ESSAY

Week 2

Finding my way to full-hearted parenting

by Heather Christensen

Last year my therapist started asking me at every visit, “You having any fun?”

I’d laugh, and say, “Nope.”

Eventually, I realized that I just wasn’t any good at fun. Either I’d never learned, or I’d forgotten how to let loose, kick back, and have a blast doing something.

So I did what we do these days: I asked Facebook.  My friends gave me all kinds of suggestions, and some of them actually sounded like things I might enjoy.

In the time since then, I have had more fun. But lately, I’ve been thinking that question is a hard one for parents of young children.

Do you remember that Nyquil ad? The one that said, “Moms don’t take sick days”? (And yes, there was a dads version of that commercial. No non-binary parent commercial though.)

For whoever is the default parent, there are no sick days. There is no end to the work of child-tending, and every precious hour of respite care, should we be lucky enough to have that, is measured out carefully. We always ask ourselves, “Is this a good use of babysitter time? Is this the best thing that I could be doing with a daycare day?”

There are always dishes and laundry, deadlines and past-due projects—so many things that seem more urgent than self-care of any kind, let alone play.

After five-plus years in the trenches, I’ve decided that there are only two ways that parents get to have fun.

Option one: convince yourself that fun belongs on your to-do list. That it’s not optional. That the well-being of your children depends on your ability to have fun. The oxygen-mask metaphor is so old that we roll our eyes at it, but it’s true. Play is as important as air and water and food and shelter. Without it, parts of us die.

Which leads us to option two: play with your children. I’m not just talking about getting down on the floor with them and making elaborate racetracks. I’m not just talking about doing whatever the things are that your kids think are fun. Find the places where your joy and their joy overlap. For my partner Liesl, that’s the racetracks. For me, it’s art. It’s liberating to do kid art. The kids and I will sit at a table with a big piece of paper, a bin of crayons, and a timer. Every time the timer rings, we switch chairs, and color there. It’s so much fun—free of the constraints of needing to make “real art.”

Last weekend the kids and I went to something billed as a “Clay Extravaganza.” My daughter and I both tried our hands at a pottery wheel—and loved it. Then we watched skilled potters compete—competitions that were silly and serious at the same time. In the first one, a team of three potters worked together—one operating the pedal controlling the speed, and the other two each using one hand only, working cooperatively to draw the clay evenly upward. In the second one, seven potters sat at wheels—with paper bags over their heads, a silly face drawn on each bag. The timer started, and all but one created beautiful pieces. One potter, when she removed the paper bag, said, “That’s not at all what I was imagining!” The crowd’s favorite was the potter whose piece collapsed. I think he actually won.

Had I been alone, I would have loved to stay and watch more of the competitions. I would have taken longer to explore the exquisite works of art for sale.

But it was time for my son’s nap, so we packed up and went home. He had a snack, then went down easily for a long nap.

Did I want more? Maybe. But if I’d been alone, I would have missed seeing my daughter’s delight and mastery. If I’d been alone, I would have missed a lesson in saying, “It is enough. My heart is full.” And if I’d been alone I might have been drawn into judgements of good art and bad, or comparisons between my creations and those of the talented artists I was watching. But my children and I were able to stay with the spirit of art as play, and each of us and our relationships together came out stronger for it.