I played pretend with E this afternoon. It was agonizing.
In case you’ve forgotten, I do not like playing make-believe with my kids. I’ll happily jam on musical instruments, play a board game or a party game, play cards… that’s all good. But playing “house” or “school” or “family”? No, thank you.
I understand that kids learn through play, and that they use play to rehearse scenarios they encounter in their life. When my kids play (which they do, often) I hear them learning to negotiate roles, establish common assumptions, and take turns leading and following. It makes me unspeakably happy to hear them playing made-up games with each other. I just don’t want any part in it.
Anytime I hear them playing “family” and R (always the mom) tells the others to clean their rooms, I think, “Why is this happening in imaginary play? They have real rooms that really need to be cleaned!” One time many years ago K came up to me and said, “Eema, let’s play pretend. Let’s pretend you’re my mom, and I’m your daughter.” I stared at her blankly for a moment, blinked, and said rather obtusely, “But I am your mom, and you are my daughter. Why are we pretending?” She left me for an easier quarry: her dad.
Mr. December is great at playing with the kids. He’ll pretend to be anything or anyone. He really gets into the game and he can play for an hour, no problem. He got that ability from his parents, both of whom are amazing at playing with the kids. My mother-in-law will sit with them for hours while they play Barbies. Me? I’m crawling out of my skin after five minutes.
And yet some days I feel guilty saying no to an invitation to play. They’re inviting me into their world, right? I should show an interest, right? That line of thinking is what got me playing “house and store” with E.
First we shopped for fabric food and miniature housewares. E was running the cash and actually calculated my change from $10 (I owed $6, she gave me back $4) with ease. That part was cool. Then she said, “Okay, now I’m the mom again and we’re going home,” and I obligingly followed her into her little house under the stairs. That’s where I was when I really started wanting out. I just couldn’t feign interest anymore—so I feigned a nap instead.
“Mom?” I asked her in my best imaginary-kid voice, “I don’t feel so good. Can I lie down in bed while you cook dinner?”
“Of course, honey. Maybe I should check you out.” She ran for her doctor-themed Kiwi crate and used her homemade stethoscope to make sure I was okay. Then, with her blessing, I cozied up on a mat in the corner of her playhouse and closed my eyes… and fell asleep. For real.
I vaguely remember her talking to me. At one point she had to go back to the “store” and she brought in a giant elephant stuffie to babysit me. Then Mr. December came in and laughed at me. I cared not at all. I was having a delicious nap and was still earning brownie points with my six-year-old for being part of her game.
It’s not the most brilliant parenting hack, but this might just get me through the rest of the “playing pretend” years with my sanity intact. I still plan to decline invitations to play most of the time, but on the rare occasion where I feel I really ought to join them, I now know that I can take on the role of the sick or tired child… or a tree that got chopped down and is lying on the forest floor… or the dead body in a murder mystery… or the doctor’s secretary who is glued to Facebook instead of attending to patients… or I could just play the mom who hates playing pretend. Problem solved.