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I Deeply Love My Kid, I Just Can’t Stand Playing With Him

My son is gentle and loving. I am proud of him. But playdates, parks, and pretend—they still make me want to do almost anything else.


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The author with her son

The author with her son, Guy. Photo: courtesy of the author.

I want to suck in my son Guy’s morning breath so that his particles live in my body where I can keep them safe. I want to rip off his socks and lick the saltiness of his fat toddler feet. Though it seems to change every hour, I want to memorize his face. I cherish everything about him. But I’d rather do anything else than have to play with him.

When I was seven months pregnant—inwardly spiraling about the fact that I had no real vision for myself as a mother, that I hated my new body, that I’d been depressed basically since my mid-20s—my partner and I met friends for dinner, two husbands who had just had their first child by surrogate. They brought the little boy with them, asleep in a bassinet at our feet while we ordered a quick meal. They looked miserable and exhausted.

Don’t worry, they said when we asked gingerly how things were going. It won’t be this hard for you. You’ll have maternal instincts to rely on. Men don’t have those! Everyone laughed, but I wasn’t sure what the fuck maternal instincts I was expected to have, or when they’d kick in. I didn’t even really feel like I wanted them, in fact. Having them might change me, and I was already changed enough, already spending so much energy on the correct way to become a good mom: Choosing the right brands so I could buy the right stuff, repeating the right platitudes about the impending birth to seem the right amount of happy and grateful. Though there is no known scientific evidence for mom brain, it is across the board acknowledged by birthing persons as a symptom that is generally suffered. I wasn’t sure if that’s what I should call my mental status, but seven months in, and I knew that my instincts had yet to miraculously start.

Guy wasn’t cute when he was born—which didn’t help my feelings about him, and my embarrassment that I didn’t immediately love him and find him perfect. His head looked like it had been through a fro-yo machine the first time I saw him, and his eyes crossed and dilated in anything but semi-darkness. He was so scrawny, with translucent skin and blue veins stretched over his amphibian bones, fresh out of amniotic water. Most women I talked to in those months said things like don’t you wish you could bottle the smell of his head? Shamefully, his baby smell never did it for me, and the idea that I would find joy in something as ephemeral as his scent seemed like I was tempting the fates to take him. 

I worried endlessly about his death, after all, manifesting in multiple nightmares a night which kept me awake for more hours than anyone should be awake. Here we are again, I thought, every exhausted morning when I came up with new ways to not play with my child. I’d stand in front of my son’s closet, folding and refolding onesies and socks, making lists of things he “needed”; trying to find solace in something I was good at—consumerism—which never seemed to work. Or, I’d leave him here and there in the care of other women, whose help I was so lucky to be able to pay for—a privilege utterly unavailable to most mothers raising their children without community, without government and legislative support—and off I’d go, claiming a dermatologist appointment or workout class, mixed with acupuncture for my PTSD and two kinds of therapy, believing in the late capitalist sophistry that enough self care would make me happy.

Within a year, Guy’s hair darkened and grew into soft brown baby curls, his big, tweety-bird eyes solidified in their sockets, and his full pout gave him the look of a tiny rock n roll star, pursing for a long-legged Bambi love interest. He started talking, and almost immediately became a little jokester. He’s gentle and loving. I am proud of him. Proud of his kindness and curiosity. However I have to admit: music class at the local library, playdates, playgrounds, parks, and pretend still make me want to do almost anything else, still make my brain feel numb and bored and uninspired, desperate to focus on something more adult.

When the World Trade Towers fell on September 11, 2001, I had never heard of them. I’d never been to New York; I only knew the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, which has a poem at the base that I had to memorize for history class when I was in eighth grade in Indiana, just a couple years before. The world was different then, I guess. The internet was nascent. I wasn’t allowed to watch Sex and the City, or even Felicity; all I knew of New York was from the Bell Jar and a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or the stories my maternal grandparents told me about their American dream childhoods.

Twenty years later, when I was established in my career as an art dealer, I took a call from a friend who was a curatorial representative at the Oculus, Calatrava’s monolithic, spine-shaped, surreal hub which replaced some of the fallen buildings at Ground Zero. She was trying to fill an 800,000 square foot atrium—a stark white, soaring hall roofed by what look like architectural ribs—with art that could be engaging and impactful to the public. I immediately thought that whatever was in the rotunda could function as a respite for the heaviness visitors would be confronted with right outside. I started searching for something big and optimistic for her.

Nancy Rubins, an American sculptor who makes large-scale works by transforming heaps of industrially made items—like mattresses or single-person airplanes—into impressive sculptures came to mind. In one series, Rubins took aluminum animal-shapes, reclaimed from playgrounds, and welded them together in rhizomatic structures secured by ropes. They reminded me of the idea espoused by the early 20th century Dutch theorist Huizinga, in his seminal text Homo Ludens, that humans are driven by an innate desire for fun; that playing teaches biologically important skills and lessons, is a necessity fulfilled in different ways at different ages.

I sent my curator friend these works, sure she’d admire their spirit of buoyancy and cheerfulness, and she called me almost immediately. Thank you for sending your proposal, she said, leaking calm tears as she explained that they couldn’t proceed with it. World Trade Center 5 had a nursery, she explained. The kids were all rescued, but it was such a traumatic moment—I don’t think these sculptures would be right. I cried, too, when she told me. Of course I was horribly sad for those babies and their families—those tiny children just learning all the ways that life would allow them to play—living through an act of immense violence; an act completely at odds with joy and humanity. But it also made me think of the capacity for resilience and optimism that children have, and how they can feel protected and nurtured in so many ways.

Tremendous research has been done regarding the connections between mothers and children and the types of interactions that lead to kids becoming successful adults. The psychologist Beatrice Beebe has written extensively about the importance of simple recognition. From 10 minutes after birth, babies interact with adults, communicating through a series of small movements that mimic and react to behaviors they see around them. Beebe has been able to track patterns of interaction occurring as early as four months and favorably correlate them to future intelligence and social development. Her work has been used to support legislation at the state level to encourage more generous parental leave, as well as education for OBGYNs providing care to Medicaid patients.

I do not doubt that my lack of interest in play is related to the type of attachment I had to my own mother—who wasn’t so into play herself—which I would guess could be in turn related to how she interacted with my grandmother, and so on. I also do not doubt that a factor in my feelings on play was my own mental state after Guy was born. For traumatized mothers—ones who had less than perfect childhoods themselves, or maybe those who suffer from any sort of postpartum depression and disappointment with the narratives surrounding motherhood, like me—connecting to and recognizing the emotional states of babies can feel like more of a challenge.

When you have a child, by any means, you owe it to that baby to do your best to love it and teach it to be loving, but perpetuating unattainable and unnecessary norms of what motherhood “should” look like—when research shows us that interaction, not specific to play, is what’s essential—feels like just another way to judge women and birthing persons. Instead, we need to be facilitating conversations about all the ways being a mom can look; that there are wonderful parents for whom playing is second nature, and others, like me, for whom it’s not. In a world that is more authentic and honest about the various realities of motherhood, we will inevitably be rewarded with more support for those diverging realities, a greater sense of community among parents, and a more broad and diverse narrative about what parenthood can be, which is essential to creating a world that is more just and equitable for all types of mothers everywhere.

I’ve made peace with the seeming contradictions in my love for Guy—that instead of going to the park, I prefer to take him for my matcha and a baked good outside of traditional meal times; or that I bring him as I run my own errands, asking him questions about school and life. It’s okay that I’ve found the types of play that I can tolerate, like coloring, and enjoy those with him in short increments, usually less than 15 minutes. It’s okay that when he asks me to engage in other types of play, I make a clear boundary. Mommy doesn’t have fun doing that, but I will be right here reading while you do it! And then we can talk about it. Everybody likes different things. His daily, effusive joy and happiness is proof that he knows he is cared for, that he feels connected to me, that he knows we can lovingly interact, even if not via games of pretend.

Guy and I have our own world where we are enveloped in a bubble of our love, as different as it may appear when compared to other peoples’ bubbles. When I walk down the street holding his small, warm hand, listening to him point out the new words he’s learned like double-decker bus or maple tree in his sweet little stammering voice; when he asks me to stop at every deli to smell the dyed flowers outside in their plastic buckets and proclaim that each of them is yummy!; when he puts new sneakers on his pudgy, clumsy feet and walks like he put on new legs, I’m so filled with pride and love and a connection that exists with no one else.

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This post originally appeared on Vogue and was published May 26, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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