“How often do you play with her, one on one?”

My best friend and I are running before the sun is fully up, during the last precious hour before our kids rise. Our eyes are on the trail ahead. My friend can’t see me wrinkle my nose like I just sniffed week-old garbage.

I hate playing.

I love spending time with my elder daughter. I’m happy to read to her, draw with her, or take her to Starbucks (Americano for me, vanilla steamer for her). I’ll DJ an impromptu dance party or make my silliest faces. But I won’t pretend to be a unicorn. I’m her mother, not her playmate.

“I don’t play.” 

My friend says she’s no expert, and she’s not telling me what to do, but when she set aside dedicated time to play with her five-year-old, his behavior changed for the better.

“No,” I say. “Please tell me what to do. I’m desperate.”

Every day, I poke my head into my husband’s home office. I need to vent, cry, or both, because I’m out of patience. Sometimes I’m so angry and frustrated, I’m afraid I’m out of love. My daughter, an easygoing baby who grew into a delightful toddler, became a different person around her third birthday.

She used to go with the flow. Now things have to be exactly as she’d imagined, whether it’s the shoes she wears or the precise way I’m supposed to help her on the monkey bars. She used to greet me like we’d been separated for years when I picked her up from gym childcare. Now, she acts like I’m a kidnapper at preschool pickup.

I dread taking her to the park or the library because, while she can be unpredictable, I can count on her meltdown when it’s time to go. No timer, choice, or warning prevents the inevitable: me carrying her away, kicking and screaming, with one hand, while pushing her little sister’s stroller with the other.

My husband listens, but all he offers is sympathy. “That sounds really hard, babe,” he says. I consult books and try their “solutions,” to no avail.

My friend doesn’t understand. She is an expert. She has been through this.

She recommends a website that says you should play with your kid. Apparently, playing is different than just spending time together. Children process their experiences and emotions through play. According to the experts, we’ll connect not when we chat or take a walk, but when I get on the floor and into her world. Why couldn’t I have figured this out myself, I wonder. As an occupational therapist, I know this makes sense.

Once I put my toddler down for a nap, I turn to my four-year-old.

“You wouldn’t want to set a timer for 10 minutes, would you?”

Mid-day sun pours through the living room window, setting her blonde hair aglow. She squints, cocking her head slightly. Usually the timer means five minutes until bedtime or four minutes of time out.

“Ten minutes for us to play whatever you want,” I explain.

Her face opens into a grin.

“Yeah!” she exclaims.

I set my phone timer for 10 minutes, then set it aside and enter her universe.

“Pretend you’re the mom and I’m the baby,” she says.

“Okay,” I say.

I don’t say that I, too, long for the time when her whole body fit in my arms. I don’t say that no matter how big she grows, she will always be my baby.

I open my arms and she climbs into my lap. I rest my chin on her tangle of blonde curls. She was still bald on her first birthday. Now it seems her hair grows in thicker every day. I feel the gentle rise and fall of her head that follows her breath.

“Meh?” she says. This is her best baby impersonation.

She looks up at me with the same dark brown eyes that stared at me just moments after her birth. I stroke her back and rock her gently. I can feel her ribs and think she’s done it again, stretched taller overnight. 

“Meh,” She repeats, now a statement, not a question. She nestles her head in the crook of my arm.

My timer dings and I leave her to play in her room while I open my laptop. An hour passes before she asks if rest time is over, and I’m shocked. Normally, she’s interrupting me every five minutes.

The next day, I’m the mommy cat and she’s the kitten. The day after that, she’s the baby and I’m the babysitter. The day after that, we play hide and seek. The day after that, she’s an injured puppy and I’m the vet.

And every day, some of my girl’s sass and defiance melt away to expose more of the kindness, love, and flexibility underneath. In the short time since I’ve started making time to go wherever my daughter’s imagination leads, her outbursts and tantrums shift from frequent to seldom. Meanwhile, I no longer dread playing.

My friend and I meet for our Thursday morning run.

“I can’t believe it’s only been a week,” I tell her. “It’s working.” I speak a few words at a time, in bursts, as we bound, breathless, up a long hill.

“All this time, the more she acted out, the less I wanted to connect with her,” I explain. “I didn’t get that she was acting out because she craved connection with me. I can’t believe it took me over a year to figure it out.”

Dirt and gravel crunch beneath our feet while the rising sun casts a bright yellow glow on the mountains with the dawn of a new day.