Why I don’t play with my child

I have recently started to turn down Kitty’s requests to play with me. ‘Mummy will you play with me?’ she says. And I have to say: ‘No, I can’t.’

Because that is the truth. I can’t play with her the sort of games she wants to play. They are other-worldly, mad, repetitive fantasy games of such inordinate wackiness and tedium that I literally cannot play them with her. I am about thirty-one years too old to play with her and it’s time to stop pretending that I can play with her – or should.

I will do Play-Doh with her, help her with stickers, do jigsaws, build a tower, colour in and get her involved in cooking. But ‘playing’? No, sorry, can’t.

She would take some MegaBloks and call out ‘C’mon birdies, come and eat your bird seed!’ This was my cue to swoop down on the MegaBloks squawking like a bird, snatch up the ‘bird seed’ and carry it away around the kitchen.

One game that she cooked up, which still strikes fear into my heart, is an awful thing called ‘Birdseed’. She would take some MegaBloks and call out ‘C’mon birdies, come and eat your bird seed!’ This was my cue to swoop down on the MegaBloks squawking like a bird, snatch up the ‘bird seed’ and carry it away around the kitchen. Kitty would run after me, crying and howling – seemingly in genuine distress – ‘GIVE ME BACK MY BIRDSEED!!’ at which point I would drop the bloks on the floor, she would miraculously recover, and I would go back to ‘perching’ on the coffee table. Kitty would then scatter the bloks back on the carpet and, smiling, trill ‘C’mon birdies, come and eat your bird seed!’

It was hateful. Hateful! And humiliating. The other one was ‘Marching’, where we all had to put on hats and toot whistles and march around the living room and out into the garden and back again.

Eventually I put my foot down. I offered alternatives. We could do the Play-Doh, or the jigsaw, or the stickers? But not this nonsense. When Kitty started nursery and got to have some little friends, seeing them play together – chasing each other for twenty minutes running away from a ‘giant’ and shouting ‘Poo poo head will come to get you!’ – made me realise how entirely unsuited I was to this. I felt better about saying no. And she took it on the chin.

Esther Walker
Esther with Kitty, 3, and Sam, 1

Playing with babies is not so negotiable. Either you have to do it, or someone else does. It’s less humiliating and can genuinely be delightful! For about three minutes. Absolute max, twenty minutes. If you have to play with a baby for most of the waking day, it can be totally intolerable.

My children went through a few distinct stages. The first was the newborn thing where they were mostly asleep or they sat in their bouncers and stared. The next stage was when they were happy to stare at a dangling thing for a while. The third was when they were happy to sit on the floor and bat a few toys about, stick things in their mouths, drool, put MegaBloks into a saucepan, empty the saucepan, put MegaBloks in the saucepan, empty the saucepan …

Then there is a last, terrible stage of ‘play’ which I get with my kids – and you might get with yours, too – which is between twelve months and whenever they get off their fat arses and walk (neither of mine crawled much). This is when you have to sit with them and constantly entertain them, pass them new things, sing songs and read them books. You cannot leave them alone to entertain themselves or they start shrieking or want to be picked up and hefted around while you try to complete tasks one-handed.

Now she wants to stand at this cupboard and open and close the door. Open, close, open, close, open, close. Open. Close. Now she wants to take out and smash the china

This is the stage of infancy with Kitty that genuinely traumatised me.

This was a typical five minutes in the life of Kitty Coren when she was fourteen months old: She wants to be picked up, no, put down, she wants to sit on this narrow windowsill and play with the cat flap. She wants the cat – SHE WANTS THE CAT! PLEASE I WANT THE CAT. Now she wants to get down and, being held up by the hands, she wants to walk, walk, stumble, walk, walk. Now she wants to stand at this cupboard and open and close the door. Open, close, open, close, open, close. Open. Close. Now she wants to take out and smash the china PLEASE LET ME SMASH THE CHINA I WANT TO SMASH THE CHINA. Now she wants to be picked up! Down! Up! Down. She wants to run after the ball and kick it but she can’t run or really kick. Now she wants to screw and unscrew the lid on this tube of moisturiser but she doesn’t understand how the screw mechanism works. RAGE! Now I want to be picked up and go somewhere to do something but I CANNOT EXPLAIN WHAT IT IS SO I AM JUST GOING TO GO RED AND GO ‘EEEEEEEHHRH? MMMMMMOOOO?! EHHH EHHH EHHHHHHH?!’

It was absolutely and completely dementing. Then suddenly when Kitty was fifteen and a half months old and started walking, the torture stopped and nothing was ever as bad again, not even when she turned two and woke up three times a night for six weeks, not even potty-training (which was awful, q.v.), not even … anything. Nothing was as bad as that.

I had only just recovered from it when I got pregnant again and that period – between one year and whenever it would start walking – of my second child’s life was what I dreaded most about the entire process. I was quite right to: Sam is worse than Kitty in many ways as he is so much clingier.

‘Don’t wish it away!’ people say. Why the fuck not? I do not wish away good times. In my life I only wish away times that are genuinely nasty.

He also did not walk for a long time, and from eleven months to 17 months was perfectly nightmarish. I thanked God most days that he liked his nanny and I could have weekday mornings away from this insane, incredibly heavy chimp who wanted everything but was amused by nothing – and most of all wanted me. He would sit and point at me. ‘Ehhhhhhhaaaaaaaehhhhhhhh!!!’ he would squeal. It was like having a stalker, a madly passionate lover who just wanted to cling to me and often pinched me or bit me out of sheer, crazed, wordless feeling.

‘Don’t wish it away!’ people say. Why the fuck not? I do not wish away good times. In my life I only wish away times that are genuinely nasty. The other times in my life that I have wished away I have gladly left behind and not wanted back. And I would be as aghast to have those times back with their frightening exams or heartache or shitty work or awful neighbours as I would those terrible times with Kitty or Sam, when I didn’t know how to make them happy, when they seemed so trapped and miserable in their inefficient, incompetent bodies.

Another thing people say is ‘It goes so quickly! They grow up so fast!’

NO, IT DOESN’T! NO, THEY DON’T!! I dare say it goes fast for grannies or aunties or people who don’t see your baby every freaking day. Every freaking minute. And I dare say once your youngest child is walking and talking, and generally just being a bit less of a pain in the arse, time does suddenly accelerate because every moment is not such flipping hard work.

But those early years – Jesus Christ – they do not last for a minute less than they reasonably should. And, when your children start to play with other children and – light of lights! – with each other, the hard work is truly over. And don’t try and give me any of your shit about what hard work teenagers are because I just don’t believe you, okay?

Once your kids no longer need to play with you, all there is to do is the washing up. And to my mind, that is infinitely preferable to pretending to be a large, malicious bird.

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