Photo: iStock Photo
To my husband, it was a normal, sunny Saturday morning in September. We were all packed up for a day trip to the lake—probably one of the last beach days of the year. Both kids were finally buckled into their car seats, after the usual getting-out-the-door struggles. My husband started the car and then looked over at me in the passenger seat. Hot tears of frustration were streaming down my face as I cried silently behind my sunglasses.
“What on earth is wrong?” he asked.
“I want to be the one petting the cat!” I stammered, knowing how pathetic that sounded.
I had gone back into the house five times in the last 20 minutes—to grab snacks, replenish the spare diapers and wipes, fill the water bottles and sippy cup, pull clean towels out of the dryer, find the swim diapers and roll two spare sets of shorts and undies into a zip-top plastic bag for my still-accident-prone preschooler. Meanwhile, my husband and our two kids, then one and four, were wandering down the sidewalk in the sunshine, lackadaisically admiring a neighbour’s garden, observing a butterfly fluttering in the blooms and petting a friendly cat sauntering down the sidewalk. It was, on the surface, super cute: a dad and his two little boys enjoying life’s little pleasures—complete with cute kitties and actual butterflies.
But the purity and sunniness of this stop-and-smell-the-roses scene brought out an ugly and confusing mix of emotions in me: anger, resentment and gratitude. I was thankful he was keeping the kids occupied (and out of my way) while I focused on the load-in, but I was frustrated I was missing out on another magical moment with the kids because I was too busy doing the not-so-fun work of parenting.
We talked it through on the drive; my husband was supportive. Then he gently offered, “Maybe you just don’t have the personality to be the one petting the cat.” Ouch. I mean, maybe. But also, maybe if I weren’t so busy managing logistics, I’d have more presence of mind to notice the damn butterfly and pet the cat.
My meltdown that morning was, objectively, pretty ridiculous. I have an active and engaged partner who loves to meal plan and rushes home from work to make dinner almost every night. He does morning drop-offs and I do evening pickups. So I really can’t complain about the imbalance of emotional and household labour. But I’m sure any parent who’s typically the one stuck on shore with the cooler and the beach bag—shaking sand out of the shoes, readying the towels, sorting out the snacks and nagging the kids about sunscreen reapplication—while everyone else frolics in the water with reckless abandon will relate to how I often feel.
While my husband runs around the house chasing the kids with a blanket and a colander on his head (this is the Zombie Viking game, for the uninitiated), I plan and worry. As the kids are burying him in pillows on the living room floor, I’m booking flu shot appointments and birthday party venues.
Frankly, I’m jealous of my husband’s ability to limit his worrying to precisely when he needs to worry about it. But I’m beginning to think it’s not just our differing personalities (and anxiety management techniques). Maybe it has more to do with an unfair set of expectations around motherhood compared to fatherhood. He gets to be the fun dad, while I shoulder the mental load. Being the human calendar who keeps it all in her head is exhausting. I hate that I’m not likely to get to drop everything and play trains or Magna-Tiles with my kids when I have a few free minutes. I’m more likely to see that they’re happily occupied and think, “Cool, this is a perfect opportunity to go fold that laundry in the dryer.” Is this because I’m the more serious, less playful one in our partnership? Or is it because I’m the mom and moms are so chronically busy multi-tasking that we feel like we can’t get down on the floor and enjoy our kids while they’re still kids?
Kimberly Bezaire, a professor of early childhood education at George Brown College in Toronto, backs me up—playing with your kids is a big deal, and I’m not crazy for worrying that I’m not doing it enough. “The No. 1 benefit of play is that it builds strong bonds within the family,” she says. “And it’s especially important for mothers because mothering can really stereotype us. When they see you outside of traditional gender roles, or redefining mothering, that’s really powerful.” Our children need to see us relaxed and letting go or using a different side of our personality—not just going through the routine of day-to-day life, she says. Our play “dispositions” as parents also depend on our living conditions, support networks and stress levels. “It goes hand in hand with burnout,” she explains.
“If you’re not nourishing your own play disposition—baking with your child if you like baking, putting on an album if you like music—how are you going to be creative?”
Bezaire also tells me to go easy on myself. My so-called failure to get down and play on the floor isn’t just my choice, she says. “It’s a cultural, systemic, economic injustice—and it warrants more critical reflection around it. Moms are thinking, ‘Why am I so distracted? Where can I find that instinct? And wow, he takes to it so naturally.’”
She’s so right—I’ve definitely been conflating being a fun parent with physical play. I’ve always considered it a bit of a personal failing that I’m so inhibited and unable to let loose when I attempt to roughhouse or wrestle with my two sons. My friend Sarah and her wife, who are also raising two little boys, struggle with the same awkwardness. Sarah points out that it's probably because this kind of physical play isn't something we learned or practised very much as girls growing up.
“I often feel like I don’t have a roadmap for roughhousing,” she says. “Like, for how long should I roll around on the floor?” she laughs. “It’s gendered, and something people who identify as female are socialized not to do.”
“But I can see that both my kids crave that kind of roughhousing so much,” she adds. “It just bubbles up. There’s something liberating about 'uncontained' play that doesn’t involve your rational mind.”
Bezaire, who was a single mom, thinks our play problems are mostly about priorities and how men versus women triage all the tasks that need to be accomplished. “Men prioritize what’s most fun to them, whereas as moms, we prioritize what needs to be done.” She sees it as a form of male privilege.
Of course it’s hard to have fun with your kids and enjoy this whole parenting thing when you’re feeling overloaded and like you’re rushing around all the time. Unstructured play is often the task (ugh, it really shouldn’t feel like a task) that regularly falls off my to-do list, or is relegated to weekends. Meanwhile, older women are constantly reminding me that babies and little kids “don’t keep” and that it’s only a matter of time before they won’t want to play with me at all anymore.
“I hate it when people say, ‘Cherish every moment,’” says author and parenting expert Ann Douglas, a mom of four kids (now grown). “When my husband and I try to recall those days, it’s like remembering a hurricane. The kids were little whirling dervishes. And I was the poster child for self-neglect for an entire decade of my life. Plus, you’re physically exhausted. You don’t have the energy to roll around on the floor and play when you’ve been carrying around a baby and a toddler all day,” she says. When our kids are really young, we're basically in survival mode.
But there’s a line in her newest book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about: “If you were to invite a documentary film crew to follow you around for an entire day, what would the footage they captured have to say about your life?” I worry that my kids will remember me as the “not now” parent or the “in a minute” mom, and that they’ll learn that this is what being a grown-up is like. I want them to see someone who’s peaceful, present and not stressed—instead of someone who’s constantly trying to do two things at once.
Maybe my generation’s sensitivity to FOMO is also to blame. We can’t help but compare how much fun we’re having (or not having) to the serene and styled Instagram feeds created by professional, paid mom influencers. One of the sociology researchers I spoke to, Cadhla McDonnell, thinks that our generation of moms is suffering from these unrealistic expectations. “I’m skeptical of the idea that we should be enjoying parenting all the time,” she says. “I don’t think my mother enjoyed parenting all the time and I don’t think she felt guilty about that either.”
The Journal of Family Issues article McDonnell co-authored, “Happy Moms, Happier Dads: Gendered Caregiving and Parents’ Affect,” reports that fathers are happier, less tired and less stressed than moms, and it’s probably because of how child care and activities are split between parents. (There’s a difference between taking your kids to the park, for example, and changing diapers in the middle of the night.) McDonnell and her fellow researchers at Penn State University also theorize that in different-sex couples, fathers are better at avoiding less-pleasant child care activities. “Or, it could be that mothers ‘gatekeep’ what fathers do for their kids, or that mothers feel obligated to take on the less enjoyable or more stressful tasks,” she says.
When McDonnell steps back from the surveys and number crunching, she thinks something else could also be going on. “Are we supposed to be enjoying parenting for our own benefit or because we think being happy, fun and silly with our kids makes us better parents?” she says. “In other words, is the focus on enjoying parenting just another obligation we’re putting on mothers?”
OK, point taken—parenting can’t be fun 24/7, and it isn’t supposed to be. But I’m still looking for practical ways to feel less frazzled and more able to enjoy my kids while they’re still little. Here are the solutions I’ve found.
The biggest challenge for me is my inability to turn off the tickertape of tasks in my brain and just simply tune in to playtime. Partially, I think my multi-tasking skills are a pretty superhuman biological adaptation. If I can serve the toddler his afternoon snack in the high chair while FaceTiming my sister in Seattle and folding the laundry, I feel like a supermom. And women definitely do more multi-tasking than men—10 hours a week more, says Michigan State University sociology professor Barbara Schneider, who has studied this extensively.
But some experts say multi-tasking does more harm than good. In surveys, women actually associate it with negative emotions, and Douglas says the end result is “a cognitive hot mess.” Switching to single-tasking instead of multi-tasking decreases stress and ultimately gets the jobs done faster: It generally takes us 30 percent longer to do two tasks at once than it does to tackle them one at a time. Carla Naumburg, a clinical social worker and the author of How to Stop Losing Your Shit with Your Kids: A Practical Guide to Becoming a Calmer, Happier Parent, recommends setting a timer for 10 to 20 uninterrupted minutes—“fully hanging with your kids”—before moving on to the next activity or household task. Putting your phone down (or away) more often is also a good first step.
If I could reduce my work hours, stagger shifts with my partner and work a four-day week, I’d be able to spend more time with my kids—and feel less rushed during the time we have together. But since this isn’t realistic for me or most of the working world, I’d settle for working from home once or twice a week, which helps eliminate the commute and would allow me to, say, run the dishwasher, start dinner earlier or quickly switch the laundry. It’s worth floating the idea to your boss.
The other way I’ve carved out more time with my kids is by outsourcing everything I can possibly afford. For us, the game changer has been hiring a biweekly house cleaner. I used to dream of having a full weekend day to myself just to clean, put away hand-me-downs and organize. These were my wildest fantasies: solid blocks of alone time in my house to scrub toilets while my husband took the kids to the aquarium or Legoland. I was asking him to handle the fun stuff while I did the chores. Devoting the money to a cleaner (instead of overpriced museum admissions) is definitely a huge luxury, and it felt really weird to me at first, but it gave me my weekends with my kids back. I finally feel liberated from the perpetual tension between wanting to spend more time making memories with my children versus that nagging thought that I should be doing more to keep the house from falling apart.
This one’s a bit counterintuitive, but it’s something we’re hearing about constantly now: You’ll have more energy for fun and spontaneity with your kids if you’re not suffering from parenting burnout. It’s the quality of the time you spend together, not the total quantity of time. And you’ll feel less burned out if you’re taking a few hours for yourself.
While all the self-care advice has always made me bristle a bit—who has the time and money for it?—I’ll reluctantly admit, five years into motherhood, that taking a break from parenting, while a privilege, is important. Maybe your self-care is simply a longer-than-usual shower or a beer on the couch after the kids are down. Personally, I find that leaving the house to go see a movie or meet a friend for drinks is more restorative and reminds me that the world goes on outside the tiny universe of our household. The repeating loop of home-daycare-office-daycare-home does not, shall we say, spark joy.
Because we can’t afford a lot of babysitting and we don’t have grandparents or family in town to sit for free, we do bartered babysitting swaps with neighbours who also have kids. I’m also newly converted to what Douglas calls “set it and forget it” solutions, like standing dates and pre-arranged babysitting that happen every other week on a set schedule. This way, I don’t have to add “message the babysitter” to my to-do list. If you’ve ever felt like you just don’t have the energy to plan a date night or incorporate self-care into the week, try minimizing decision fatigue, says Douglas.
While it goes against my “no more multi-tasking” resolution, Douglas also suggests that for many parents, self-care isn’t going to happen unless we double up on our to-do list. For example, if you feel that gym visits eat away at the time you’d otherwise be playing with your kids, try exercising while logging quality time with your family. Incorporate your kids by going on a short hike or a family bike ride, or take the baby in a jogging stroller. You might not have the same sense of freedom or alone time, but at least you’ll get your blood pumping and those feel-good endorphins will start flowing. Even better, layer in the social support many new parents are missing: Go for a walk with a girlfriend so you can chat and vent and socialize at the same time.
If you have multiple kids, you might find it’s also more relaxing to separate them for big chunks of time so you can fully enjoy the company of one child. Sure, one-on-one dates take me away from one kid for a few hours, but the connection—and the quality of the time I have with the other kid—is higher. I’m not managing two different nap schedules, and a gazillion bathroom breaks aren’t interrupting the fun. It’s also helped me feel instantly less scattered: like I have only one or two tabs open on my mental browser instead of a dozen.
On fall weekends, we often see a parade of bleary-eyed parents and little kids in sports jerseys passing by our front windows on their way to morning soccer practice at the local park. We used to be one of those families, but without fail, each Saturday, our eldest son would refuse to actually play once we got there. Eventually, we stopped signing up for such an expensive, but ultimately disappointing extracurricular, and the newfound freedom to stay in our pyjamas until 11 a.m. on a Saturday feels downright decadent. Under-scheduling is weird, especially when it seems like “everyone else” manages to make it to soccer practice without a fight, but it gives us the gift of time and allows more spontaneous play as a family to happen.
“One of the most powerful things you can do to boost your enjoyment of parenting is simply to allow space in your life for these moments of connection to occur,” writes Douglas. “Just as you need some ‘white space’ in your home to avoid visual and clutter overload, you need some ‘white space’ in your schedule in order to avoid life overload.” When things aren’t planned, during the “unscripted moments,” that’s when the magic happens.
You can take the same less-is-more approach for scaling down other parts of your family life, too: Simplify vacation plans or summer camp schedules. Skip some family events and anything else that’s making you feel distracted or spread too thin, and work at not feeling guilty about it.
Does it feel like you’re constantly saying to your kid, “Sorry, no, we don’t have time for that”? Try doing the exact opposite: Say yes to any and all kid requests. (Jennifer Garner famously does this for one full day each year.) A 6:30 p.m. walk to the corner store for a Ring Pop? Building a snowman after dinner? An impromptu pinecone-pelting fight at the local park? Just do it. Or work on injecting little moments of levity into your everyday grind. For example, during long but hilly drives, my husband pretends we’re on a roller coaster ride and gets the kids to throw their hands in the air, fake screaming and giggling.
I recently realized I’d never taught my kids how to play Ring Around the Rosie, which is fun and free, so now that’s what the toddler and I do while waiting for his big brother to use the bathroom. My youngest also loves making nursery rhyme requests during the 20-minute walk from his daycare to his brother’s after-school program. While I sometimes wish I could be checking work emails with one hand while pushing the stroller with the other, it’s pretty adorable, and an easy win. So, yup, I’m the lady belting out “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Hickory Dickory Dock” while racing to make it to the second pickup of the evening. You could share your own favourite music with your kids while driving between karate and Kumon, or if you’re the parent who doesn’t get home until bedtime, you could even make toothbrushing fun: Play a new tune on your phone while your kids brush for at least two or three minutes. I’m not saying you always have to be the family jester—Douglas says that parenting doesn’t have to be a “constant comedy routine”—but these are all simple ways to be a slightly-more-fun mom.
Perhaps the easiest way to reduce your guilt is to trust the experts who say intense one-on-one parental play isn’t essential. One parenting coach and family counsellor I interviewed flat out told me to stop trying to be the “fun dad” in the first place. “They’re craving your presence; they’re not craving a playmate,” says Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting and Being at Your Best When Your Kids Are at Their Worst. Parents, he says, aren’t supposed to play with their kids all the time; children need to know how to self-start independent play.
For example, Payne explains, “being in the sandbox with them isn’t necessarily the way to go. Be present and available, and not on your phone. But we don’t need to do that super-goofy type of play in order to be fun.” There’s an art to knowing when you’re crossing the line and becoming their peer playmate instead of their “safe harbour”—a place or person for them to come back to periodically. “The child could become adult-dependent to play,” he warns.
Because we have less time with our kids than ever before, he sees parents who are trying to cram all the fun they want to have into one hour instead of a more natural duration of time: packing in 20 minutes at the park, 20 minutes for getting an ice cream, then a bike ride. Rushing home from work to wrestle on the floor and “be the fun dad” shouldn’t be the goal at all, he says. “That gets the adrenalin and cortisol running in a kid’s system and they don’t need more of that, especially before bed. Parents should be dialling back on the outrageous tickle-monster stuff. Shift the focus to connection—a simple, loving connection.”
Playing is a child’s work, says Payne. He calls it “play work,” and they can play alongside you while you make dinner, fold laundry, or do whatever else needs to get done.
“Have you ever noticed that even when a family has a big house with a dedicated playroom, the child still plays in the kitchen under your feet?” he asked me. “It’s because they want connection. When a child is playing, that’s their ‘play work.’ They’re thinking, ‘You’re working, I’m working,’ and that’s enough.”
He also tells overwhelmed parents to let go of what he calls “harmony addiction”—this idea that a perfectly harmonious family and daily “rainbow-coloured, aura-balancing family experiences” are tantalizingly within reach—and achievable if we just parented a little differently or changed the parts of ourselves that we don’t quite like. “[We] that an idealized picture of family life, where everyone is happy and contented all the time, is a mirage, and yet the desire to achieve it lies deep within us.”
Like Douglas, Payne also recommends cutting down on the sports, playdates and after-school activities in the family calendar, and paring down your toys and belongings. He prescribes time outside connecting with nature or doing semi-meditative, age-appropriate “play work” with your kids, like stacking wood and gardening. “Give your kid the gift of boredom. Lie in the bough of a tree and just ‘be.’ Remember those magical days as a child when we would lie in the grass looking at the clouds moving by?” he writes.
Payne’s overall theme of self-acceptance reminds me of something my friend Amy once confessed. Her kids are slightly older than mine—five and eight—and she’s comfortable with the fact that she doesn’t like taking her kids to the park, so she just...doesn’t. “Playgrounds aren’t my thing. It’s always felt tedious to me. And it’s OK not to like certain parts of parenting,” she told me. She thinks moms have trouble letting loose because the relentless work of parenting (and domestic work and paid work) makes us “forget what fun is for us,” she says. She calls it being “fun bankrupt,” and whenever she feels her family is running low on fun, they make a list of activities they all enjoy: nature hikes, neighbourhood “night walks,” playing cards, dance parties, cooking projects and making costumes together.
This was refreshing—I’m not the only parent who zones out or mindlessly checks her phone while pushing her kids on the swings. And it’s OK to cut myself some slack. The next time there’s an impossibly enthusiastic dad chasing a gaggle of squealing kids all over the play structure, instead of feeling slightly ashamed that I’m not “that dad,” I’ll feel relieved that someone else has the energy to play Pied Piper—and I don’t have to do a thing.