When my first child was about six months old, she started to spend a lot more time playing, trying to roll and crawl. She was adorable. I loved her infinitely.
I did not love playing with all of the rattles and various infant toys. In fact, sitting with her, playing with her, it was not my favorite – at all. I was, of course, guilt-ridden by this. How awful is it to NOT want to play with your child? I reasoned that it was because she was so small. I mean, rattles are only so enchanting to adults.
Maybe that was all it was.
I didn’t have much time to figure it out, because we proceeded to have two more children in the following two years. Three children in three years made for endless messes, exhaustion and lots of sibling entertainment. Playing with my children wasn’t as much of an option in those days. Yet, every now and then, on a low-key weekend, I would remember with great mortification that I had such little tolerance for play.
Seven years later, our fourth child was born. It was so different this time. First, my mental health was addressed thoroughly in prenatal and post-natal care. It meant that I couldn’t nurse this small one like I had the rest. It also meant that I enjoyed caring for him since I wasn’t fighting with my mental illness 24/7. Yet, as he turned the corner of six-months-old, I found my old familiar “enemy” emerged.
This time, after years of therapy, I could feel all of it. No longer shutting down all emotion, I now felt all the emotions. All of the happiness and joy, but also all of the guilt, all of the sadness. I could no longer chalk my dislike of playtime up to boredom, because I didn’t feel boredom.
But what was it that I felt?
I spent a good number of days sitting with the discomfort while we played. Actually, I spent weeks that way. I wondered if I had some sort of inner deficit because maybe my mother didn’t play with me or enjoy the day-to-day play. It was possible, but it didn’t really resonate. As the youngest of three siblings, I knew I had plenty of playmates around from the very start. Plus, it just didn’t resonate with that feeling inside me. I wasn’t sad. I was just taught – like a rope stretched tightly.
An inner tensions, that’s what I felt as we played and I pretended to be surprised by simple peek-a-boo. If I sat playing long enough, then the inner tension would manifest as frustration. Not really with the baby or in that moment, but in snappy responses to the older kids or a penchant for eruption at disruption.
Then, one day, and it took much too long for this to occur to me, I realized that tension was basically anxiety. As I watched him attempt to capture a rolling ball, something clicked inside of me. Anxiety takes us away from the present moment.
All of this time, I had been playing with the little ones – I had actually been somewhere else. Sometimes, I was imagining all of the things needing to be done elsewhere. Other times, I was imaging the future in which my child would finally realize that the source and basis for all of the problems in their life was one thing – me.
An utter, incapacitating fear gripped me. What if I was doing all of this incorrectly? What if I was screwing up an entire human being? I tried deep breaths, to stay in the moment, but I couldn’t and we ended our already short fifteen minute play time early.
For days, I tried to reason with the anxiety, to improve this playtime experience, but nothing would alleviate the escalating tension during our play.
The intimacy of playtime gnawed too sharply at me – my inner rope fraying as the strands were severed one by one. As I began to see the way that anxiety affected me during play, I started to see it in other areas too. The distraction of playing on my phone while he slept in my lap or took a bottle. The avoidance of starting new foods or routines.
Yes, my parenting was riddled with anxiety. I started breathing through the routines of our day, staying present in the moment, but found trying to do it for an entire day? Way too difficult. I narrowed my focus onto just breathing and experiencing playtime fully. I reminded myself that there indeed was no wrong way to play. I wasn’t screwing this up. Slowly, I found the joy in that one little area.
One by one the areas of my parenting, the moments in my day, became softer, richer, more alive. I remembered how often my therapist had said, “Anxiety keeps you from living.” I knew it to be true, deep in my core.
It was the start of something very precious, not just for my children and family, but for me as well. As I worked my way through the areas of my life besides parenting, I found deeper meaning and less fear. With less fear, I felt more free and I began to do one of the things I had stopped doing years ago – writing.
Now, hear this, I’m not saying I don’t have anxiety anymore. It is just as large and infiltrating as before, but I’ve found a way to cope, to live, to grow.
I hope you have or will too. Wishing you well.