The fluorescent red numbers on the cable box flashed 7:30. Other than the ticking sound of my Yorkie walking across the hardwood floors, the house was quiet. Saturday is the morning I long for all week. It is the one day when I do not force myself to rise before the sun to steal 15 or 20 minutes of calm before the organized chaos of the day begins. It is when I set all urgency aside and move a bit slower and with more leisure. Although I yearn for each and every Saturday morning, the fantasy of them is always far more satisfying than the reality. There are still errands to run, laundry to wash and fold, and life to live. All Saturday does is keep the “to-do’s” at bay a bit longer than Monday through Friday do.

This particular Saturday, I crept around my bedroom as if avoiding minefields. I knew that, at best, I had about another half-hour to enjoy the brewing cup of dark roast coffee, whose aroma serves as my wake-up call, and maybe get through five pages of a current read. As I quietly exited my room and slowly turned to close the door behind me, I was ambushed by a commandant about three feet tall weighing no more than 35 pounds. In his signature charming yet strong-arm way, he looked up at me and said, “Mommy, play with me.”

This is how our battle begins, as it does every Saturday morning.

In my most sincere voice, I looked him in the eye and promised to play later after I had my coffee, put breakfast on, and took care of a couple of things around the house. I would play, as I always do, but “later” and “after” have grown increasingly insufficient to him. “Now” and “right now” are his new orders of the day. My stomach dipped, my heart raced, and I began to feel overwhelmed. I knew exactly where this standoff was headed. I would begin to negotiate, and he would resist until I surrendered.

The sympathetic mom in me gets it. He just turned four years old, is an only child, and is raised by me alone. What else does a four-year-old child want to do other than play? Since I am the nearest playmate, by default, I’m “it” each and every time. On this Saturday, however, the woman inside me who is fighting for her sanity decided she could no longer allow herself to be held hostage by the unrelenting demands of a preschooler.

The Day I Said, “No,” to Play

The seemingly never-ending war would cease, or at least the balance of power would shift. I could not continue to live under the angst of playing Batman and Captain America versus the evil pirates, or create elaborate missions for Iron Man, or craft yet another crisis for the Paw Patrol to avert. Intermittent hours of this always left me feverishly trying to cook meals, do laundry, tidy up the house, write, and maybe squeeze in something solely for my pleasure, like reading, a little TV, Pinterest, or connecting with the outside world.

Before taking any action, I wanted reassurance that my expectations were reasonable. I needed to know what I was experiencing with my son was not some unfortunate private struggle. I had to know that I was one of many parents fighting the same losing battle. After googling, “My four-year-old wants me to play all the time,” I got a resounding affirmation. Posts crowded my computer screen. Countless moms and dads questioning, searching, desperately begging for answers as to what they could do to save themselves from the incessant demands to play by their children. 

Then it struck me, maybe we were all wrong. Since this was an overwhelmingly shared struggle, perhaps the demand to play by our children was absolutely normal, and emotional harm would be caused by not acquiescing. Guilt rains down on me like a monsoon whenever I abruptly end our play to do other things. I self-persecute, thinking it’s my job to play with him. I tell myself that after several pregnancy losses, the highest display of gratitude is to ensure that he’s always happy, even if it means hours of insanity-producing play for me. I shame myself for not having a successful marriage so that he could have a sibling to grow up and play with like nearly all of his other little buddies.

When I read the perspective of child psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., all of my guilt and shame began to dissipate. She shared that parents should encourage independent play. Her reasoning was everything I suspected: to foster independence, encourage creativity, and to learn how to navigate boredom. Nor was I doing my son any favors by listlessly summoning myself to our living room floor to play whatever, whenever, and however he wanted. According to Boston College professor Peter Gray, Ph.D., “Play should never ever be a duty; it should always be for fun. Play, by definition, is something that you want to do; so if you ‘play’ with your child without wanting to you are not playing.”   

Armed with all of the reassurance I needed, I committed to no longer being commandeered into play. The awaited prompt came when my son said, “Mommy, you be Robin and I’m Batman,” while shoving a mini action figure in my hand. 

I handed Robin back to him and said, “Mommy can’t play with you right now, but I promise I will play after I do a few things. How about you play with your toys until I’m ready?”

His eyes brimmed with tears, his voice turned shrill, and his persistence grew unyielding. The more I stood my ground and walked throughout the house feigning unawareness, the more willful he became. Toys crashed to the floor, whining turned to woeful sobbing and, finally, an explosive meltdown. I wanted to give in to stop his agony, but I didn’t, mainly to hold on to the remnants of my nearly depleted patience. I had already committed. The tide was going to turn.

When he tired from crying and saw that his sobs weren’t pushing me into action, he stopped. I explained to him that sometimes Mommy will be able to play, and other times she won’t. The same thing I’ve always said.  This time, however, I was firmly rooted in my “no,” and he could see it.

I had to teach my son, and he still has to learn, that while our love is constant, our togetherness is fluid. He needs to understand that while he is my world, other things that matter to me also make it go round. He must know that although we’re a team, each player deserves some relief from time to time. While at four years old, this lesson is hard and unwelcome, my hope is that with the passage of time, my boy will come to appreciate that when there is no one around or nothing to do, there is no better place than the quiet of his own imagination to create all the wonders his mind’s eye can see.