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Play Envy: I'm Not the Fun Parent

I resented my husband’s ability to play, but now I’m grateful

Published on: January 12, 2019

Father tossing his son into the air

“Beep beep! Look at me, Mama! Vrrroooooommm!” My husband held our beaming three-month-old son’s feet and hands together, driving him across the table on his bottom like a car. “Chug chug chug, errrrrrch!” He abruptly changed directions and my heart almost ejected from my throat.

“Stop! His head!” I indignantly detached myself from the breast pump with the speed of a cheetah (and the grace of a lactating hippopotamus) and scooped up my baby, rescuing him from certain peril. In retrospect, I see that my son was totally safe (he could hold his head up consistently at that point, and his dad had an iron grip on his hands and feet), but in the moment, Mama Bear raged.

I chided my husband for his irresponsibility: “What were you thinking?!” Huff, huff, huffity huff! He was puzzled (and a bit offended) by my reaction, as he would be virtually every time thereafter when he tried to “have fun” with our son. Whenever tickle sessions became over-exuberant, chases too rambunctious, or airplane rides too high, Officer Overprotective stepped in: “Okay, okay, let’s settle down here…”

Basically, I really suck at playing.

I wasn’t always such a party pooper. I appreciate humor, and my husband’s playfulness attracted me to him in the first place. But I’ve always been the serious, bookish type, giggling behind my glasses at the shenanigans of my peers, though not really understanding how to join in.

Basically, I really suck at playing.

And my husband is amazing at it. He can deal out witty quips and banter at lightning speed. He finds novel and hilarious uses for common objects (I think he missed his theatre sports calling). His natural instinct for play is something I have to think about. When my son got an Elmo doll, I was still reading the manual, trying to figure out how it “worked,” while my son was already squealing at my husband’s silly antics with it. I’m the rule follower; my husband is the rule bender (or outright ignorer). This makes him The Fun Parent.

I am Mama: The Parent Who Makes Sure We All Stay Alive and Eat Nutritious Food and Get Enough Sleep and Don’t Watch Too Much TV and Use Our Manners.

Well, I know who I’d rather spend time with…

Each night when my husband got home from work, my son (up to then wholeheartedly embodying the witching hour stereotype), would dissolve into gleeful giggles as soon as his papa scooped him up. Seeds of envy and resentment grew into full-bloomed self-pity. It just wasn’t fair. I either watched the fun like a wallflower or policed it like a hyper-vigilant harpy.

And then, my teenage stepson became critically ill. My husband stayed at the hospital with him throughout his diagnosis and initial treatment, which took several weeks. When he came home to shower or have a little break, playing was the last thing on his worry-addled mind. My son was confused and sensed something was off. He became quieter and more serious, asking for more Mama hugs (which of course he got in abundance).

While my husband was away, we frequented the beach, visited petting zoos, went to see boats, fire engines and parades — we had fun. I started to loosen up, attempting accents and funny voices when I read. I gave in to my son’s baiting and chased him around the house before bath time, birthing The Mommy Monster (who, although she tickles more gently than Papa, can still elicit some good giggles). Soon I was wholeheartedly playing “Elmo,” though I would crawl into a hole if anyone but my son witnessed this travesty.

My son was happy, but wow, was I exhausted! By trying to fill the hole of my husband’s absence, I realized how important his playfulness was. This envy had to go.

Each person in a child’s life has different gifts to share. I am now extremely grateful for my husband’s playfulness and have learned that it’s not something I have to compete with or try to equal in order to be a good parent. I might not be as exciting as Papa, but my son keeps asking me to play, and his unshakable belief in my ability to have fun with him inspires me to at least try, in my own way.

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