Dear Maxine,

Thank you for your post on finding playing with your children tedious, it really resonated with me. Do you have any advice on how to overcome the intense feelings of guilt I have when my child is playing on her own? It’s worst when I start doing something else. I feel most guilty when she’s playing and I’m entertaining myself too. She’s quite contented and capable of asking me to join her if she wants, so I know it’s me and my stuff, but I feel like a terrible mother and as though I should be interacting with her somehow.

It’s made worse because her grandparents are so good with her and seem unable to get enough of her. They’re on the floor playing and interacting from when they get here to when they leave (they’re our childcare bubble), but I just don’t have the stamina (or interest) for that.

Thank you so much for your time and work.

Dear follower,

Thank you for getting in touch. I’m really pleased you took the time to read my previous article and ask for further information.

While I would love to jump in and reassure you that everybody, including me, finds playing with their children mind-numbingly boring sometimes. As ever, I’ll offer you questions so you can explore your own experiences more.

While this is similar in style to therapy, I must note that this is for education and reflection only and should not be used as a replacement for a relationship with a mental health professional. Therefore, if you find yourself becoming overwhelmed at any point while you read this, please take the time to stop and take care of yourself, returning only if you feel able. You can also download our guide to managing your feelings here.

There’s a few things I want to think about and I think the most helpful springboard is this:

What’s happening while your child is playing?

Here are a few things I can think of:

  1. She’s happy playing on her own and doesn’t actually want you to play with her
  2. There is something else you need to do
  3. There is something else you want to do
  4. You find it difficult to sit and ‘do nothing’
  5. You’re bored of playing and giving your child all of your attention
  6. Grandparents

Let’s dig in…

1. She’s happy playing on her own and doesn’t actually want you to play with her

How do you know she’s happy playing on her own? What does she do that tells you that she doesn’t need you to interact with her right now?

What would she do to bring you back into the play? Have you ever seen her wanting your attention but not trying to get it?

What are your thoughts around her playing on her own? What are you afraid is happening or will happen? My assumption is that she is in a safe space and this is a fear around emotional need, not physical safety.

Why do you think she’s playing so happily? Because she’s enjoying herself, learning, growing and developing and has momentarily forgotten about you? And she feels able to forget about you because she feels so safe in your love? Or because she’s so neglected she’s had to give in and find her own fun? Or somewhere in the middle?

Now you’ve identified your thoughts about it, are they grounded in anxiety or reality?

What would you do with your child that she would enjoy more than she is doing right now? How would you be enriching her experience? Or would you actually be getting in the way?

Where does the idea come from that you need to be giving her your full attention all of the time? How is that helpful to you? How is it helpful to her? Is it unhelpful in any way? Can there be some middle ground between full attention and total neglect?

It sounds as though you’re aware that, actually, this about your needs, not your child’s. How does it validate you when your child only wants to play with you? Is there a sense that you’re not useful, not important if your child is playing on her own? where does that come from? What do you need to kindly respond to and challenge that?

2. There is something else you need to do

Do you actually need to do this thing? What will happen if you don’t do it? Here, I’m thinking about the many parents I see and work with who have a ‘to do’ list 54659 items long and never feel like they’re doing ‘enough’. I’m more inclined to challenge the necessity of the thing you’re doing because I want to give you a break than because I think you should be spending that time with your daughter.

But, let’s assume this is something you do actually really need to do (like make yourself a nutritious lunch or get the back ready to go out, maybe clean up a tiny bit so that you don’t feel totally overwhelmed).

What would you like your daughter to learn? That a magical fairy completes the household chores while she’s sleeping? Or that, in order to take care of ourselves, we have to do different tasks around the house?

Of course, there are some tasks that maybe she can join in with and anyone who allows their toddler to participate in household chores has the patience of a very very patient person in my eyes! And this can be a helpful way for her to learn.

However, there are sometimes when do you know what? You just want to hang the washing out without it being pulled off and put back on 13 times, then spread across the room. And that’s totally OK.

So even if she’s not happy playing, it’s OK if there’s things you need to do and she has to wait a minute or 10.

What does she learn if she has to wait for attention, within a time that she can cope with? Patience? That other people’s needs are important too? How to help out?

3. There is something else you want to do

This one can feel harder than the ‘need’ to do but let’s think about it.

Your child is happily playing and you’re doing something for you.

What’s wrong in that? Where does the idea that it’s not OK to meet your needs come from? Do you agree with that idea?

What would you like your daughter to learn? That daughters are allowed to be happy but mummies aren’t? That everybody is allowed to be happy except mummies? Or that mummies need care too AND mummies are able to look afrer themselves?

Because what happens if we don’t look after ourselves? Our needs don’t go away. In fact, if our needs are not met, they get more extreme because we become more emotional. So who takes care of them if we’re not taking care of them? Often that role is assumed unconsciously and looks like people trying to be ‘good’ around you.

What if you’re having a good time and actually doing something you want to do and your daughter then stops enjoying playing on her own and wants your attention?

Are you more likely to respond happily because you’ve met some of your own need? Are you more likely to respond unhappily because you’ve not had enough of your own need met and only had a taster?

I invite you to really challenge the guilt that you’re enjoying yourself separately from your child. There seems to be an idea that when you became a mother, you can only take pleasure from your child and nowhere else – where does that come from?

4. You find it difficult to sit and ‘do nothing’

I wonder whether this is where the guilt often happens. That you’re child is playing and you don’t really have much you need to do but you stop being present because sitting there starts to feel uncomfortable, maybe boring.

You could just sit and watch your child, there’s nothing you really need or want to do, yet you don’t. You’re up, you’re doing something, part of you wants to stay and be with your child but you feel torn in 6 different directions.

You could do this or that, you feel guilty for sitting and doing ‘nothing’ you feel guilty for not sitting and doing ‘nothing’.

So let’s look at the ‘nothing’.

What is your body doing when you are sitting and your child is playing on her own? Could it be resting and refueling? How does that sound to you? How do you feel about your body needing to rest? Are you comfortable with that or do you just want to be able to do whatever you want whenever you want? If it’s the latter (which is very relatable), how can you be kind about your frustration?

And your mind, what’s it doing when you’re doing ‘nothing’? Are you able to sit, observe, be present? Or is it racing all over the place, making lists, thinking of all the ways you’re failing? Thinking of all the things you could be doing better? Remembering that really embarrassing thing you did? Planning your daughter’s 18th birthday party?

With all of that going on, I’m not surprised you want to escape! What would it be like to notice that and pull yourself back into the present? Either by noticing what your daughter is doing and delighting in how brilliant she is, or by feeling the seat under you, noticing what you can smell (and hoping it’s not a dirty nappy!), listening to what you can hear.

AND BREATHING OUT. Again. And again. Letting all of that angst go and allowing yourself to sit.

Because what does it mean about you that you’re doing ‘nothing’?

What stories have you created about people who do ‘nothing’? Where do those stories come from? How have you learned those judgments? Whose are they? Could you let them go?

If you were going to frame doing ‘nothing’ kindly, how might you do it? How would you make sense of your need to rest in the context of your life?

And, again, what do you want your daughter to learn? That it’s not OK to stop? That she must keep active all of the time? Or that being still can be a gift? A space to restore and find peace? Imagine if you’d been allowed to learn that, how different would your life be now? How can you model it for her?

5. You’re bored of playing and giving your child all of your attention

For most of this, I’ll direct you back to my previous article. However, I will repeat – ‘boring’ is a word we use when we don’t have a better word for our feelings.

If you’ve spent all of your energy on someone else, how might you be feeling? Tired? Fed up? Frustrated? Angry? Resentful?

6. Grandparents

How wonderful that your child has grandparents that can show such interest in her.

And here is the challenge of having other adults who come in and out of our children’s lives. They have time. They have energy. Do you think her grandparents would be as able to be so interactive if they were around all day every day? If they had a house to clean? Dinner to sort? General every day life admin things to think about? Or do you think being at your house means that they can let go of all of that and just give to your child?

What do you think makes you compare yourself to your daughter’s grandparents? Is it just them or do you do it to lots of people? If just them, why them? Is there something you can learn from them and take into your own approach to your daughter?

If it’s lots of people, where do you think the tendency to compare yourself comes from? Are you ever ‘good enough’? What would it take for you not to have to compare yourself?

What would you say to your daughter if she always compared herself and never came out well?

How can you give yourself permission to let your child play without you? How can you give your daughter permission to have fun without your attention?

What would be the effect of that on her?? What would be the effect on you?

Do you think you deserve that freedom?

How are you feeling now? What do you need? How can you take good care of yourself?