Pulling into my driveway after a long day at the office, I could hear my son’s laughter pouring through the open front window. He was inside playing a board game with my husband, and they were teasing one another over who was winning, alternately claiming the title of champion.
“Hi everybody!” I exclaimed as I walked through the front door.
Their voices became hushed. Neither one looked at me, their eyes finding the ground, their backs turned.
“I guess this means we have to stop playing now,” my son mumbled.
The disappointment in his words shattered the utopian fantasy I had created in my mind, the one where my child races to meet me at the door, wrapping me in leg hugs and showering me with kisses, proclaiming how much he missed me during the eight hours I was away.
Instead, my son knew my arrival meant game over. Literally. I would demand he finish his homework and get his chores done. I would question why his backpack wasn’t hung up, why his shoes were strewn across the floor, and why oh why were there candy wrappers in the couch cushions?
It made me wonder: why can’t I be the fun parent?
At the risk of sounding like my 7-year-old, it just isn’t fair. My husband gets to play games, build Legos and throw the ball around in the backyard, yet I’ve been relegated to the drill sergeant, the task master, the disciplinarian. The bad cop in the good cop/bad cop TV drama.
I’m not saying my husband doesn’t carry his share of the load. Like me, he works full time, cooks, cleans, shops and launders. He’s not the type who tunes out when the going gets tough – plenty of timeouts have been handed down on his order – but he has the distinction of being the fun dad, while I’m stuck being the mean ole mom, and it’s not fair.
When mom’s not around, household rules are conveniently forgotten. It’s OK to play video games in your underpants and skip baths and not flush the toilet and have ice cream even if you haven’t finished all of your vegetables.
When mom’s in charge, it’s business time. Do your homework. Clean your room. Put away your laundry. Unload the dishwasher. Do it all without a whimper or a whine. Then, and only then, you can play.
Our style of parenting is a delicate balance between rigidity and leniency. We hope it will result in the kind of man we want our little boy to become: well-balanced, resilient, flexible and adaptable. A grown-up who doesn’t take life too seriously, but at the same time one who works hard and takes responsibility for his own life.
I’ve realized, enough is enough. It’s time for me to become the fun parent.
I started my transformation slowly but intently. My first action was bending my son’s bedtime (just a little) to show him that I can be cool too. If he has trouble falling asleep, I’ll let him curl up next to me on the couch. We’ll read together or browse the internet, searching for funny dog videos or homemade slime recipes or plans for backyard tree houses. If dad walks by, my son will pretend he’s asleep, a deception I fully condone.
From now on, I’ll let my kid be a kid. If my son wants to play in the mud or stomp in a puddle, I won’t say no. If he wants to wear shorts in the winter or dip his bacon in his orange juice, fine. I’ll give him five more minutes in the pool and let him pick up a stick and use it as a sword. I may even join him in a quick sword fight.
To clarify, I won’t go overboard. He still has to wash his hands before dinner and brush his teeth twice a day. There will be no chocolate cake for dinner and he’ll still have to bathe on occasion. Fingers crossed, he’ll remember to flush the toilet by the time he goes off to college.
I’m just loosening up my grip a bit.
Becoming the fun parent hasn’t been easy. I’ve always been anxious, and parenthood amplified my anxiety exponentially. I’ve found that keeping a clean and organized home, staying on a strict schedule and monitoring my son’s behavior helps keep my anxiety at bay. Unfortunately, it was at my son’s expense.
I’m taking back control. I’m not sweating the small stuff anymore. I’m focusing on what truly matters – spending time together, learning together, experiencing life together, playing together. This, I’ve realized, is the key to becoming a better parent.
My husband now looks at me with a raised brow when he hears me tell my son his homework can wait, he can take the trash out later and he can leave his dirty clothes on the floor. Instead, we’ll go outside and play catch, even though dinner is almost on the table.
Tomorrow, we’ll start on the treehouse.