Learning to play (again)
Cars here, cars there — cars are everywhere. Before Oliver was born, I remember feeling stupidly nervous about “toys for boys” — like there was some mysterious underbelly to the world of trucks, trains and LEGO bricks that I, a woman, could not possibly understand.
I come from a long line of Barbie enthusiasts, you see. My sister and I had elaborate set-ups for our dolls and rarely broke away from playing prin- cesses. There were no G.I. Joes or water guns in our world. No boys at all, really. Occasionally Ken would pop by to surprise Barbie at work or something, but come on — she had to get back to her pa- tients.
Learning Spencer and I would welcome a son changed my daydreams dramatically. A boy? A boy who would surely love to splash in mud puddles, hand me earthworms and destroy the downstairs with his army of tanks? A whole new world, for sure.
Of course, I had no ex- perience with children. Neither did my husband. What we learned about babies came from watching the nursing staff at Ol- iver’s NICU and flipping through parenting books shared by my mom. I’d never changed a diaper until Oliver’s night nurse nudged me over to his isolette. It all seemed . . . scary.
We gradually got more comfortable, of course. Everything takes time. We were so caught up with making sure our newborn was eating, resting and breathing that the idea of “play” was . . . well, not a thing. For the first year-plus of parenthood? I didn’t feel playful. I was drained. Emotionally spent. Babies spend most of their time eating or sleeping, we quickly learned. “Playing” wasn’t on my mind, and I was rusty.
But time marched on. Oliver will be two in April. The baby who once resembled a rosy-cheeked paper weight is now an ac- tive, happy toddler.
A toddler who wants to play cars.
Oliver, Spencer and I have been reading, playing with blocks and tossing around stuffed animals for months now. Ollie likes certain items well enough, favoring “Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb” over every other book in the house, but hasn’t necessarily at- tached to any one toy in particular.
But at Christmas, the cars arrived. Remote-controlled, brightly-lit and fast-moving cars from Oliver’s grandparents and great-grandparents. Great minds think alike, because we have three in our living room — and our son is equally obsessed with them all.
Seeing a not-quite-2year-old squeal with delight as he nearly mows you down with a race car is . . . well, it’s a new experience. For a little kid, Ollie has surprising dexterity — and he likes to operate multiple cars at once, their plastic tires “squealing” as they tear off across the kitchen.
I didn’t pay them much attention at first. They were cool, sure, but un- doubtedly a “guy’s thing.” Gender stereotypes run deep, I guess — even for thirty-something fem- inists. Where Spencer would hop in to grab a remote and race with Ollie around the living room, I stood on the sidelines and snapped pictures. Cars were for boys. Right? Well, no. Of course not. After dropping two cars at my feet over the week- end, Oliver reached up for help with the remotes; he hasn’t yet mastered the “on” switch (though that’s probably a good thing). They burst to life in a flash of neon lights and sound effects, and we both jumped.
But instead of giving both remotes back, I kept one.
Much like the many af ternoons I spent playing Super Nintendo as a kid, the remote felt good in my hands. Pretty quickly I was maneuvering my red car at high speeds around coffee table legs and discarded Muppet dolls, chasing Oliver as he cackled and dashed away. I had my son gig gling hysterically — the first time I’ve really done something silly to make him belly laugh.
Why had I been letting Spencer have all the fun?
I’ve been thinking about the many instances in which I’ve stood back to let my husband step in as “the fun parent,” offering the tickles and play-wrestling and block-building. While Spencer has fun with Ollie after dinner, I usually tend to chores: wiping down counters, emptying the dishwasher, sorting through the day’s mail.
It’s not Spencer’s fault. It isn’t even a conscious decision. I’ve just been . . . taking myself out of the equation, stepping back in only when Ollie gets fussy and wants to snug- gle or watch “Toy Story” (again).
But now that I’ve recog- nized this behavior, I can’t go back. I don’t want to be the one taking pictures for Facebook, remembered as a supportive presence but not an active participant. Some of my favor- ite childhood memories involve my mom drawing pictures of duck ponds and princesses with us, or Dad getting competitive during a game of Uno.
I don’t remember them watching. I remember them getting messy, too.
After playing with the race cars so late on Sunday that we had to insist they “go to sleep” (like Oliver himself), I realized I’m not “bad” at playing. Anyone can do it. No special skills are needed. Being silly doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me, but it will come when summoned. And summoning it to make my child laugh so hard he nearly loses his balance? Well, that’s everything.
I didn’t know I had it in me . . . but am so glad I found out.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few toy cars to crash.