Fairly early on in this parenting gig, my husband and I fell into our default roles—roles that have stuck over the years. As the at-home parent, I am more familiar with our children’s schedules, habits and idiosyncrasies. I am the one who enforces bedtimes, decides whether dessert is justified or not, and knows whether one of the boys has lost electronic privileges for the night. My husband, on the other hand, can spin the boys around in circles, can battle the boys in Frogger, and spend hours playing a make-believe game called Airplane Zoo Driver (don’t ask).
Whenever I am out of town, life is unmistakably different. The boys sleep with their dad in our bed. Indoor volleyball tournaments are organized, and ongoing tickle fights ensue. In other words, my husband spends a good chunk of his time with our sons playing. When my husband is out of town, however, life goes on as usual. Bedtimes stay the same (and in our own beds). Homework is done before the television is turned on. And, for the most part, our children entertain themselves. In other words, I don’t really play.
These parenting roles as the Fun One and, well, the Other One used to bother me. Not because I resented my default designation, but because something (whether society, internal pressure, peers, or all of it) made me feel like being the not-fun parent was somehow inferior. Playing like this—so rough and tumble, so direct and in-your-face, so unrelenting and boisterous—does not come naturally to me, which I viewed as some kind of parental shortcoming. What parent doesn’t want to play with their children? I worried. And this pressure to be a different parent (a better parent?) than I was—more playful, more fun, more amusing—felt prickly and sensitive, like a sunburn or a scraped knee.
Lately, however, I have begun to feel comfortable as the parent I am. Sure, I might be the one to call out “bedtime in five minutes!” while the three of them are giggling over an inside joke from the Regular Show, and I’d rather poke my eyes out than spend five minutes playing Airplane Zoo Driver (seriously, don’t ask), but I will shake my booty along with them in Just Dance, I will color for hours, and I will play 20 games of Candy Land—in a row.
I’ve also realized there is a profound joy that comes from not interjecting myself into their fun and instead, observing it from a slight distance. The other night, after we picked my husband up from the airport, the boys asked him to play hockey in the driveway. The air was cool and the sky had grown dim, but it wasn’t quite dark yet.
“It’s too cold and dark and late,” I said.
“Awwww, really?” my husband said with a pout.
“I was just trying to give you an out so you could get settled,” I whispered, “but go for it if you want.”
When we got home, I went inside to heat up leftovers for dinner. My husband changed into running pants and a sweatshirt, and rejoined the boys outside. After I had reheated dinner—and covered it again because clearly dinner wouldn’t happen anytime soon—I watched my husband and our sons through the window. I thought about going outside to play with them, but instead I stayed inside and watched them through the window
From a distance, I am able see things that I might not see if I were to thrust myself into their fun. I can see the way my younger son looks at his dad, with a mixture of awe and admiration, when I’m not around. I can see the way my older son tests his limits, pushing boundaries physically and emotionally, in a way that he doesn’t do with me. And I can see the joy—the pure joy—on my husband’s face more clearly when I’m not compelled to act as referee, disciplinarian or monitor.
I can soak it all in like a salve or cool lotion on prickly skin.