Learn­ing to play (again)

Maryland Independent - - Classified - Twit­ter: @right­meg

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.

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