I Love My Kids, But I Hate Playing With Them

I Love My Kids, But hate Playing With Them - An illustration of a tan woman with brown hair wearing a white tank top and green pants sitting next to her daughter with similar tan skin, brown hair in pigtails, and a pink leotard. They are sitting on the ground surrounded by light green illustrations of children's toys. The mother has a bored facial expression, holding a Barbie, while the child has a smile on their face while holding some toys.
Paula Boudes

“Wanna play Barbies with me?” I hear my 8-year-old daughter ask from the other room. “Absolutely, sweetie! I’ll be there as soon as I finish these dishes,” I cheerfully respond, while looking at the quickly emptying sink with a sense of dread. Feigning enthusiasm at the invitation is a piece of cake but sustaining it will be much harder when I’m kneeling in front of Barbie Dreamhouse and throwing another grand party (wedding, pool, birthday, what have you) for her dolls.

Same goes for when my 5-year-old wants me to play trains with him. Building the track? I’m game. Making the trains talk and play their respective parts in an intricate imaginary story? Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong; I love spending time with my kids on memorable outings to the zoo, the park, or more recently, the Brooklyn Cat Cafe, where we picked out an adorable new feline friend to adopt. I can’t wait to hear about their day, talk through the social dramas that crop up in the second grade, color together, and look at the crafts they made at school with pride. And nothing gives me more joy than hearing them interact and play pretend with each other; I genuinely marvel at their minds and love to be a fly on the wall. When I’m asked to play pretend, however, I want to run for the hills.

I’m not proud of this—even writing it inspires that oppressive sense of guilt that I’ve come to understand every mom is familiar with for one reason or another. And like other guilt-ridden moms, when that nagging feeling crops up, I try to repent. I often make silent resolutions to myself after I put them to bed: “Tomorrow I’ll be better at playing with them. Tomorrow I’ll have fun.

Alas, a new day arrives, and despite my best intentions, my eyes still glaze over every time I’m handed a Barbie or Thomas the Train to personify. It’s true: I hate playing with my kids. And if you’re wondering what I’m thinking in those torturous moments, here’s what’s usually playing through my mind:

What am I supposed to do here exactly? What do they want from me? How can I participate in this bizarre storyline? This doesn’t even make any sense! God, I’m bored. When will it end? How can I make myself useful in a different way without disappointing my child?

Once I start to spiral—the boredom too much to bear and my lack of creativity too hard to conceal—I typically find an easy out. A chore that needs to be done, a lunch that needs to be prepared, etc. Then, after a bout of mom guilt or the realization that I miss being with them, I’ll plan an outdoor activity for later in the day; or, at the very least, an indoor family game that I can actually understand. (Go Fish, chess and charades are among my rainy day favorites.)

I admit there are days when I can’t even bring myself to feign enthusiasm or muster the energy to play make believe restaurant one more time. In these instances, I opt to tell the unvarnished truth instead: “I love spending time with you, sweetie. But as an adult, I just can’t play the same way you do…and that’s why you’re lucky to have a sibling and a great imagination.” My kids slink away and that nagging question of whether or not I have disappointed them comes back to haunt me.

Because here’s the thing: I’ve tried to fake it ‘til I make it…but my kids are onto me, and I’ve got to come clean. The fact is, I can’t seem to rise above my personal experience—namely that the play is far too repetitive and, more often than not, I’m so devoid of ideas that I can’t think of a way to change up the game. Is this a moral failing? Am I just the product of generational trauma—my inner child too far gone to be recovered? Am I too weighed down by adult responsibility to get on their level? Am I holding myself to an unreasonable parenting standard? (After all, I can’t recall a single time my dad played pretend with me and he certainly never crawled around on all fours being a kitty, like I forced myself to do at eight months pregnant).

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that I feel like a pretty great parent when I’m sharing music and making Spotify playlists with my kids, watching soccer drills with complete investment and fielding their good-natured, but spot-on teasing with a fine sense of humor in our daily interactions. And sure, maybe playing make-believe will never be in my wheelhouse, but I’m starting to believe that that’s OK. So tonight I’m going to tuck them in and quietly tell myself that I’m still good enough—and if you can relate, I encourage you to do the same.

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Freelance PureWow Editor

Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...