do when my oldest is home, but I’d like to carve out more distraction-free time when my cell phone is put away and my computer is closed. I can find 15- or 30-minute pockets throughout the day to focus on nothing else but the baby and a stack of good picture books. I can certainly be present and devote my all to my kindergartener and still have time for work and everything else that awaits me. It’s just going to take some planning.
How many times throughout the day do we, as parents, say “no, not now,” or “maybe later”? I’ve felt that pang in my gut telling a deflated kid I don’t have time to play. I hate it, and I’m sure you do too. That’s why I’m committing myself to a day every now and then of simply saying yes. Yes, I can go for a bike ride. Yes, I can play Candyland. Yes, I will jump in the leaves with you. So what if saying yes means we all have oatmeal for dinner?
Every kid is a messy artist at heart, I’m convinced. I know that if I can set up a makeshift art studio at the kitchen table, my 5-year-old will be engaged for an afternoon. The difference now? I’d like to join her. Maybe I can’t devote an afternoon to paint alongside my mini Picasso, but I can give her an hour of the baby’s nap time when it’s just the two of us and a pile of paint brushes between us.
The best days with my kids are the unplanned ones when I can pick my kiddo up from school and let her decide the course of the afternoon. Do we drive across the city to hit up our favorite comic shop? Do we hop on our bikes and spring for after school ice cream? Realistically, I know I can’t always follow my little ones’ whims. But more often than not, I can embrace flexibility and in doing so, embark on an exciting and unexpected adventure my kids will remember.
I don’t need to shirk every responsibility I have in order to embrace the more playful side of parenting. I can press pause on my to-do list for an impromptu dance party with the baby, who can’t resist shaking her butt to a Magnetic Fields song. I can abandon my breakfast for a quick game of animal rummy with my kindergartner. There are a million little ways to inject tiny moments of fun throughout the day, and I intend to find more of them.