My daughter used to have a babysitter who would look after her for a couple hours each week so I could get some writing done. In that concentrated time, they did nothing but role play.

They played doctors, with an endless stream of cuddly toys as patients. They made a post office with dozens of letters and an elaborate delivery system. They played shops, and vets, and my daughter never stopped coming up with fun ideas for imaginative play. The babysitter, in her early 20s, was fun and playful and always seemed happy and excited to follow along with my daughter’s latest idea.

As a parenting instructor, I know all about the importance of play for children’s wellbeing. I also know that, in addition to playing with other children, they need us to connect with them, too.

In Dr. Daniel Siegal’s book “Parenting From The Inside Out”, he explains how children create ‘meaningful encounters’ with caregivers in order to internalize a sense of us as a ‘safe base’ so they can go out and explore the world as they get older. These encounters are essential for healthy brain development.

Playing with our children, and interacting with them about the ‘small stuff’ is a vital way in which we let them know we are there if they ever need to tell us about the big stuff.

But unlike the babysitter, it isn’t always easy for me to muster the energy to play with my daughter for hours at a time. Life often gets in the way. We’re rushing to get our older kids to school, ourselves to work, or we have housework and cooking to do.

Recently, things got particularly tough when my sister was diagnosed with leukemia. Feeling so upset about my sister made it hard to muster enthusiasm for play. I visited her once a month, which meant traveling to a different country without my daughter for days at a time. I tried to take her with me whenever I could, but children under 12 weren’t allowed on the hospital ward. So we spent many days apart.

Then I donated stem cells so my sister could have a transplant. For a week beforehand, I had to take a drug that stimulated my body to make more stem cells. The drug gave me flu-like symptoms, which left me with little energy to play or connect, and the exhaustion lasted for a couple of weeks.

When I recovered my energy, I found it difficult to bring play back into our lives. My daughter preferred to play with her dad at first, and it took time before she wanted to play with me again. 

Because we’d gone through a period where we weren’t as closely connected, I felt like I had to do something big to bring us back together. In another month or so, I’d be visiting the hospital again, and I wanted to make sure it didn’t disrupt our closeness so much.

One day, I set a timer for an hour, and we played together non-stop. This was something I’d done in the past every now and then, but I decided do it every day for as many days as I could manage it. We played hospitals, and hotels, and restaurants. We served meals, welcomed guests, and treated sick patients. It wasn’t always easy, but it did get easier when I channeled my inner actor and began to share my daughter’s joy.

Those intense hours of play changed the way I parent. Here are some of the things I learned:

The importance of self-care

To do things our children love, we need to be in a good state of mind ourselves. I know my daughter can sense when I’m faking it or am not really in the mood for play. So these intense play sessions needed to be balanced with time for me to do what I loved. Having a relaxing bath, doing some writing, and finding other ways to take care of my needs went to the top of my to-do list.

Children are forgiving

When I first started trying to play with my daughter after my absence, she wasn’t interested. She was angry at me and would rather play with her dad. At first I had to hang around, and let her trust that I really was available. It took time, but not as long as I worried it might.

Feelings pass

I could fill an entire book with all the negative thoughts and feelings I sometimes have while playing with my daughter. I could fill another one with all the positive feelings of joy and deep connection.

What I noticed over time is that all these feelings pass. Sometimes I’d feel intense boredom or a desperate desire to hide away and check my phone. But each feeling passed, and soon we’d be laughing together about something again.

Being mindful helps

When I felt myself getting tired or feeling resentful, I took these moments to notice my body and my breathing. These mindful moments helped refuel me and remind me of my good fortune.

Play time makes time

In our busy lives an hour is a big investment of time, but we get the time back in so many ways. Well-connected kids tend to be more cooperative, so getting out of the house, or getting to bed often goes much more smoothly if you’ve spent time with your kids.

From doing to being

Playing with our children can feel like work. But the more we do it, the more we move away from our busy lives of always doing and enter into the joyful state of simply being with our children. 

Time hurries fast. Life gets in the way. Children become disconnected from parents. Teenagers drift away. This experience has taught me that spending time with our children is caring for our children, and that care helps us hold onto our relationships for longer.