Mummy play trains” – these three little words make me take a sharp intake of breath and immediately plaster on a brave face.
It feels like a dark confession, but I can’t stand playing make-believe or roleplay games with my toddler. Does that make me a terrible mother? And am I the only one who feels like this?
I really love my son (not that it needs clarifying). In fact, I often feel like the word “love” isn’t big enough for what I feel for him. As soon as I became a parent, I experienced a sense of deep, visceral, and utterly perfect... completion.
And that’s why it pains me to admit that I just can’t bear playing with Duplo, train sets and tea parties – I hate them all. I can’t be alone in this... can I?
It’s not that I don’t think play is important: I’ve read the latest research that tells me that repetitive play “has many functions” in childhood development – and that brain wiring is actually made possible by repetition. Researchers at Cardiff University conducted the world’s first neuroscience study of doll play, and found that even playing with dolls alone (huzzah!) can aid the development of key skills such as empathy and social information processing.
Why, then, is it that I don’t like playing with him? I’ll tell you why: it’s because it’s so boring. And I’m certain there are many, many parents like me who feel exactly the same – but are just too scared to admit it.
There’s a crucial difference, though, between feeling and acting: so before you judge, let me tell you that I do, of course, play with my son. But to say I’m getting as much out of the experience as he is would be ridiculous.
I still feel a bursting rush of it flooding my system every time my son gives me a hug, or brushes my cheek with one of his most delicious kisses. But I don’t get it when I’m playing with him
For a while, he gurgles and makes steam engine noises and practises his ever-growing vocabulary; I, on the other hand, spend that time planning the next delicious and nutritious meal he will inevitably reject, and wondering if the heated airer will get everything dry by the morning in our terribly insulated house. Then, of course, I move on to fretting about how I really should sort out our terribly insulated house.
I get totally distracted, and I can’t keep up – and that makes me frustrated (with myself, mostly). Plus, I am awful at constructing even the most basic of train tracks. My Duplo rocket building has improved slightly, and I host a nice tea party – but I find it all (whisper it) so achingly dull. And when it comes to rough and tumble? Well, I’m a 42-year-old woman with a weak pelvic floor that needs sorting out, so you can probably guess the answer to that one.
Thankfully, however, I have a partner who loves playing with our son. And that got me thinking: could there be a reason for this disparity that extends beyond my natural ineptitude for laying a bridge over a dam, and a connecting railway station over the bridge that runs over that dam? And am I alone at being terrible – and feeling terrible, in turn – at this?
No, thankfully. It turns out that there is a biological reason that I don’t enjoy playing as much as my partner, and it’s all down to the glorious “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin. It’s released in abundance during pregnancy, and I still feel a bursting rush of it flooding my system every time my son gives me a hug, or brushes my cheek with one of his most delicious kisses. But I don’t get it when I’m playing with him.
Extensive research has shown that oxytocin is released when children interact with their parents, but it differs depending on which caregiver they’re interacting with. In studies looking specifically at the reaction to oxytocin levels in fathers, it has been found that physical touch, particularly “playful proprioceptive touch”, is associated with higher oxytocin levels.
My partner seems as overjoyed as my son when he’s throwing him up in the air, or leaping about on the bed – and this might be the reason why: a father and his child get a peak in oxytocin from playing with each other – and this is why dads can seem to prefer playing to caretaking, and children preferentially seek them out as play partners.
So now we turn to what has been nagging at me in the middle of the night: whether it’s just me who feels this way. To find out, I guiltily confessed my dislike of child play with some close friends – and was incredibly relieved when they said they felt the same. These are women who I admire and I think are outstanding mothers, yet they don’t enjoy playing either.
So why does it feel so taboo to admit it? And why, societally speaking, are mothers (particularly) made to feel such shame about it? For me, being presented with a constant barrage of “Insta-perfect” parenting, where glamorous influencer mums warn of “only a few short and perfect summers to enjoy when they want to be around you” and “you’ll regret not playing with them when they’re all grown up”, leave me feeling like a parental failure.
Thankfully, I adore reading to my son – and, as highlighted this week by Michael Morpurgo – it’s both the perfect outlet for my dramatic inclinations and hugely beneficial to children. Thank goodness!
I think it’s time I focus on what I do love about being a parent: going on adventures outside – and taking him to the shops. It provides endless entertainment for him, and great company for me – plus we always manage to strike off some of the tasks on my never-ending “to do” list. Then it’s back home for a cup of tea and to put my feet up – while Daddy gets ready to be the Fat Controller...