Creativity Lesson: Play
I lived to play house when I was a little girl. I had roughly a gazillion baby dolls, my mom’s old high heels, a sandbox kitchen, and a neighbor boy who was occasionally willing to play the part of my platonic baby-raising partner. I could get lost for hours dreaming up various scenarios in which I cared for my army of babies, rocking them in a little wooden cradle, feeding them disappearing milk from cheap toy baby bottles, cooking up sandy mac and cheese, and generally bossing everyone around. I felt totally in my element when I played house.
I got married when I was just 21 years old, and a lot of those first years of marriage felt like an advanced version of playing house. There were no babies to care for, but I might as well have been in my old sandbox kitchen as I learned how to cook, one burned casserole at a time. I might as well have been in my mom’s old high heels as I tried to prove that I was an actual grown up in my advertising sales job, answering the question of how old I was with a confident “old enough” anytime someone questioned my experience level. We had two incomes, no kids, and — with parents who probably still paid our cell phone bills — a safety net that felt indestructible. Stakes were relatively low, so we learned by playing, as 21-year-olds do.
Eventually, the jobs got more serious. Then there was a mortgage and a host of other grown up bills (yes, including the cell phone bill). I got laid off the day our very first mortgage payment was due, and I aged by at least a decade in the blink of an eye. We wove our own safety net, with retirement accounts, a community of friends in our neighborhood, and a marriage conference at our church. We weren’t playing house anymore. We were doing real life.
And then we were parents. I quit my job to stay at home. We moved across the state to be closer to my parents. We bought a private health insurance plan and a breast pump and a Baby Einstein DVD boxed set. My husband worked long hours and we adjusted to life on one income and I called him at 5pm every day to ask when he would be home to save me from the baby and the laundry and the conviction that I was doing everything wrong. The air conditioner in my car broke in the middle of August and we didn’t have enough money for the $1,800 repair. I sat on the edge of my bed and cried. This had never been one of the scenarios I dreamed up all those years ago.
As playing house gave way to the hard work of building a life, play vanished from my life altogether. I loved watching my son play, joyfully butchering the hokey pokey dance with his karaoke Elmo, but it never occurred to me play was still an option for me, too. Not simply playing with my son, graduating from peek-a-boo to chase to monster trucks, but letting my own spirit play. While seeing my son’s delight in our silly games made my heart explode with joy, I felt myself begin to slip away a bit as my days became more and more centered around him.
My first essay for Coffee + Crumbs, published in August 2014, was about how a childhood friend’s offhanded comment made me realize that I had forgotten how to play. In my quest to initially prove that I was a real grown up, and then in my quest to be the best version of a stay-at-home mom that I could imagine, I had completely turned that part of myself off. There was no room for play in a life I had filled up with to-do lists and never-done-well-enough lists.
It’s strange, how such a casual comment by a friend I hardly see anymore could have had such a big impact on me, but it was—not to sound dramatic here—a revelation. I began to think about what I did for fun before I was trying so hard to be responsible all the time. What made me laugh the hardest? What would I blow off my homework to go do? What had I dreamed about accomplishing when I didn’t know about mortgage payments and safety nets that you have to weave and repair yourself?
Slowly, I began to make time for some of those things. I had loved running along the beach trail and swimming in the ocean when I was in college in Southern California, so I signed up for an all women’s triathlon on Mother’s Day, just to try it on and see if it still fit. Even though I had to buy a new swimsuit for it (spoiler alert: my college bikini no longer fit), being active and being outside brought me just as much joy as it had back then. And doing it just for myself, no stroller, no destination, just for the hell of it, felt totally indulgent.
I had always loved writing and had once-upon-a-time maintained a blog where I wrote whatever I wanted for a marginally entertained audience of probably 11 friends and family members. I shut that blog down not long after becoming a mom, though, too busy to maintain it and too embarrassed by some of the years-old posts that felt clunky and naive from my new perspective. As I searched to learn how to play again, I came back to writing to see if there might still be some joy there. There was, of course, and with every word I wrote, whether about motherhood or not, I knew myself better. Writing felt like nurturing my whole self, not just my mom self.
Playing house may not have prepared me very well for the real work of caring for babies and navigating a relationship with a partner (although I can still wear the hell out of some high heels, thank you very much), but perhaps that was never the point. Perhaps the best part about playing house was simply that it taught me how to play. How to know what I liked to do, to be imaginative about it, and make time for it.
At the tender age of 35, I’m still learning how to play. I still forget how important it is sometimes. I tell myself ridiculous stories about what I’m allowed to do and how much time or energy or money I’m allowed to invest in letting my own spirit feel free. I’m constantly fumbling at finding a balance of being responsible and being fun.
As I raise these two boys of mine, who know how to play more surely than they know how to walk, I understand anew how utterly human it is, how innate, how necessary it is to simply play.
What is the most playful memory you have of yourself? Not playing with your child(ren) or playing for the purpose of entertaining someone else, but a time where the rest of the world seemed to disappear as you were totally caught up in the sheer joy of what you were doing? Write a personal reflection essay about this memory, taking time to think through why you found so much pleasure in that moment and if you can recognize broader themes about the moments/memories/activities that make your spirit feel most free.
Write out an itinerary for a kid-free full day of play for yourself. You can be either realistic or outlandish about the financial and geographical constraints, but you must be totally authentic about planning out an itinerary that would allow you to shake off your responsible self and get in touch with the most playful version of yourself.