My friend Wendy and her kids came over this morning to play. Her son is about 2 months older than Frances and her daughter is a week older than Clark, which is fabulous for us (though if the genders matched that would be even better!). She and I are both only children and have both struggled with now to navigate having two, how to split our attention, how to deal with the lack of alone time, etc. She's been somewhat of a lifesaver for me.
But today she completely blew my mind. I know she's going to read this and have no idea what I'm talking about... I don't even know how it came up exactly, but we were talking about space in the house and where we hang out and about getting things done (like emptying the dishwasher) and that she doesn't get anything done at all when the kids are awake, which is now all day. Then she said it's hard for her as an only child because her only model is one on one, full attention, and she doesn't really know how to do that with two. And she somehow came around to telling me that all she does is play with the kids, face to face, conversation style. All day. "I don't think all kids need that," she said, "but these do."
Wendy's kids are the calmest kids you've ever seen. And one's a boy. They're agreeable and they listen to her and they are gentle with each other. I asked her today about this, about how much she thought was their temperments and how much was her mothering. She said a little of both. "They're so calm," I said. "Yeah, my mother-in-law says our house is peaceful." I also asked if she had problems with her older being aggressive with her younger and she said she didn't, and hadn't. I watched as her son nearly sat on top of her daughter in a chair and Wendy quietly said, "Ayvin, sit next to her," and he gently shifted over.
It definitely doesn't seem to me that her kids need that kind of attention any more than other children do. What seemed obvious to me when she said it is that all children need it, really. Some are just better at making do with less. So where does that leave me and my kids?
It's never occurred to me that my job might be to play with my kids. It might seem like an obvious thing I'm missing here. I've thought of my job as "taking care" of them. Playing some, yeah, here and there, in between doing dishes and loading the dryer, in tickling moments just after a diaper change or teasing while we eat lunch.
Maybe I did think this way when F was a baby, but then Clark was born and my time was spent nursing and changing diapers and just trying to get through the day. What do I do with my time now? I feel mostly like I change diapers and help the other on the potty and change clothes when there's an accident and organize snacks for the car and fix food and feed and clean up and pull Frances off Clark and reprimand and admonish and try to work in fixing dinner or paying a bill. Periodically I help set up Little People or push someone in the swing but then there's the arguing and I turn into a referee rather than a teammate. Hm.
Years ago I had a dog I loved. I spent all kinds of time with her, talking to her, petting her, throwing the ball or taking walks or snuggling with her on the bed. She was the best. She was calm and agreeable, and people commented on how pleasant she was to be around. I'd see other dogs at my friends' houses, nutty dogs who were needy and hyper and jumped on you, and my friends would marvel at the difference between our dogs. And I'd think "You don't spend time with your dog; you don't give her your attention. What do you expect?"
I'm having a revelation here and I'm kind of embarrassed how elementary it seems.
Could I DO that? Could I just play with my kids? It makes me think of that book--Playful Parenting--that I talked so much about awhile ago. That book is about specific kinds of play but what's stuck with me mostly from that book is the chapter on roughhousing. And his point is about using play to allow children to work out their anxieties specifically. I get that. But this--this is so much larger, so much more. I don't know.
And what about the skills they learn from playing on their own? It's true that much of their own play time turns onto push-Clark-into-furniture time, which is a problem. This might be the place for me to say, "a-ha. My kids need more face time with me to learn how to interact."
But the truth is that I think of playing with my kids as boring, and is one of the reasons I believe I should go back to work. But maybe I've been thinking of the wrong kind of play; maybe I thought I was required to do the boring kind. Or something. Don't I periodically have these realizations that if I simply sit on the floor with the kids for an hour it does them heaps and heaps of good? Interaction, not play, is what is needed.
I will pause here in what feels like an incoherent ramble to acknowledge that Wendy intends to homeschool, or unschool, or whatever, and perhaps she's just more cut out for this temperamentally than I am. I have all kinds of internal conflict about activities, as you know, and I also have internal conflict about preschool--how many days, is it helpful or hurtful, should we do it at all, etc. Also, Wendy does admit that because of the constant attention and interaction, she is completely burnt by 4pm.
I'd love for this post to open up conversation if anyone wants to weigh in. I could ramble on for much much longer--this clearly sounded the gong on some issues I haven't resolved, or maybe even acknowledged. What percentage of your kids' awake time do you spend interacting with them directly, face to face, conversation style?