I'm a Good Mom, But I Suck At Playing With My Kids

by Erin Pepler
A mom putting dishes in a dishwasher while her kid is playing behind her
Jupiterimages / Getty

Picture, if you will, the perfect mom. She isn’t too young or too old, and her two beautiful children are the requisite 2.2 years apart in age. She’s not too frumpy, but also not overly made up. She’s dressed in comfortable yet stylish clothes, walking her carefully groomed kids to school (on time!) with her own hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. A healthy lunch is tucked into each child’s monogrammed backpack, and later, she’ll drive them to soccer or piano lessons in a gleaming white SUV.

At home, this mom continues to impress. She crafts, she pretends to be a princess or a dentist or whatever else her children have instructed, and she’s a master Lego builder. Her smile never wavers and her voice is never raised in frustration. After feeding her kids a home-cooked meal, helping with homework and reading them a few stories, she’ll tuck them lovingly into bed. Later, she’ll bake muffins from scratch while humming a Disney tune. Her kitchen is always clean, despite the constant baking and cooking of scratch-made meals.

This mom is a unicorn.

Each of us does some of these things. Many of us do a lot of these things. But none of us can be all of these things all of the time, because the perfect mom doesn’t exist — and even if she did, she’d look different to everybody. This version of motherhood is rare, or even pretend – like I said, a unicorn.

While motherhood is rife with judgment, there is also an underlying current of solidarity that pulls us through. Moms will confess to each other in hushed whispers on the playground, seeking acceptance in their shortcomings. “My kids haven’t had a bath in three days,” one will admit. “Mine ate McDonalds twice this week,” another will add. “I hate Calliou,” they all say in unison, and then laugh. It’s all normal and it’s fine. No mom is perfect, we remind each other. Don’t be so hard on yourself! What’s important is that we love the shit out of our kids and they know it. The rest is semantics.

And yet, even in the most welcoming of playground circles, there’s one mom confession I always hesitate to make: I’m not so great at playing with my kids. In fact, I’m terrible at it, and more so (deep breath), I don’t like it.

Let’s clarify.

I love spending time with my children. We go to the park, we cook and bake, we read books and go on endless adventures. I am constantly taking them hiking or berry picking or to museums, and we have a ton of fun together. I cherish every second with my kids, even when they’re driving me bonkers, because I adore them.

But I don’t like playing with them.

I don’t want to sit on the floor and play with dolls or cars. I have minimal interest in Lego. I’ll agree to be the Mama Jaguar when they’re playing Wild Kratts, but quickly note that Mama Jaguar can’t crawl around right now because she’s making dinner and has to empty the dishwasher so it can be filled again. Oh, and because I don’t want to crawl around pretending to be a jaguar, to be honest.

I love watching my kids play elaborate imaginary games and am genuinely interested in their impressive Magnatile creations. I’m happy to play along when they pretend to be wizards or dinosaurs, as long as I don’t have to pretend to be the same. I’ll set out craft supplies at any given time, but for the love of God, don’t make me do the crafts with them, because nine times out of ten, I’d rather slam by head into a brick wall.

Does this make me a terrible mother? No, probably not. But it makes me feel like one.

I don’t know why I hate playing so much. I’m a creative person who grew up with the same wild imagination my kids have. I love art, do not hesitate to sing or dance around the house, and my children are the centre of my life. And yet, I cannot bring myself to walk around on all fours making snow leopard sounds because my children want me to participate in a game of Planet Earth (we watch a lot of BBC nature shows, so this is a central theme in my house).

Maybe it’s because I always feel busy, distracted by household responsibilities or tired. Maybe it’s because I’m not a particularly “silly” person and I don’t fall easily into a childlike state of play. When my kids want to play a board game, I’m all in – but put me in a room full of Barbies and I can’t handle it.

A weird shame hangs around my ineptitude in this area, despite being a truly good mom by most standards. My kids are well loved, well cared for and totally happy. There is no lack of attention or affection, and they’re free to play often. I encourage their play, and direct it to some extent. I just don’t want to join in. So I worry that I’ll be viewed as lazy, uncaring or ungrateful. As a bad mom. Despite having confidence in my parenting abilities, I know there are people who will judge me, and for some reason, I care.

Plus, my kids keep asking me to play. I guess I haven’t taught them to take a hint.

So I give in and agree to be Mama Leopard or The Wizard Queen, putting in a half-assed effort before slowly making my way to my computer or the laundry room. And guess what? My kids keep playing and having fun without me, bonding with each other and entertaining themselves as kids should. I hear their giggles and laugh along as their roles become more and more ridiculous. Eventually, one of them will ask for a snack and by then, they could not care less that I’ve backed out of my role. They’re happy, and so am I.

With just a touch of guilt.