Serious Play


“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”  1 Cor 13

“I just want to be like you!”  My daughter screamed these words out as she stood crying with those tiny capillaries in her face that turn red when she’s upset, and tears trickling down her nose- her eyes begging for help and also full of fire.   I had been firm with her because it was time for her to go to sleep, but instead of climbing into bed, she was insistent on changing her favorite doll, Rebecca, into her pajamas for the night.  I explained to her that this could’ve been done before but it was time to go to sleep now and not time to start playing with her doll.  That’s when she started crying and insisted that she believed her doll was alive, and that she had to take care of her doll just the way I take care of her.  Rebecca had been coming everywhere with us lately, eating meals beside us, and even took her shoes off at the door and left them beside ours.

In the end, I let her change Rebecca for bed, mostly because it would take less time to allow it than to continue a long conversation about how she’d had plenty of time to do that earlier but now it was time for sleep.   I saw in her eyes how important it was for her, and then I remembered the particular satisfaction that I felt when I nurtured and cared for my own dolls as a small child.  I fed my doll Cheerios at her high chair beside me at the table.  I dressed them, pushed them in the stroller, and rocked them to bed at night in their cradles.  I too felt that they were somehow alive, and I even thought I glimpsed a look of betrayal in their eyes when I told them I was moving them to the basement as I grew older.

Remembering that sense of satisfaction and desire to mother made me wonder why, now, with a real live human child, I felt mostly exhaustion at night when I put her to bed – a desire for her to fall asleep quickly.  Sure, I often feel wistful for her playful voice as soon as she does fall asleep and I usually kiss her head and stare at her for a few moments before I turn off her heart light and head down the hall.  But when, I wonder, did I lose the pure satisfaction of nourishing.

And taking care of a doll isn’t the first or only category for which this question has arisen.  There have been many others.  Like when I am cleaning and she wants to join in.  “Can I clean the baseboards again?  It’s so much fun.” she says.  Or when I’m driving: “Is it fun to drive?  It looks like so much fun.”  Using a squeegee to clean the shower is another one.  So is sweeping off the front porch and doing the dishes.  While I’m stressing out trying to pack for a trip, she’s practically drooling watching me fold things and put them in a suitcase.  None of these seem like work or drudgery to her.  Often in her mind, they are things I’m hogging.  I get to do all of the fun stuff.  “It’s not fair.”

But I recall vividly the fulfillment she is after.  I sat at my childhood desk for hours playing “Bank,” filling out  fake customer names on the blank deposit slips I’d swiped from the bank.  I can still feel my hot pink plastic push button telephone pressed up against my warm ear ear while I took calls from clients and leafed through paperwork in folders.  Hours passed effortlessly.  There was also “Island” – a game I played in the basement with a friend.  We’d build a tent using 1970’s bar stools and blankets and pretend we were stranded on an island.  We’d gather “food” and cook it and do our best to survive.  Another friend’s mother used to let us play “Florida” in her parked car in the driveway.  We’d sit in the car, my pushy friend always in the driver’s seat, turning the wheel as we set off on our trip.

We spend our childhood eager to do “grownup things,” modeling after our parents.  So why, when we get here, do we find so little satisfaction in the real thing?  I’m not saying that in a deeper sense, I am not incredibly satisfied as a mother.  I am.  It is the most marvelous thing I have ever known, and means so much more than I could have comprehended as a child tucking in her dolls.  I also feel contentment when I’m admiring a room I’ve just cleaned, or when I’m preparing a favorite meal.  But I still think of the pure joy I had pretending and feel pretty sure I’m missing out somehow.

Yes, grownup life comes with a lot more responsibility, stress, and physical exhaustion than pretending did.  It’s tiring caring for a small child 24/7, and normal that at the end of a day of meeting the needs of others,  you look forward to an hour or so to yourself.   Caring for a living sick child with a high fever is nerve-wrecking in a way that caring for a plastic doll is not.  Completing the Sisyphean tasks of housework- not because you want to, but because you have to if you don’t want to live in squalor, is more draining than sweeping because you have time and because it looks like fun.   When we no longer have the assurance that someone else is taking care of everything- because we are now the grown-ups, all of those things that looked “like fun” now reek of responsibility.

Those are all valid, contributing reasons, but I don’t think any of them are the real reason we lose that sweetness we experienced in accomplishing ordinary tasks as children.  When I close my eyes and place myself back at my desk talking on my plastic phone or on the “island” or setting out Cheerios on the small pink flowered high chair tray, what I experience most is a sense of timelessness.  Maybe it’s because I was too young to tell time.  Whether that contributed or not, there was simply no “next thing” I was going to do after that activity.  I was fully engaged in the present moment.  Secondly, nothing was mundane; everything was novel.  And lastly, everything I did- I did just right.  There was no standard of comparison, no second-guessing oneself in a pretend world of one’s own creation.

How can we tap into that when we always have a next thing- in fact we have a to-do list multiple pages long?   Is it possible to know that kind of satisfaction when nothing is novel anymore; we’ve literally cleaned bathrooms and done dishes and tucked little ones in thousands of times.  Can I feel that sense of gratification with the way I’ve chosen to do it when there are now overwhelming standards of comparison to be found on Pinterest, Facebook, and other blogs?  There are some people that will tell you it is possible.  You can experience that satisfaction if you keep a gratitude journal or practice mindfulness.  You can and should enjoy “every moment.”

I think probably, it is possible for moments- at a time- to return to this very pure love- for that is really what it is – a pure love of life in all its domestic and intimate details as it appears to rise up before one in all of its newness.  I would liken it to what Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes of the possibility of returning to that first phase in a love relationship.  You can take vacations with your spouse and try to duplicate some of the circumstances of that first season- and this is a healthy and wise thing to do.  But, she says, “One learns to accept the fact that no permanent return is possible to an old form of relationship; and, more deeply still, that there is no holding of a relationship to a single form.  This is not tragedy but part of the ever-recurrent miracle of life and growth.”

I like this idea that the joy and satisfaction that we had as children was the “falling in love” phase of our relationship with life.  And now?   Now we are in the “married with kids” stage- literally and figuratively.  While the pureness that was there as a child may seem lost, I think it has evolved and deepened.  I still have those moments of timelessness.  They are not in a pretend world modeling after an adult world- but they are still there in the act of creation.  Now it is in writing or practicing the piano that I find timeless contentment.   I was sitting here writing this piece for almost three hours last night when I meant to be in bed by 10 pm.  Every piece I write will be new.  I will unearth truths I didn’t set off to discover.  And just as I couldn’t second-guess myself in a world of my own imagination as a child, I can bring nothing else to the page except my own story.  It’s all I have- though this has taken some time to re-learn.  Kathleen Norris, poet and Benedictine, says in her essay, “The Quotidian Mysteries” that grownups just don’t “play” the way children do, except for maybe poets and mystics.  She writes,

“The task, and the joy, of writing for me is that I can play with the metaphors that God has placed in the world and present them to others in a way they will accept.  My goal is to allow readers their own experience of whatever discovery I have made, so that it feels new to them, but also familiar, in that it is of a piece with their own experience.  It is a form of serious play.”

Making sure your life isn’t overrun with distractions, taking time for solitude and self-care- are all a means of nurturing your relationship with life and its Giver.  But don’t be surprised if even all of those won’t make it possible for you to perform mundane tasks consistently with the same pleasure as a child does.  You are in the deeper stages of your relation to life, but that doesn’t mean your love is any less beautiful.  It is weathered, complex, and nuanced.  It is… serious play.  When I tuck in my daughter tonight I am weary.  But I delight in the shape of her head and the strands of falling hair on her pillow, and I smile at the sound of her little voice singing while I sit at the dining room table trying to write.


4 thoughts on “Serious Play

  1. It’s amazing how children really love to take part in the tasks we find so mundane. Just this morning I was folding the laundry and my daughter asked with so much eagerness if she could help fold. She was so delighted when I said she could.

    I’ve been learning a lot about the importance of play as adults. It’s not easy for me… I was always much better at being the one to take care of things rather than get involved in play with my children. But now that their playmate, dad, is no longer here, I’ve been trying to step into this new role. But whether male or female, parent or not, I think as adults, most of us have forgotten how to play.

    Here’s an interesting TED talk by Stuart Brown on the importance of play:


    1. Oh- it’s you! Was just going to say- very true. Kids learn by playing. I’ve enjoyed pretend play with Audrey, pretending to be Mary Poppins (she recently told me she really thought I transformed into her), was the voice of a puppet she had for days at a time!, and still play on the playground with her- pretending the whole playground is her house or a ship. Mostly though, it’s draining for me rather than energizing. I guess in this piece, I started out wanting to regain that feeling of gratification, but discovered maybe it’s OK if I find satisfaction in other ways as a grown-up.


  2. 🙂 I know – I usually comment to you personally but working my way to leaving comments and utilizing social media, etc. So thought I’d leave you a comment here today. My son’s play therapist is always encouraging me to discover my play-Self. I’m still working on it. 🙂 Thanks for writing this.


  3. It’s a hard one. My mother would never let me cook. I remember her saying that she wanted food, not a mess and so I never cooked anything until I left home for college. Then I loved cooking, every meal was thought about and planned. My mother used to say that it wasn’t the cooking she hated, but the thinking of what to cook, day after day. I couldn’t understand this; the thinking of what to cook was the fun part. I now feel like her: it’s catering, not cooking. Where did the joy go? When did these things (such as deciding what to wear each day) become a chore, something to be endured and got out of the way?

    I too have tried to find joy in every day things, to do each task willingly. I do think it is the answer because when I manage it, everything feels different. The problem is I soon revert back to grumpily picking rice out of the dishwasher when at one time, every time I opened it I would be fascinated and grateful that the plates were clean.

    I read one of those Facebook quotes recently which said, Growing Up Is Overrated.



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