Candyland and Chutes and Ladders don’t do it for me anymore. They probably never did, even as a kid, but there’s some ego message or defense mechanism in me that says at one time I was amused by gaming and had a slight competitive need to win at something.
Now I watch games with a self-righteous, somewhat removed sense that I’m doing some good for my family, only they don’t know it yet. They will appreciate my forced union sometime in the future, in an undetermined amount of time when our “time spent together” will offer some obscure payoff. I sustain this thought because Thursday in my household is “Game Night.” No one asked for it; no one even wants it. Probably it will go away soon because I don’t really want it, I think I should do it. That kind of fake out can only last so long.
As a mother I came to new conclusions about my skills, interests and actual ability to pretend. I re-designed my identity. Motherhood does that it gives a sense of yourself or rips it all to shreds. About 3 years ago when hiding behind false giggles and smiles didn’t work to bring me a sense of inner peace, and when my child was old enough to handle the truth; I told her. She now knows what I know, that I mostly don’t like “to play” but will; because I love being with her, that part is authentic.
I’m lazy about playing if I can get away with it. When kids are young, under five, you can’t get away with an obvious display of boredom, they take it personally. My problem is that working up joy by pushing around board pieces feels like trying to love the taste of water. Everyone assures me the more I drink, the more I’ll crave the rich taste of nothing. Eight years later however, and I’m still waiting to love the taste of nothing that water offers and trying to get jazzed with each round of dice throws.
I could have fallen for Maternal Myth #236, “Playing games with your child makes you feel young and free,” but once my daughter turned 5 and morphed into an age more becoming, she revealed through her normal-ness, that although I wasn’t on the floor playing Winnie the Pooh’s Memory Game every day, she wasn’t headed for self-loathing, plummeting grades, or an inclination to start small fires. Five was a fine age because I received stronger evidence by way of my daughter’s school and friends, that she was moving in forward directions, despite how I avoided long hours of play. As a reward for my good work, I acted nicer to my inner-mother. I eased up on my flaws because I knew parenting by two decent people might smooth out our inevitable screw ups.
Most parents have fail-safes against complete failure. At any given moment my husband and I enjoy pointing out each other’s missing parental DNA and promptly fill in the holes to spare our daughter undue misery. For example, where I go into a psychotic rage after 98 polite requests of any kind, my spouse generally remains calm. Yet he’s the one who slurps up his cereal while his elbows are planted on the table, bobbing his head deeper into the bowl at just the right angle for adequate Sports page viewing. Essentially he and I offer each other helpful correction techniques so our child can at least break even as she begins to model our behavior.
And where I lack exuberance for games or throwing a ball for more than five minutes, I have great passion for guiding my daughter through life’s currents. I also possess a skill my husband does not. I recite in Seuss-like meter, childish words that rhyme with bodily emissions and parts. Although this is an oddly perverse habit, these taboo-light phrases seem to glide off my tongue. They’ve become the cornerstones to my best limericks and I reserve them exclusively for my family, or my daughter’s friends wouldn’t be allowed back. My new favorite is Sasha Baron Cohen’s use of the word “vagine” from the movie Borat (pronounced va-gene), a term used to represent the wildly popular, and recently outed vagina.
My immature phraseology wouldn’t necessarily earn my daughter a class de-merit unless she was being repetitive for effect, but these words are considered socially undesirable if one is to become a little lady. Being a little lady, despite efforts by feminists to end gender stifling, is like the modern tummy tuck girdle, you’re relieved you can finally choose to appear pulled in and uniform, but you secretly yearn to heave out and let the fat go. Queens and Princesses miss great moments in comedic release by being restricted to only proper statements and restrictive clothing.
At 42 I probably shouldn’t erupt into laughter and egg on my 9 year old who needs no further foul mouth fuel. Yet my daughter’s nonsensical forbidden words, permitted only among her parents, amounts to great verbal creativity. She can in a matter of moments, describe the most grotesque and wonderful scenes, a talent any parent should embrace,
“Hey Mom, what if Dad, and the dog, and the cat, and the hamster, and you peed, pooped and threw up, and then someone walked in and slipped on it?” she asks, convinced she topped herself.
This is a prime example of what little girls “mustn’t say,” and boys probably “will” but “shouldn’t.” Yet these stream of consciousness sessions are ideal parent-child bonding agents in a world where children are compared and contrasted for how quickly they can master pooping, walking or graduating. Children are allowed to whine for more expensive toys than their parents have, but are scolded for saying “diarrhea-head” in mixed company. There needs to be a new tipping point with our entertainment, back to the simple days of foolish banter.
One of my discordant natural talents is that I’m disgusted by verbal pretense, but I demand good manners in every situation. I’m parentally bi-polar I suppose, firm and rule-setting, a self-righteous Golden Ruler who then takes poetic license with rated G potty lines. And while my emotional immaturity leaves no visible scars, it borders on pathological. Years back my favorite local children’s story-teller earned my admiration because he occasionally read books of great literary importance to his circle of admiring pre-schoolers.
These were classic morality tales of how Ryan wasn’t the always the smartest kid, but he was special too because he could make a bug sandwich and produce musical tones with his farts. The primal eruption of laughter from the kids amused most of the parents, others just smiled nervously and sought loftier reading venues. My unexpected gift to my daughter is I happen to wickedly enjoy any litmus test that divides people into those who will say “vagine” and “whores devores”, and those who crinkle their noses and shout, “it’s VAGINA and HORS D’OUEVRES, idiot.”
At some point I learned to lean on my oddities as long as they advanced the cause of my daughter or neutralized my horrible traits. PMS rage for example, must be girdled and tamed, childish talk must be wild and free. My natural parental talents do however, extend beyond my ability to find words that rhyme with “wiener-dog.” I’m also your standard guidance counselor, ethics professor, mediator and handler of most teaching moments including: God, nature, nutrition/health, human/animal behavior, reasons-for-being, life, death, global warming (or not), Pluto’s demise, the reason Brittany shaved her head, “Why?” and how to end mankind’s suffering.
My husband is completely able-minded. It’s just that I’m willing to analyze what little I understand, to re-assemble big ideas to fit my limited knowledge and spew out thoughts to make me sound like the Great Thinker in the family. This is one of the many benefits I found to not being the primary player in the family. I’m simply too busy being introspective to play four square for more than five minutes.
Moreover, while my husband explains the physics and strategies of tennis, or he sets up another round of Clue, I get to quietly untangle my childhood-soaked neuroses through my daughter. This is because it’s assumed mothers have the main responsibility to shield girls from body-image dysphoria and self-loathing. Yet men, not women, seem to have greater issue with “the ugly, fat chick standing in the corner,” so they need to straighten out the body image epidemic too. In order for me to at least appear to be a self-actualized role model, I must first triumph over my 42 year old, slightly downward pointing breasts, and sign a peace accord with my stretch-marked abdominal skin shelf — an area that hangs despite exercising five days a week. My body clearly mocks my efforts to tone my abs, as if to say, “Nice effort lady, but give it up to the surgeon. It ain’t happenin.”
As I become more comfortable in my skin and fine tune my psyche after 20 years of getting my bio-chemistry, neuro-chemistry, and spiritual chemistry to all relate, my nine year old suddenly rips back the curtain to expose me for the fraud I am. She regularly begs me to jump on the Giant Publix Supermarket scale and she has to wonder why I walk away like Alice in Wonderland chanting, “I’m Late, I’m Late For a Very Important Date!” as I weave around the little old lady on her motorized scooter. This can’t line up in my daughter’s mind, that the same mother who claims, “I’m just happy to be healthy.
My fat stomach is just part of who I am,” also shies away from the Big Scale. But I’m adept at skirting these Falls From Grace so I can avoid falling off the pedestal she so wrongly puts me on. It’s not that I expect her to see me as unmarred, I tell her all my flaws, but nine years, going on self concious ten. is no time to unveil my parental hypocrisy. So I get the job of pretend body image consultant with our daughter. As she begins to come into her own self-conscious skin, I pull out of mine. The timing is flawless.
My husband and I have numerous tacit Fair Trade agreements in parenting. He’s the main player, and I’m charged with discussing Sexuality. In other words, he hits the balls while I talk about them. I’ve experienced however, diminishing returns from my immature verbal blatherings, because what was once considered hysterical, is now material for my daughter to mock my delivery and correct my grammar. I have age and teachers to thank for that. My captive audience suddenly shrunk to one.
But when it comes to giving The Talks, even I, the embarrass-proof aficionado, stumble. I find it slightly unnerving to cough up anatomically correct explanations with a straight face. I can’t hide behind humor if I want my child to go the righteous path of body self-acceptance. It’s just that saying the proper word is like chatting with your 80 year old grandmother over tea, “Yes, I was out last night Grandma. Well, if you must know; I saw the Vagina Monologues, yes, the VAGINA Monologues. Well it’s about feeling empowered about your body by saying the words outloud so they lose their mystery and shame. Oh never mind.”
Despite my aptitude for discussing uncomfortable weighty matters, this doesn’t always get me out playing games with my daughter. There’s a requisite amount of playing necessary to at least qualify as an involved and reasonably nice parent. And I have learned to enjoy word games, doodling and even cards. When I was young I played cards with my mother and grandmother at our glass dining room table. Between the pretzels and the Ginger Ale, we’d deal fast rounds of Crazy Eights or Gin Rummy. The rules in basic card playing, unlike many board games, are pretty straight-forward, not written on a long piece of paper with seventy-five exceptions of “if you have four players and land on the square red box after your player to the left rolls….” With cards you get the basic gist and move along nicely with pleasant table chatter. Play Chutes and Ladders and twenty minutes and six places from the finish line, you slide all the way back to the beginning. There’s absolutely no satisfaction with anything that makes you slide back to the beginning.
Over the years I wondered about my lack of zeal for lost afternoons on the floor playing with my daughter. I pictured friends telling me, “Oh, I just forgot about the laundry and the report I needed to finish. My son and I played cars and Legos for hours until I suddenly realized how late it was!” Yet even before the Truth in Motherhood era came around I realized this notion was a mirage, another plastic picture in motherhood.
But it took a while to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t cut out to be a big player.. I figured I’d eventually grow into enjoying games once my daughter gravitated towards those closer to my level. Monopoly does in fact, have more intrigue and strategic nuances than Elmo’s Memory Game. My obsession for “how much frivolity is enough?” started pretty early. I once asked my pediatrician, “How long should I play with my daughter?” Fortunately Dr. Smith was a kind, gentle Mr. Rogers-look-a-like who was abundantly charitable with analytical first-time mothers,
“Mrs. Owens,” he quietly reassured, “Don’t worry. Four week old babies really don’t need a whole lot of entertaining, just go with what feels right.”
But I was already in the iron clad clutches of an Orwellian-like robo-baby program that centered around an Eat-Sleep-Play rotation. Manipulating my 4 week old baby’s eating habits felt like a scene from Clockwork Orange, so I avoided the food command. Apparently however, re-setting my baby’s sleep schedule and getting her to “play at a certain time” was dead on. My selective parenting was a survival tactic to conquer what felt like insurmountable unpredictability. It was fine that my daughter pooped and ate whenever she felt like it, but I’d be damned if she was going to wake me up at night just because she could.
But I only felt the full weight of play-guilt when my daughter was too young to gracefully accept excuses. I assumed my explanations of “Honey, Mommy’s tired” went directly into her evolving, neuron-firing brain and came out as a negative algebraic sum: giver-of-life-won’t-play-with-me + apathy = she-doesn’t-love-me and I-am-unworthy. Toddlers have zero humor when you try to pawn them off. Combined with the shrill force behind their protests and I believed if I didn’t play with my daughter “enough,” I was chipping away at some finite supply of resilience and self-esteem.
A certain amount of sucking up the play dullness is always a prerequisite for adequate parenting. However, once children are old enough to accept “Honey it’s not you, it’s just that Candyland bores the crap out of me,” they’ll find your insistence of “I’m not good at that game, play with Dad; now he’s really fun,” amusing and altogether unconvincing, especially if it comes from a woman who recites potty talk like it’s Thoreau.
Motherhood has endless jelly-like rules for how much of everything is adequate. Less is more, more is less. What to play with your children, and how often is no exception. But I don’t believe you have to be a big player, only play-ful. The fail safe options to amuse and dazzle your children with your natural talents, while you avoid playing Candyland, are out there, if only you believe. Parents often unaware, generally manage to cover all the bases for their children by leaning into rather than away from, their useful inclinations and eccentricities. Throw out one big artificial fart, and your child will quickly forget all about the Hi Ho Cherry game you quietly pushed way back underneath the couch, lost among the dust, never to be seen again.