I’ve Learned It’s OK to Be Silly as a Parent
For the most part, my parents seemed not to have fun while parenting my sister and me. I don’t remember a lot of laughter or smiles in our house unless alcohol was involved. And even then, there was no guarantee. The fun often turned ugly because my dad could be a very mean and violent drunk.
I remember playing alone but never with my parents. I’m sure it was a combination of them having to work too hard and for very long hours. After a long, blue collar day either in the Michigan heat/humidity or the bone chilling Michigan winters, my dad would take a hot shower to remove the dirty work from his body and crack open an ice cold Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and then another, and another…
My mom always worked double shifts at the hospital in order to keep the money coming in consistently. I’m sure both of my parents were too tired to play dolls with a kid.
Because my parents were often exhausted and I was left to entertain myself, I spent a lot of time alone in the woods behind our house creating giant, complicated ‘houses’ constructed of pine needles, or swimming in my backyard in a small, above-ground pool. If it wasn’t too hot, I’d spend hours swinging on the swing-set my dad installed. But mainly I roamed. I roamed alone never feeling I was ever in any danger.
Knowing what I know now as an adult, I understand why our house wasn’t a real-life sitcom— my parents didn’t like each other very much and divorced when my sister and I were both very little.
With two people half-heartedly going through the motions of child-rearing, I vowed to be different when I had my own kids. For better or worse, my mom and dad turned me into who I am today — a clown in mom jeans. I parent by counter-example.
Having a child is like getting a tattoo on your face. You better be committed. ~Elizabeth Gilbert
One of the things I most enjoyed about having my three girls is feeling like I hit the jackpot wished for by all children who have suffered through shitty childhoods: I got a do-over. Sure, as a 30-something I was late to the party, but I know I appreciated my personal childhood redux even more than my children going through their actual childhoods. What’s that saying? The youth is wasted on the young, and that definitely applies here.
I’m not sure my husband (now ex) understood my level of immaturity when he married me. He could not grasp why I’d laugh like a middle-schooler at fart and diarrhea jokes. Much to his dismay, I always added to the kids’ potty jokes instead of reprimanding them for being gross. He’d shake his head disapprovingly, and I knew he was wondering how he got stuck with a woman who was so unladylike.
What my ex didn’t comprehend was that I had to be an adult from five years old on; I was a latchkey kid long before the term was coined. He didn’t understand I never felt like I got an opportunity to play because I was born a child with adult responsibilities.
I cleaned the house I lived in with my mom as if it were a hospital room. My “play” consisted of witnessing the magical cleaning power of bleach poured on the disgusting floor of our latest rented house long before I was old enough to begin using it as a beauty product to enhance my hair color. I made dinner and babysat my much younger sister at an age that would be seen as criminal now, and I went to work before it was legal for me to do so — all so that I could relieve my mom of some of the financial burden. My dad paid very little in child support and sometimes he didn’t pay at all.
There were times when my mom couldn’t afford to keep us and she’d send my sister and me to live with our grandparents. Although there was much love and stability at my grandma and grandpa’s house (I no longer had to cook dinner or clean the entire house), I don’t recall a whole bunch of silliness. The one exception was when I used to sneak downstairs when I couldn’t sleep and watch Johnny Carson with my grandpa. My grandpa and I bonded over Johnny. He could make us both laugh.
For the most part, while living at my grandparents, I was still roaming alone around the woods that surrounded my grandparent’s home except I was in Pennsylvania instead of Michigan.
I Finally Learned to Play
Somewhere along the way I lost the ability to have the kind of fun children have. It took time to build a play resume, if you will. Like a 16-year-old looking for a first job, I searched through my lonely childhood experiences for something to pad the blank sheet.
Catherine’s Play Resume:
Catherine utilized fallen pine needles to construct a multi-room home.
Catherine learned to successfully navigate roads to roam and return safely home.
Catherine made delicious mud pies from scratch, adding interest through the use of the aforementioned pine needles, leaves, sticks, and (probably) poisonous berries.
Playing with my children didn’t come naturally to me — I’m sure that comes from not having anyone model the behaviors. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. As a closet perfectionist, I either wanted to play perfectly (whatever that means) or not at all.
I think it took me longer than most people to get into the rhythm of playing with my kids because my husband was (and still is) judgmental. I wouldn’t describe him as playful, although he’s really good at telling jokes. We didn’t have pet names for each other. We didn’t have secret inside jokes that would make us snicker in the presence of others. My husband was always concerned about how other people viewed us and he never wanted us to be found lacking— even by people who didn’t know us.
Like my grandparents, though, he was stable and consistent, and he provided the resources that allowed me to stay home with our girls. For that stability and his paycheck, I am forever grateful. While he was at work making the bacon, I was hard at work on myself and learning to make the kids’ lives memorable.
Doing What I Like & The Kids Followed
Like the previously mentioned 16-year-old first time job seeker, I started my play resume being open to all opportunities. I got down on the floor and played with every toy stubby fingers shoved into my face. I sang songs. I banged on a colorful piano. I built Lego houses. I colored and drew snakes, spiders, and pumpkins. I used watercolors that made the paper curl. I formed Playdoh spaghetti and meatballs. I made edible Playdoh. I made pillow forts. I played hide ‘n seek and spent a lot of time at parks. I pretended to eat fake meals and read every book until I memorized the words.
Through every experience, I evaluated my willingness to do it again. And then I discovered I had a preference for what kind of play I liked. This revelation made learning how to play much easier. Finding what I liked helped me to be the parent I wanted to be: engaged, involved, and fun while still being comforting, consistent, and stable.
Learning what I was willing to do did not mean that I didn’t do what interested the girls, it just meant that there were activities I jumped in with more enthusiasm than others. I never let my girls know I wasn’t truly excited about what they wanted to do because that would be incredibly selfish. I didn’t yawn, sigh loudly, or do anything to take away from the kids’ enjoyment.
What I Enjoyed Doing With My Girls
If I were to tackle the painting of a bedroom, my tool of choice is a giant roller to get the huge portions of the walls. I’m fast and efficient but if I have to do the detail work up near the ceiling, it will take me days — mainly due to procrastination.
I absolutely hate doing detail work, and it turns out I’m the same way with playing. I love BIG DAYS OUT, moving entire bodies instead of lying on the floor struggling to get a dress on a Polly Pocket.
One of the big day outings is something I dubbed National Chain Tour Day. Nobody ever knew when NCTD was going to be declared but it seemed to happen more frequently when it was either a rainy day in winter or a ‘it’s too hot’ day in the summer.
I’d round the girls up and put them in their various car seats and off we’d go! The tour always started at Starbucks. At the counter, the girls would order a hot chocolate if the day was cold and rainy, or they’d get some whipped frozen concoction if it was hot. I grabbed a cup of caffeine — didn’t care if the barista shoved a cold or hot coffee into my grateful hands. With three very active kids, I needed the caffeine.
Grabbing our beverages off the counter, we’d head through the shared doorway to the adjoining Barnes & Noble, diving right into the second stop of our tour.
I’d drift over to the home-based-businesses-you-can-start-from-home-for-pennies-and-make-an-easy-million-dollars-in-the-first-year section, and the girls would aim themselves at the kids’ area perusing whatever caught their eye. After selecting a book I knew probably wouldn’t change my life, I’d grab a seat by my girls and sip my bean juice.
Sam was the kid who determined how long we would remain at Barnes & Noble because she absolutely refused to leave until she finished whatever book she had started. She learned to read at an insanely young age. Fortunately, she read quickly so the silver lining for having to stick around B&N longer than the majority of us wanted was that she saved me some money — that was especially appreciated since I never was able to find a home-based business that generated a lot of money. Or at least, not yet.
The next stop on the giant chain store tour was always a family favorite: PetSmart. The only thing I don’t love about PetSmart is that they sell animals. All I want to do after staring at their sad, lonely faces is bring them all home with me, even the tarantulas and the snakes. The desire is stronger when the poor pets are on sale. Something about seeing a hamster marked down from $14.99 to $7.49 breaks my heart.
While at PetSmart, I’d entertain the girls by pretending to talk for the animals stuck in their cages. I gave them personalities and special voices. What started out as a strategy for me to cope with seeing the desperate for love (or freedom?) pets developed into an afternoon of nonstop laughter for the girls and me.
No matter what kind of mood I was in, no matter how tired, no matter what had happened to me personally prior to walking through the doors of PetSmart, once I was able to get into the mindset of the gerbil, a rat, or a parakeet, everything felt like it was going to be ok.
Talking for the pets became a kind of stand-up comedy routine and I loved hearing my girls laughing so hard I thought they would lose control of their bladders (clean up in aisle 15!).
With our stomachs still hurting from laughter, we’d reluctantly leave the furry/feathered/slithery creatures behind and head to Ross. Announcing fuzzy instructions of “whoever comes up with the craziest outfit, wins a prize,” the girls raced off in search of something truly atrocious to show me.
There were no rules — if they came up with it, it was crazy enough for a prize.
The prize was sometimes discovered in the $1 bins at the final stop: Target. But if they couldn’t find something in the bargain bins, they could opt to get a popcorn instead.
With one kid resting her sore small feet in the cart, the rest of us walked around Target eyeing all the things we weren’t going to buy that day — another successful NCTD completed.
Even though my girls are young adults now, every time they walk through the front door of Target, they take a deep breath and inhale the fragrance of the popcorn and smile. They remember all the good times we spent together playing, being silly, and making the rounds on the National Chain Tour Day.
Almost more importantly, I’ve taught my children that it’s okay to be silly as a parent.
Each day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children. ~Charles R. Swindoll