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Am I Supposed to Be My Child's Playmate?

My mom never knew that my father secretly threw out the pot roast she prepared each week on the nights she had graduate school class. He would hide the roast deep in the outside garbage can and order a pizza from Two Brother's Pizza Place three blocks away. I would smile every time I passed the crushed pizza box in our neighbor's trash can the next morning on the way to school.

It was our little secret.

It never crossed my mother's mind not to make a meal for us, even when she wasn't there to eat it. Although she was career driven and finishing her master's degree in education, she still held tight to the traditional roles she and my father held. That included cooking—and not being my playmate.

That's not to say, we didn't have many nights of board games and intense rounds of Rummy 500 together as a family; we did. But it never crossed my mind to ask my mom to play Barbies or to dress up with me and pretend we were queens of a faraway kingdom. Those were just not things she did or I expected her to. She was not my playmate.

My father would be the one rolling around on the floor with us, letting us climb on his back and pretend he was a knight's horse.

My mother was the one always observing with a smile on her face and a task to complete. Whether it was making dinner, gathering our lunches, doing laundry, or eventually lesson plans and schoolwork when she became a kindergarten teacher. She was the person who kept the wheels of the family constantly in motion and working.

I admire that my mother wasn't my playmate. Because of her focus and approach to parenting, I was able to foster a great imagination. I would spend hours writing stories or playing pretend games, like library or bank teller. And when I wanted to spend time with her, I would curl up next to her as she read me stories, for what felt like hours, or I would prop myself up on the step stool and help her cook. But she didn't play.

Years later, when it was my turn to become a parent, I was suddenly faced with a dilemma. My daughter wanted me to play with her. She wanted me to be a little sheep in her collection of farm animals. She wanted me to make it talk and play endlessly with her miniature stuffed animals.

But the truth was, I didn't want to. Or should I say, it felt awkward, strange, and uncomfortable. I loved being near her and spending time with her, but it didn't feel natural to play like that.

I made a decision right there that I would start playing with her to get the imagination juices flowing in her mind, but that after a few minutes, it was time for her to learn how to do it on her own. And what surprised me was that she did learn—very quickly. I found that she didn't so much want me to play directly with her, as she wanted to be near me. To set up shop wherever I was, just as I had done with my mom.

And like my own mother, I treasure the moments she curls up in the crook of my arm and we read stories; or cook together; or play games around the kitchen table. And playing with mom now means doing a craft, playing cards, or even putting together an art show of the paintings we created together.

But I also treasure the fact that she knows how to play by herself. I don't need to be down on the ground. We can still have fun together in a way that fits both of our personalities.

I'm not alone in this mindset, either.

Lindsay Norens, a mother of two daughters, ages 3 and 6, from Boston, Mass., supported the need to foster independence in play with children. "My daughters know the things I love to play and the things that I don't. I'm honest with them, and we find things that make us both happy. I think there's so many ways to bond with your child that go beyond playing," she says.

I also realized on playdates with other moms, that most of us parented without directly playing with our children. We all enjoy specific activities and being together, but our strength doesn't come in rolling around on the floor and wrestling or playing make-believe. Our strength comes in providing, nurturing, and loving our children—and smiling as we watch our husbands wear tiaras and make Barbie go on her first date with Ken.