Years ago, before I had children, I remember having a conversation with a friend about why I did not particularly like children. She lived with her parents, who served as foster parents for kids in limbo, so there was always some little person or other scampering around her house. I can recall telling this friend that it frankly bothered me that all kids do is play all day, that I really kind of felt like they should have to put their tiny noses to some non-lead-based painted grindstones rather than just run wild and free. When I got to the part in the rant when I actually used the word "lazy," my friend snapped. I got an earful from her and learned a valuable lesson that day: never tell your friends your honest opinions. Just kidding. Actually, I don't think I learned any lessons that day. Rather, I slogged on with my misanthropic stance on children and play, never realizing that when I said kids were lazy for getting to play and not work, I meant that I was jealous.
I now have two children of my own, whom I love dearly and in whom I take great delight. I wish I could also report that I relish playing with them. I don't. I love hearing them play, I giggle while eavesdropping on their adorable and sometimes impressive storylines, and I get a genuine rush of pleasure buying them toys I know they'll enjoy. But sitting down for the thousandth time to play cars and trucks--the one thing my older son positively LIVES for--usually makes me suddenly realize I've left a curling iron on. Maybe if my kids could enjoy the things that I enjoy (like German literature, Magnum, P.I. trivia, and silence) I would find it easier to spend more time on the floor crashing ambulances into firetrucks and then rushing all the occupants to the hospital. And as I've grown, I've realized that part of this stems from something in me that remains jealous of my children (or any children) for being allowed to not have responsibilities, for being allowed to play all day long. The less of that I get for myself, the more I begrudge them their play--and my participation with them.
So in a strange way, wanting to enjoy playing with my children motivates me to play on my own as an adult. I know it's not realistic to expect my children to become more like me (i.e. work, shoulder adult responsibilities)--after all, they're only 1 and 3--and deep down, I know I want them to get as much play in these early years as possible. It's good for their brains, it's the way they process emotions, and it's what they love to do. So if they can't (yet) become more like me, I am trying to become more like a child. I am trying to re-learn how to play.
When I was a child, I of course loved to play. Anything could be a toy. I remember pretending the salt and pepper shakers from our dining room table were a married couple--the wife wanted to leave him, but the husband wooed her back by singing Amy Grant's Don't Run Away ("Don't run away, you're headed nowhere…You feel alone, who do you know there?") Barbies, My Little Ponies, and Cabbage Patch dolls inhabited the world of my imagination and sometimes intersected with my friends' in some metaphysical Venn diagram of play. Then as a teenager, play meant hanging out with friends doing silly and/or stupid activities like calling ourselves "The Banditos" for shooting Supersoakers at the cars driving on the road behind my parents' house. College saw more outrageous play--if you lived on 4South at Fischer Hall, you will remember "Lounge Tennis," an impromptu indoor sport I am surprised never required disciplinary action by the dean.
But it seems to me that play--or at least play that is genuinely FUN--falls by the wayside for those of us who have followed life's timeline of marriage and childbearing.
I mean, what do white Christian women do when they get together with friends for fun? They go to…..drum roll please……are you ready for the excitement……COFFEE SHOPS!!! I'm sorry, I hope that didn't just titillate you to the point of sin. Whew! Cause that is some serious, hard-core FUN, I tell ya. Going to the same place you can and probably do visit several times a week to sit in a comfy chair and talk. Livin' the dream, ladies, livin' the dream. Now, maybe if you are a really passionate coffee aficionado and there's going to be a demonstration of how to brew the perfect Costa Rican cup, I can understand. And I know coffee shop talk has its place. A pleasant space, a sweet drink, some catching up about husbands, kids, jobs. Nice. But for the most of us, when do we go beyond nice with our friends? Do we have fun with them? Do most adults have a friend with whom we can play? My feeling of the average American adult's perspective on the words "play" and "fun" is that they involve either sex or very expensive sporting equipment…or perhaps both.
And so I hereby propose: the adult playdate. Before you get grossed out, let me explain. My best friend Joy and I have been doing these for awhile now, and they've been so much fun, I wish everyone could do something similar. In fact, I knew Joy was going to be a great friend when we agreed for our first get-together to do anything BUT go to a coffee shop. (We ended up carving pumpkins instead.) It's not that Joy and I don't ever get together for coffee or a meal or something nonspecific or non-thrilling. But we also have made a point of scheduling activities that are the grown-up version of playdates. We've gotten together and created collages out of magazine clippings and we've colored in coloring books. Once we even dragged out my old Barbies from my garage and staged a photo shoot of them--even the ones with limbs bitten off--in ridiculous 80s outfits. This October will be our fourth annual pumpkin carving extravaganza. I say all this not to sing my own praises about the awesome things I do (because I'm sure you're thinking playing with Barbies when you're nearing 30 is awesome, right?) but to say, hey, it works for me and it's a lot of fun. My hope is that I am gradually lightening up toward myself and my kids. So whatever is your play, I say do it and do it with a friend. I have been amazed at the way that "playing" with a friend brings us closer than hours sitting at a Starbucks. So if your thing is scrapbooking or Zumba or photo shoots or raiding the Dollar Store, do it. I conclude by quoting that great sensei of play, the Cat in the Hat:
"It is fun to have fun but you have to know how!"