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Is it a mother’s duty to be her child’s playmate?

kim-kenya

I sat on the living room floor with my one-year-old, three brightly colored balls atop a plywood box between us.  Perched on my elbows, I watched him raise that little wooden mallet as high as his tiny arms would allow and then bring it down with a satisfying thud onto one of the balls, sending the ball down through the box and careening across the floor.  He reeled at his newfound success at this baby-sized whack-a-mole game, giggling so hard at the commotion he had created that it nearly threw him off balance.  I happily retrieved the ball each time it went flying.

His joy was infectious.  I caught myself reflexively wearing one of those stupid love-struck grins, reveling in the purity and simplicity of his happiness, and thought, “This. This is it. Moments like these are why people have children.”  I almost couldn’t get enough.

And then we played the game another 10 minutes. And I had definitely had enough. The repetition had become simply tedious, and my mind wandered to other more stimulating things I could be doing with my time. Like the dishes.

Not only did I feel my mind starting to numb, but I felt trapped. I knew if I tried to escape, he would cry.   And, anyway, wasn’t this my job as a mother?  Shouldn’t I be enjoying it?  Or at least hanging in there for more than a few minutes?  How did I go from euphoria to bored, trapped and guilty in 10 minutes flat?

Perhaps my impatience was the result of living in our fast-paced, hyper-connected, Insta-Google-face-gram  world, whose myriad distractions were preventing me from being wholly present in any given situation.  Maybe all this was at odds with the slow pace of motherhood.  Even so, I had dreamt of these tender mother-child bonding moments from tweenhood on and was unsettled to find that they could become joyless so quickly.  I had the nagging sensation that my impatience was some kind of indication of my failing as a mother.  We’re made to feel communing with our children is the most natural thing in the world, fueled by the very spirit of motherhood, and so when boredom creeps in so does the guilt.  But is playing with our children the “most natural thing in the world?”

No.  Not really.

I learned this shortly after we moved from Boston to a small border town in Western Kenya – the kind with one main road flanked by small dukas (shops) and ramshackle hotels, cutting through a patchwork of small farms.  We moved to start jobs with an organization that studies anti-poverty programs and with a toddler in tow, the only non-African kid in town.

My first month was set aside for “settling in,” making sure our 20-month-old son was adjusting and finding childcare.  Each day I’d set out, hand-in-hand with our son Caleb, taking in our new surroundings.  We’d walk carefully on the craggy paths, making a game out of stepping over the stones while dodging oncoming livestock.  But generally, I was at a complete loss as to what to do with myself and my son for 12 hours of daylight.

There were no playgrounds and the concept of a “playdate” was as foreign as flavored coffee.  Typically, by 10 AM, we had already had four hours of coloring, reading books, building with blocks, putting together puzzles and I would grow increasingly panicked about staving off a meltdown.  For either of us.  It was around that time, we’d set out to explore our new town.  I wondered: what did local mothers do to occupy their own restless children?

The answers were not readily apparent on our walks.  I saw no other mother similarly looking to find entertainment for her child.  I saw plenty of children.  They would be playing with a makeshift soccer ball, cobbled together with plastic bags and string or walking together with jerry cans on their way to fetch water.   There were mothers all over the place but none visibly attached to these benign Lord of the Flies-like gangs of children, and certainly none directing their play.

The mothers I saw on these walks were often chatting with each other in the shade of a storefront overhang or plaiting each other’s hair.  Others were hidden behind walls, preparing ugali, the local staple, or washing clothes in large plastic buckets and setting them in the sun to dry.  I did see plenty of mom-child dyads — moms at the market with babies strapped to their backs and moms riding matatus (mini buses) with toddlers on their laps — but no mother appeared tethered to the whim of their toddler the way I was.  Their daily rhythms were set by an intertwining of chores and relaxing with other adults, and they seemed, at least from the outside, to be enjoying themselves.

We eventually found some remedy for our boredom with our morning visits to little Isaac and his mother.  Isaac was born the same week as Caleb and his parents owned a duka just across that one paved road.  While his mother was tending to customers and asking me polite questions about America, indulging my nascent Kiswahili, Caleb and Isaac would run around in front of the duka and play together.  They became quick friends despite the language barrier, and a ball or a couple of toy cars would keep them occupied for hours. Every once in a while a man would come along and scoop up Isaac in his arms and give him those universally fun-making rides favored by uncles everywhere.

“Is that Isaac’s uncle?” I’d ask.

“No.” Isaac’s mother would respond, settling the issue.

“But who….”

“Oh. That’s Fred. He just brings the bread twice a week.”

In fact, all of the customer and purveyors of their small shop seemed to know the family.  I don’t know if they saw it as a duty, a ritual, a pleasure or if they even thought about it at all, but each person would tease or scoop up little Isaac or give him rides on the back of their bicycle.  Caleb, as Isaac’s new playmate, benefited from this informal web of uncles and aunts too.  And I simply sat back and sipped my chai.

mama

As my work start date approached, we found a woman to look after Caleb when I crossed the road to head to work.  Rukia was reassuring and warm and had already raised 4 children of her own.  She seemed to possess a protective instinct, constantly worrying if Caleb was stepping too close to a ledge or running too close to the road.   Of course, not having observed a lot of mother-child interactions, I was a bit nervous about how she would entertain him all day.  I showed her the toys, the crayons, the chalk, the books, and told her which ones he preferred most.   But I had no idea how she’d fill those long hours.

I got my answer that first day, when I came home from work to see 8 or 9 children playing happily in our living room.  Caleb was running around beaming.

“Mama mama!  Look see dat!” Caleb declared, pointing a tiny finger to an older playmate who managed to make something relatively sophisticated out of Caleb’s small set of Duplos.  The child looked over at me and smiled shyly just as another child rammed a plastic truck into his knee.  They both ran off laughing, Caleb giggling and following after them.

As happy as Caleb was to see me come home and to fall into the security of his mother’s lap, his face fell when his new playmates left the house.

It turned out I didn’t have to worry too much about how Rukia would play with my son.   Rukia saw it as her job to feed, bath him, find him playmates and make sure he didn’t fall on something sharp.  But not necessarily to get down on the floor and draw chalk pictures and do puzzles with him for the better part of a morning. She simply found people more suited to that task.

And that’s when it all came together: Maybe modern parenting is asking too much of mothers.  We’re their constant companions, playmates, disciplinarians, teachers and main source of affection.  We’re the entire village. It’s draining on us and probably not always the best for them.  Maybe it’s OK to spend more time tending to a mother’s other duties and even pleasures as long as there’s an extended web of loving pseudo uncles and a gaggle of mixed-aged friends to run around with.  It might even be better.

We’ve since moved from that small border town to the Provincial capital.  We live now in a compound of townhouses protected by a guard hired by the landlord.  But we’re still in Kenya, so the guard acts as a favorite uncle, taking my baby from my arms and kicking the ball around with the older kids; and the neighbor’s kids run freely in and out of our houses.

Recently, I came downstairs after my Saturday sleep-in to see my second son, Emmet, playing that same wack-a-mole game and delighting, just as his brother had, in his success. Just as before, I happily ran after that escaped wooden ball and relished in his wonderment at his emerging ability.  But when his interest started to outlast my own, I, without any guilt, left the room to make some coffee, confident that any one of the 3 neighbor children playing on the floor next to him would provide interest and distraction.  When I returned, coffee in hand, I saw Sylvanos, a 12-year-old boy who adores Emmet, carrying him to the window to point at the bright yellow weaver birds just outside.  When I returned, I could be a better, maybe even more playful, mother.

About the Author: Kim Siegal lives in Kisumu, Kenya with her husband and 2 sons. She chronicals her experiences living and raising children in Africa in www.mamamzungu.com.  She has written for the Huffington Post, Inculture Parent and is an editor and contributor at www.worldmomsblog.com. She also blogs at www.mamamzungu.com.

This post originally appeared at Brain, Child. Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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