No One Ever Died From a Lack of Playing Board Games With Their Mother
When I was told Ordinary Times would be running a board game symposium I groaned inwardly because I had no idea what to write about. I rarely play board games despite having three children at home who would love nothing better than to play with me (for some reason, my children really super love to play with me, even though I’m not sure why) and hadn’t the foggiest notion where to begin with the subject. But, eventually, it dawned on me that not playing board games a subject in and of itself.
Why don’t I play games with these gorgeous beasts I gave birth to? Am I just a bad mother? I think the answer is probably yes, and my lack of board-game-playing represents that as well as anything. But it’s a qualified yes, an “it’s complicated” yes, a yes with an elaborate backstory I’m only too happy to share.
I have had a very peculiar mothering life. I’ve basically been raising children non-stop for the past 40 years and before I was raising kids, I was being one. I was an only child till I was eleven, and then both my parents had children with new partners. My teenage years were spent as kind of a live-in-nanny/junior mom for my mother and stepfather. When others were going to dances and football games, I changed diapers, fed bottles, dried tears, gave hugs and kisses, did massive amounts of household chores, and played games of all sorts for hours upon hours. My mother worked full time and I was happy to help lighten her burden in any way as I could; I was a one-gal-kid-entertaining machine.
Despite spending all day at school and coming home to take care of small children and a home most of the night, I never felt put upon. My brother and sister were wonderful (still are) and I loved spending time with them. If anything, I felt sorry for my mother, who had to handle a lot of boring adult stuff while I got to have the fun of reading stories, solving puzzles, and playing board games.
I couldn’t wait to have my own kids so I could do those things with them. Being a mother was really the only future goal I ever dreamed of back then. I wanted a lot of kids, five at minimum, I’m sure to make up for having a very lonely childhood as a singleton whose parents moved around a lot and then divorced. So I managed the trick as quickly as I possibly could, welcoming my oldest boy when I was 21, a kid myself.
But I found, much to my dismay, that being a mother was not like being a big sister. Being a mother meant I carried the responsibility for how that adorable little man turned out (BTW – spectacularly, despite my many failings). Being a mother meant I had to issue corrections and shape and mold, and as so many of us do with our first kids, I tended towards the overzealous. This pitfall is particularly tempting for a young mom to tumble into, always surrounded by onlookers making suggestions and rendering judgments. I wanted to be a good mom, so I nitpicked. I criticized. I found faults where there was only childhood. Somehow my darling boy managed to survive my heavy-handed approach relatively unscathed (the appearance of a sickly younger brother fortuitously allowed my attentions to be divided before much permanent harm could be done, I hope so anyway) but I could never just be chill with my own children like I was able to with my siblings.
Ironically, my fervent desire to be a good mother undermined my ability to actually be a good mother.
As my first two sons aged, I learned a lot of truths about motherhood. One truth was that children miraculously grow into adults without the ever-present guiding hand of their parents, and another truth was that the ever-present guiding hand of a parent basically drives a child insane. I should have known this to start with, being the first kid myself, and thus enduring my parents perpetually burrowing up my ass about every microscopic thing but somehow I didn’t learn that lesson till I nearly ruined my own precious firstborn by the crime of over mothering in the first degree.
Board games were one of the many arenas in which I failed my oldest son. I was incapable of relaxing and enjoying games. I was always teaching, correcting, lecturing…even in the simplest game like Candy Land I was insufferable. I worried if he didn’t catch onto the rules. I worried if he didn’t wait his turn. I worried when he tried to cheat to win (all children do this, of course, but this was MY child…what if he ended up an Actual Bad Guy?) Board games were not fun. They were exercises in torture for both of us, and I found that despite my collecting scads of them, we rarely played them at all because we both ended up frustrated. By the time I had learned my lesson we were both kind of over the whole board game thing, although we did eventually have some excellent bonding experiences over Pokemon cards and Super Mario Party.
Circumstances being what they were — poverty and a mystery health issue that thankfully turned out to be mere inconvenience and not life-threatening — it took me 15 long years from the birth of my eldest before I welcomed a third baby to our family. Thus I have a 27 year old, a 23 year old, and then a 12, 10, and 7 year old. (They’re all with the same man. I tell you this not because I care about this distinction in any way, but because everyone I meet secretly wonders or even asks outright. In fact, that is how my mother introduces me to people: “This is my daughter, Kristin, she has five children and they’re all with the same man!”)
By the time you’ve raised two children to the age of 15 and 12 you learn a lot, and when I started the second chapter of momhood I still hoped to recapture that magic I recalled from when I was helping to raise my brother and sister. I no longer felt the need to be constantly molding and forming small minds; I’d learned that small minds are in the business of molding and forming themselves and all a smart parent has to do is get out of the way and let the process work. But a funny thing happened between 21 when I had my first child, and 42 when I had my last.
I grew up.
I have found, much to my dismay, that I am an adult now. I don’t enjoy playing the way that I did when I was 14 or even 22. I prefer working. I enjoy pursuing my own passions far more than the depositing of small plastic cherries in colorful cups. I very sadly find I don’t even enjoy being a mom as much as I enjoyed it with my first two. I of course love my younger three children stratospherically, every bit as much as I love my first two, but I don’t love being a mom as much, even though I’m undoubtedly better at it. Motherhood this time through is much less an all-consuming endeavor of pure joy, and much more a chore I wedge in between doing the things I actually want to do. It’s one of the tragedies of my life that while all I ever really aspired to be was a mom, once I fully accomplished the task, I suddenly found out about all these other things I also aspired to be, and being a mom oftentimes stands directly the way of them.
Suffice it to say, playing board games feels to me like just another thing to check off the to-do list.
When I said back in the first paragraph “for some reason, my children like to play with me” I meant beyond a normal “meh mom is ok” kind of way, which is how my older sons always related to me, probably because I never left them the hell alone for five minutes. My three youngest children often respond to me like they’re meeting a celebrity, someone they’re incredibly excited to see because it doesn’t happen very often. When I spend time with them – beyond doing mundane tasks, that is, like yelling or dishing food onto plates – they react as if they’re having a once in a lifetime brush with someone remarkable they’ve been a fan of for a long time. Everyone is in a dither because it’s such a rare event. “OMG IT’S MOM AND SHE WANTS TO PLAY WITH US!!!!! WE HAVE LONG AWAITED THIS DAY!!!!!” While I admit it’s more flattering than my older sons begging me to go away and leave them alone, I hate it that my younger children view spending time with me as a precious gift that is not often bestowed. I hate it that apparently I was able to be a better “mother” to my brother and sister than I was/am to my own children. I hate it but at the same time I find I’m not quite able to make myself give up the things I want to do for myself to do the things I want to do for them.
But the funny thing about all this is that despite suffering from benign maternal neglect, my three younger children are far more functional than my first two were at the same age. Despite me being so very available to my older boys – indeed, much more available than they really wanted me to be most of the time – my three younger children are surprisingly competent despite their youth and lack of being constantly nagged. By necessity, they’re self-starters; they don’t wait around for me to do things for them or with them, they do them on their own. My older boys let heaps of craft projects and science kits and models languish on the shelves under a promise of “I’ll do that with you someday”. My younger three don’t take “not right now” for an answer. They rip open those boxes and do them on their own, and enjoy it all the more for not having me standing over them lecturing on the proper method of holding scissors and all about how it-would-turn-out-better-if-only-you-did-it-this-way.
This very much includes the playing of board games. My 3rd and 4th sons will often sit at the breakfast table playing chess, which they learned by reading the directions in the chess set, and from a book I’d gotten for my oldest son that he never bothered to open. My 10 year old taught my daughter, who is only 7, to play chess too, something I never would have even attempted, because I assumed she was too young to learn. I have terrible memories of my dad trying to teach me to play chess at too young an age and getting very impatient with me when I didn’t catch on right away…probably not unlike how I used to get impatient with my oldest son. My 12 year old saw on TV that people play chess outside in parks, and since we’re having a gloriously early spring this year, they’ve been taking the chess set outside and playing in the sunshine. If they were waiting for me to play with them, none of that would ever have happened. It’s the type of moment parents dream of, and it happened not because of me, but in spite of me.
And chess is just one of many games they play. Even though they desperately want me to play games with them, when I don’t – and I usually don’t – they play together on their own with absolutely no help or guidance from me whatsoever. They read the directions and figure out the rules. They work together to set it all up and then they play together, and most of the time they get along just fine with nary an adult in sight. They even put the pieces away when they’re done without being asked, and yet I still can’t get my grown sons to clean up after themselves.
Yesterday, in preparation for writing this essay because God forbid I should ever do anything without a larger purpose to it, I actually played a game with my younger children. It was a memory game called “Match a Pair of Birds” where the goal is to match male and female birds. My stepmother sent the game to my daughter for Valentine’s Day and because it was new, the kiddos wanted to play it, even though to be honest I’d been hoping for something more write-about-able.
Memory is a bit of a younger kids’ game, and as such they hadn’t played it for a while and needed a refresher on the rules. I started off worrying that my 3rd son and my daughter would have a hard time competing against my 4th son, who is a superhuman genius, and so the first couple games I fudged the rules to let them win, thinking that I’d back off and let Genius Boy have the run of the table. But I was wrong. As it turned out, my 3rd son was harboring some upper level Memory skills, and my 4th son got so anxious about winning as superhuman geniuses are wont to do that he started panicking and forgetting matches that had just occurred the turn before.
Fortunately, and interestingly, my daughter doesn’t particularly care about winning, and will actually cheat sometimes to let other people win when she feels bad for them, so she just had a good time making the boy and girl birds kiss. But the boys were another matter entirely. The boys argued. They complained. As things unraveled, 4th son whined and 3rd son gloated. Even when I tried to manipulate the outcome to help my 4th son win a single game, first by telling him strategies for winning which he immediately began to obsess over instead of just trying to remember where the cards were, and later by outright cheating on his behalf, my 3rd son was so good at Memory he won anyway. My 4th son ended up in tears because unfortunately he knows he is a superhuman genius and doesn’t appreciate any evidence to the contrary.
My well-intentioned interference actually caused the game to go badly. If I hadn’t been playing, yes, my 4th son would have won right at the start because he caught on faster than my 3rd. But my 3rd son would have caught up and won a couple rounds too. Maybe without my meddling my daughter would have sneaked in and surprised herself by winning; she came close a couple times. And maybe if I wouldn’t have “helped” my 4th son by inundating with him the many important strategies of winning a kindergartener’s card came, he wouldn’t have gotten so distracted and would have had a shot at winning some of the later games he lost.
Without a doubt, my presence caused more harm than good.
This story isn’t to justify me not playing board games with my kids. I should play more games with them, especially now that they’re getting old enough so playing with them is no longer reminiscent of the slow torture of being stuck in the Molasses Swamp turn after turn. It simply reminded me that aside from my dad’s ill-advised attempts to teach a 4 year old chess with visions of the next Bobby Fischer dancing in his head, my parents didn’t play with me very much, either. While I do remember a couple epic games of Risk with my stepdad as a teenager, War with my mom a few times when I was little, and a lone Thanksgiving Game of the States one year before my parents split up, most of my game-related childhood memories involve people my own age. I learned to play Clue, Battleship, and Chutes and Ladders at other people’s houses. In college I learned to play SkipBo and Pictionary and Scrabble. I never played those with my parents. Most of the game playing I did was with other children, or alone. I spent a lot of time playing Connect Four and Toss Across on my own until my little red buddy Merlin came along.
And maybe that’s the way it is supposed to be. Maybe all those joyful moments I remember playing with my brother and sister came because we were children and children don’t have to be parents. Kids can just enjoy games, which the last time I checked, are supposed to be fun, and not character building like the Bataan Death March only involving a little plastic hourglass full of red sand.
It very well may be the case that the children I wronged aren’t the three I’m raising now who I never play with, but the two that came first – the ones that I played with, but only as a means to the end of trying to shape them into the person they were becoming all on their own.
Without a doubt, my presence did more harm than good.
Opening a box with a bunch of cards and pieces and dice and a spinner in it and reading the directions and figuring out rules and taking turns and not crying when you lose – these are small triumphs, but they’re triumphs nonetheless, and children who learn to do small things on their own without their mother hovering over them every moment, very well may be more capable of doing bigger things in the future without their mother hovering over them every moment, like the proverbial helicopter.
The very hardest lesson I have ever learned in this life is that sometimes in order to be a good mother, you have to kill off the idea you had in your head before you became a mother, of what a good mother even is. Because that idea is practically always deeply flawed – a combination of a child’s daydreams about the ideal mommy, fairy tale godmothers, corporate consumerism, and Hollywood nonsense – and the more deeply you care about the idea of the good mother, the more fully you believe in her, the more you need to murder her where she lives…in your head, that smiling, always patient, be-aproned woman with cookies in the oven of that sparkling clean kitchen, the Parcheesi board already set up at the table.
I was a True Believer in the Cult of the Good Mother. That bitch had to die.
Because the truth is, doing everything and being everything for your children is a toxic idea. A mother is not supposed to be the sun up in the sky, best friend and playmate, live-in-maid, and perpetual conscience. A mother is not supposed to be these things because a mother can’t be there forever. Eventually a child is going to have to go out into the world alone and function without their mother and one of the very real downsides of having a baby when you’re 42 instead of 21 is that you have to look that reality in the face point blank because it’s happening sooner rather than later.
The ability to play Popomatic Trouble with a group of one’s peers without the soothing presence and civilizing hand of your mother may be a good place to start preparing for that eventuality. Thus I hereby absolve myself, and you too, of the need to play countless hours of board games with your children. Don’t mourn the teaching moments you’re forgoing in your absence, embrace the teaching moments that you’re creating in your absence instead – creating the opportunity for your children to practice independence, negotiation, reading and following directions (take it from a technical writer – this is an underrated skill), winning without gloating, losing without crying, and cheating when no one is looking but never taking your eye off the other guy in case he learned that lesson too.
Nobody ever died from a lack of playing board games with their mother.