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I’m a good mom, even if I don’t like playing with my kids

It’s Monday, and I have spent my morning flipping pancakes, braiding hair and brushing teeth. The essentials of my morning are finished, and I have left my children, 3 and 18 months, alone to entertain themselves, while I start in on the dishes or crack open my laptop to start edits on a few pieces I wrote over the weekend.

I have figured out how to perch myself at our kitchen table so that I can see them but they cannot see me. It is the perfect arrangement: they play independently and I can get started on my to-do list while still being available to them at a moment’s notice — jumping in to mediate combat when my youngest turns to her teeth as her weapon of choice or simply responding to a “Mama! Look!”

This is how I spend much of my mornings at home. I am a good mom. My children are happy and thriving in our home.

I just don’t play with my kids.

The moment they are set up with toys or books, I am sneaking off to accomplish something or to read a few pages of a book. When we head outside to play, I bring my laptop along or busy myself pulling weeds or raking leaves.

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It isn’t that I don’t like to spend time with my children. Our quality time simply doesn’t include much play.

Several times a day, my younger daughter is at my feet with her blanket dragging behind her and a pacifier in her mouth. “Belly!” she demands, and I snatch her up into my arms, settle onto the couch, and she rests her sweet little head on my belly for a few minutes of quiet and cuddling. Within a few minutes, my older daughter finds us with a few books in her hands. Climbing onto the arm of the couch, she gives directions, “This book first, and then the sushi book, and then this one — two times!” Once they have had their fill of mommy time, they run off to build a LEGO tower or to dig out their tutus, and I turn my attention back to my to-do list.

Trust me, I am not immune to mommy guilt, but choosing not to play with my children is no longer a source of guilt for me. When I first became a mom, I complied with this unreasonable standard that every minute my daughter spent awake, I need to be focused on her. Each time I would slip away to the kitchen or glance at my phone to check an email, I would guiltily remember the familiar poem that had become the mantra of unkempt homes and frazzled mothers everywhere:

Cooking and cleaning can wait til tomorrow,

for children grow up, we’ve learned to our sorrow,

So wipe away cobwebs and dust go to sleep,

I’m cuddling my baby, and babies don’t keep.

Now, I realize that it is true that our children grow up quickly, and this is exactly why I feel strongly about allowing them the space they need to play independently.

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It was a book called Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne that really began to challenge my early thoughts on being “present” and “engaged.” I began to understand that what I was doing was more like hyper-involvement and helicopter parenting. In this book, the author explains that our children need room for more imaginative play in their days, to experience the world for themselves. This can be accomplished by ditching overstimulating toys and cutting back on a demanding schedule. But it is also accomplished by letting children direct their own play, while the parent remains available nearby, doing their own thing, instead of being hyper-involved in playtime.

John Payne isn’t alone in his thinking about independent play. Research by Paddy O’Donnell, a University of Glasgow professor of sociology, suggests that children who have the freedom to make their own decisions in play and solve the “problem” of boredom perform better in the future. In comparison, children with parents who hover too closely struggle to feel confident in their decisionmaking when they reach college.

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And so, my passive presence has become the norm for a lot of our day. I have seen my children flourish with freedom to explore their environment, to learn how to use their toys on their own, and to create games for themselves from the toys and activities we keep within their reach in our home. Meanwhile, they know mama is near should they have a question or simply need a cuddle. Not only have my children bloomed with more space for independent play, but I have found the most balance and happiness in motherhood for myself. Ignoring the dishes and the dust has never worked for me; it makes for a stressed-out and crabby mama, especially when I add the burden of other household tasks and a full-time work-from-home job.

As it turns out, the saying when mama’s happy, everybody’s happy is actually mostly true. Overextended and frazzled mothers can have a negative effect on their children and their emotional well-being, academic achievement and behavior, according to a study published by the Journal of Marriage and Family. Instead, it is the quality of time that really matters. Children thrive with involved parents who are caring and sensitive to their child’s needs — and we all know just how hard it is to be a caring and sensitive mother when we are burnt out. Knowing this has encouraged me to prioritize my well-being and their independence — and even a few pages of a book each morning or taking 10 minutes to sift through work emails while they play brings a significant level of zen to my day.

I am far from mastering motherhood; spend a few minutes in my home and this becomes very clear. Still, choosing not to play with my children is one choice in which I feel completely confident, and I am comfortable knowing I have found an approach that allows both my children and me to thrive.

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