Before my wife and I swapped roles and my wife went back to work, she wrote a weekly column about family life for one of Britain’s biggest selling women’s weekly magazines. Every Monday, I’m going to go through her archives and reproduce one of her ramblings on my blog.
This week’s theme: PLAYING WITH MY KIDS BORES ME!
It was the middle of the night and I was sitting bolt upright in bed with my eyes wide, my skin drenched in sweat and my heart beating like an express train.
‘What is it?’ mumbled The Husband from beneath the duvet. ‘Is it the menopause?’
‘No,’ I gasped. ‘I had a nightmare. I was doing Talk Barbies again.’
There was a low groan.
‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘Not Talk Barbies.’
Let me explain.
When my eight-year-old daughter was very little she loved Barbie. She had about five Barbies, Barbie’s horse, Barbie’s house and more clothes than Barbie could possible wear in a year.
What she did not have was someone to play Barbies with. Then she discovered me. And life was never the same again. From first thing in the morning to last thing at night, all she wanted to do was act out a role-play game she called ‘Talk Barbies’.
It went something like this.
Her: ‘Mummy, I’m Barbie and you’re Barbie’s friend, Chelsea. We’re going shopping.’
Me (as Chelsea): ‘Oh hi, Barbie. You wanna go shopping today?’
Her: ‘No, Mum. She wouldn’t say that. You’re doing it wrong. They’re already at the shops.’
Me (as Chelsea): ‘Okay Barbie. Do you like this dress? I’m gonna try it on.’
Her: ‘No, Mummy. That’s Barbie’s dress. I’ll tell you what to do and say and then you do and say it.’
And so it went on. I tried to encourage her to play other games. I took her to the park. I taught her to ride a scooter. We fed the ducks. But all she really wanted to do was Talk Barbies.
Then something happened. I had another baby. With a real-life dolly to coo over, my daughter forgot all about Barbie. I skipped back to the land of adults and left Barbie behind. Or so I thought.
Fast-forward five or so years to a week ago and I was reading the newspaper when I came across a headline that sent me hurtling back in to Barbie’s stiff plastic arms.
It read: Parents are too busy to play with their children
The implication was that this was some form of parental – most likely maternal – failing.
I thought: ‘Here we go again. It’s bash-a-mum day!’
I said to the newspaper: ‘I know you’re talking about me. But I’m 41. I have a job. I have bills to pay and a home to run. I don’t have time to play! My mother didn’t have time to play with me and, look, I turned out all right!’
And I would have chucked the newspaper in the bin but for the fact that the headline was based on a report carried out by the child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron, a woman so talented she can make kids eat broccoli – and like it.
So I read on.
According to Prof Byron, not only were a fifth of parents in her survey too busy to play with their kids, almost a third found playtime boring. And, what’s more, their kids knew it.
I gulped. I thought of Barbie, I thought of my daughter and I said out loud: ‘Oh dear, I’m a terrible mum.’
You see, I have a confession to make.
I am one of those parents who finds playing with kids dull.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a run about in the park or a trip to the swings, a bit of colouring in or even a game of Hungry Hippos. But, frankly, most of the games children love to play bore me rigid. Talk Barbies was so tedious I fantastised about cleaning out the kitchen cupboards as an escape.
Now, there are those who will shout at me: ‘If you can’t be bothered to play with your kids, why did you have them in the first place?’
And I could give many answers to this question but you can be sure that ‘so I could spend my life playing Talk Barbies’ is not one of them.
Still, I felt ashamed. I thought: ‘I must make amends.’
So I dashed upstairs to the children’s bedroom and said: ‘Anyone fancy a game?’
Three faces looked up.
I said: ‘We could play Guess Who or Operation or Connect 4 or build something in Lego or….’
I gulped. ‘Or we could do Talk Barbies….’
‘Well,’ said the eight-year-old, ‘we’re playing with the farm at the moment.’
‘Great,’ I said. ‘Bring it downstairs and we’ll all play that together.’
We set up the farm on the living room carpet and began. I took the role of a cow. Appropriate, I thought. Everything was going well until I asked why the farm was being run by a group of penguins.
My six-year-old son stared at me as though I were particularly thick.
‘They’re visiting,’ he said. ‘It’s the little penguin’s birthday.’
‘No,’ said the eight-year-old, ‘they own the farm. They bought it from some badgers.’
‘No they didn’t,’ said the six-year-old. ‘And it’s my farm so I get to say what happens.’
They started to argue. Animals were thrown in temper. The six-year-old began to cry.
We tried a different game. I played the eight-year-old at Connect Four. I won and she sulked. When I let her win she said: ‘That’s worse than just beating me.’
Next we played Operation. The eight-year-old was better than everyone and that just made the six-year-old cry again.
‘I know,’ I said, ‘let’s go out.’
We went for a walk in the park. We played chase. We kicked a ball about and then we headed into the woods. In one spot, the branches of some trees had formed what looked like a little house.
‘It’s a den,’ said the eight-year-old. ‘And this log is the sofa.’
‘And this branch is the upstairs,’ said the six-year-old.
‘Let’s go in and play,’ I said.
The kids hesitated. They exchanged glances.
‘You can read your paper if you like,’ said the eight-year-old. ‘We don’t mind.’
‘No, I’ll play,’ I said.
The eight-year-old hopped from one foot to the other. I could tell she was thinking of the best way to break bad news.
‘The thing is, Mum,’ she said, ‘you’re an adult and really a den is kids’ stuff. We just do it better.’
What she meant was: Mum, you’re rubbish at the games we like. We’ve put up with you all these years out of pity. But now you’re sacked.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I see.’
She continued: ‘We like doing other things with you. Cooking and baking cakes and gardening. That’s what you’re good at – oh, and helping us with homework and nagging and stuff.’
I sat down on a bench. I suppose I should have felt guilty but I just felt relieved.
You see, my kids had reminded me that there isn’t just one sort of playtime. Playing with your kids can take many forms – from cooking together to washing the windows to doing the shopping. It doesn’t have to involve dollies or dressing up to be educational and fun.
And I realised something else. Very few of us are great at all the bits of being a mum. Some of us are good at cuddles. Some are brilliant at making rockets out of loo rolls. And some, I’m sure, are ace at Talk Barbies.
Apparently, I’m good at cooking, helping with homework, nagging and stuff.
And if that’s OK with my kids, then it’s OK with me.