My Latest Mommy Guilt: I Don’t Want to Play!

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What do you do when the answer to the question, "Don't you want to play with me, Mommy?" is "no?" Here's a hint: A whole lotta mommy guilt.
“Play with me, Mommy!”

Lately, few phrases fill me with guilt more than this one. I love my four-year-old more than anything, and I absolutely adore spending time with her. But sometimes the answer to, “Don’t you want to play with me, Mommy?” is “no.”

Perhaps it would be different if I had a more traditional work schedule and saw her less because of it. But I’m fortunate to have a flexible arrangement that allows my children to spend more time at home when they aren’t in school and I’m not in meetings or racing a major deadline. During the summer, they spent a few days with a sitter and a couple of days with me. I did my best to block out time for the girls, and especially for playing one-on-one with the youngest, but then, eventually, I had to pull away. I had to work. Or make dinner. Or pick up the house. Or just spend some time NOT taking care of somebody else.

It’s harder right now because my youngest is going through a needy phase.ย  She doesn’t like to play alone. She whines about most anything. She expects to be entertained. And she seems to have decided that I’m the VERY BEST ONE in the family. That’s flattering. She’s adorable. I’m thrilled she loves me. But after awhile it starts to feel like too much of a good thing.

I feel guilty telling a child, “No, I really don’t want to play right now.” I am fully aware of how quickly they grow, and of the fact that there will soon come a day when my daughter won’t want me around much at all. I know I need to take time for myself, and I know I need to encourage her to be more independent. I also know that she probably just needs reassurance that her Mommy is still here for her as she gets ready for a second year of preschool.

Plus, I know I’m fortunate to be able to spend as much time with my daughter as I do. Many working moms with less flexibility would probably take my place gladly.

I know all of these things. I do my best to find that right balance. But sometimes I still feel really, really guilty. Even after spending an entire morning walking with her to the store, baking a cake together, reading, doing puzzles and playing Squinkies, it’s hard to hear that plaintive, “Don’t you want to play with me, Mommy?” and have to answer, “No, honey, that’s enough for now.”

I’d love some advice on how other mom’s handle this. Play dates seem to help a lot. But what about days when it’s just you and the kids and you need to get stuff done? How do you deal with the mommy guilt?

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Sara Bennett Wealer

A co-founder of Working Moms Against Guilt, Sara Bennett Wealer is an author, copywriter and mother of two. Her debut novel for young adults, RIVAL, was released by HarperTeen.

35 Comments

  1. I wish I had some words of advice. I’ve struggled with the same guilt for years. Our children sure do know how to pull at our heart strings. My son is VERY good at it.

    • Yes, it must be an evolutionary thing left over from caveman days. If our kids didn’t make us feel guilty we might forget to feed them or protect them from saber tooth tigers or something… ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. This is so hard. I struggle with this too. The hardest part is when I try to explain that I’m feeling guilty to my husband, and he shoots back with “It’s not fault. She’s not trying to lay a guilt trip on you.” Of course not! I lay the guilt trip on myself. But it’s still there, and I get so little understanding of the crushing weight that I feel.

    • Yeah, husbands don’t seem to get it a lot of the time. Mine has no problem just sitting and playing Candy Crush while the kids go apes&%t around him. Not that he doesn’t play with them a lot, but when he’s done he doesn’t seem to agonize over it.

  3. I’m not there yet, but I know it’s coming. It sounds like you’re handling it the best way anyone could. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks – it just seems to go along with the territory!

  4. Why are you such a mean mom, Sara?!

    Just kidding. I feel this way all the time. And I try to remember this very important fact — kids develop their creativity out of BOREDOM. When you don’t play with them, you’re DOING THEM A FAVOR! They are forced to figure out how to entertain themselves, which is a life skill they need anyway.

    Also, I bet you still play with them more than moms did back in our day. So you’re good ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Ah, excellent point, Susan!!! I will remember that. And I will probably still feel guilty because I’m starting to realize that
      I’ve always needed something to feel guilty about – even back when I was a kid. So perhaps motherhood is filling a need by giving me a constant stream of the guilt I seem to crave so much. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Try setting a timer…I will play with you for 15 minutes then I need to work for 15 minutes(or whatever time frames work best). Have some toys or activities that are specifically for non-mom times that she can look forward to using. I’ve done both of these with my 3 at varying levels of success.
    Don’t feel guilty…you are modeling good work ethics by fulfilling your job responsibilities and your “mom duties.”

    • Good idea, Wendy! I will try that. And thanks for the encouragement!

  6. I struggle with this everyday and I feel like it is getting worse. I work all day with toddlers and I am a single mother. I have all the responsibility and it is so hard. I feel like I don’t smile a lot with her even when we play. I just want play time to be over. I am aware that they grow fast just like you.. I don’t know how to change this I could really use some advice from someone.

    • I’m a single mother. I work for my grandmother and my daughter gets to come to work with me. She’s with me all day everyday. Everywhere I go she goes. She will come sit on my lap when I use the bathroom, or ask me to play Barbie dolls while I’m doing the #2. Everyday she wants me to play with her, which is expected from a four years old. But I honestly hate playing. I never been a kid person. I hated babysitting as a kid/teenager. I’ve never been the type to be super imaginative as a kid. My mother didn’t play with me when I was younger. And I feel like I’m doing exactly what my mom did to me, to my daughter. I feel extremely guilty bc the thought of me playing really gets under my skin. Idk if I’m going through a depression, or I’m genuinely not a kid person at all. I love my daughter with all my heart, I would die if something happens to her and I would die for her. I just don’t like playing. I would take her to the park but I would rather lay in the grass look up at the sky and space out. Maybe we spend too much time with each other. I feel like I need a good two weeks break from her. I can’t believe I’m actually typing this out.

      • This is the first time I have read about another mom who brings their kids to work with them! I work at my parents Asian grocery store and first my son came to work with me and now my daughter. I always felt we did more work because not only working full time, but also taking care of kids at same time, plus having to run a household before and after going to job. Last thing I wanted was more play time at home. Felt bad though they had no friends in store all day. I guess the guilt never ends.

      • I feel the same! I have so much guilt because I canโ€™t stand playing kids games. Itโ€™s so incredibly boring and all I can think about is all the other things I need to do. Donโ€™t get me wrong, I love spending time with my kids, itโ€™s just that Iโ€™d rather do something else with them. Iโ€™d rather go for a walk or bake a cake together. I had such a great imagination as a kid but Imaginary play just seems so painfully boring now ๐Ÿ˜•

  7. Do not set a timer!! Geez….then you’re just telling your child he or she is a chore. You are lucky to have children. Don’t be so selfish!

    • Wow. I hope you are being sarcastic. Do you have children? Whether or not you can have children is besides the point, you just would not understand. If I played with my children every single time they asked then I would literally get NOTHING accomplished that needs to be as a contributing adult. No house work, no paying bills, no homework (college), no taking care of the infant, no eating or preparing food….literally nothing because children don’t usually understand adults have to do these things and some things HAVE to be done at certain times. I feel guilty all the time saying “no buddy I can’t play right now, I have to….” but there is nothing we can do do rid ourselves of the guilt. One day they will understand and clearly you tried your best and that’s all we can do. Take care of our children and ourselves and hope they catch on quicker..

  8. I think Susan makes a very good point. I was an only child and I played by myself all of the time. I never felt lonely, and my imagination was wonderful. I have a 4 year old, and I struggle with telling her “I can’t play right now”, because I don’t feel like it. I work and I’m finishing my A.A. degree, but my schedule is flexible and part-time, so I do get to spend time at home during the week. I think quality vs quantity is important here. I’m not against setting a timer – I’ve totally done that. I think spending a really great, attentive half hour playing with your child is better than spending a distracted two hours trying to be with them and finish other tasks. Kids know when you’re not paying attention to them.
    My favorite part of the day is our books-before-bed routine. This is something I look forward to, and I know it’ll be something she remembers fondly about her childhood. It’s something we do together every night, without fail.
    So, instead of feeling guilty for not playing enough, maybe having a solid routine where you are guaranteed to spend quality time with your child every day will help? Whether it’s books at night, or a kitchen dance party in the morning… something fun and no-pressure that lets your child know you’re there with them, having fun.

    That’s my wise-parenting advice, hah!

    Setting a timer does not make your child feel as though they’re a chore… It lets them know that you are a mom, taking care of everything, and that your time is valuable. You shouldn’t have to be available to play any time your child wants. That’s not good for either of you, in my opinion.

    • Very well-written.

  9. […] for “don’t like playing with my kids” brings up article after article of either parent confessionals or tips on how to enjoy playing with your […]

  10. Katey, maybe you should either come play with our kids or share the crack you’re smoking that gives you so much energy to do so all the time. Or get a job.

  11. This just made my day! I’ve been feeling guilty about this forever. So glad to know so many other moms struggle with the same thing. Great! I’m not a bad mom . Lydia I actually laughed out loud!! Well said

  12. So glad i found this post. Very helpful comments. I set timers for everything lol and it works! Keep up the good work mommas. We all try our best ๐Ÿ’œ

  13. So, I know this is a ‘mom’ blog, but I’m a DAD going through the same thing. Obviously how I found this post. Like the poster, I’m massively lucky to have been a full-time, at home ‘remote’ worker for ALMOST the entire time my 2 daughters have been alive. And I love it. I love being here for them. I love being with them. I love playing with them… sometimes. But I do have a salaried job (I’m a web/app designer/developer), I do freelance work on top of that, and my wife and I also have a company of our own and write music/dj together. But both our girls (4 & 6) are constantly wanting us (but mainly me) to play with them, and sadly, the answer a LOT has to be no. And although I know I’m doing what I have to do… although I know I DO play with them, take them places, read to them, interact with them WAY more than most dads (and lots of moms)… I still feel horrible every time. The hard part is how to deal with it… I’ve gotten mad at them… I’ve reasoned with them… I’ve explained things to them… but it still makes me sad.

    • Aw, hugs, Dad! Finding balance is tough – and you have a lot on your plate. Your girls know you love them and are there for them. Something I have to remind myself of is that it’s healthy for kids to be bored sometimes. If you’ve already played and suspect they really are looking for entertainment, then make them go outside and look at clouds for awhile – I know, easier said than done. Thank you so much for commenting, and best wishes to you and your busy family!

  14. pfff i know im not a bad mom because i work hard for my two kids ( boy 4, girl 8) to give them everything they need (NOT WANT!) but when is PLAYING time, I’M OUT! dont know why i don’t like to play with dolls or cars , i prefer to feed them, cook, clean etc than playing. Normally they go to the daycare almost everyday, the time im working, so they can play all they want and when they are back i expect, ok maybe they are tired, but Nope! They still have energy, how come!? Anyway my guiltiness arrives during the weekends when we dont work, and the kids wants to play and i dont want and then i see those sad faces and i wish i would like to play but nope. I love them, love them sooooo much and i try to play but when i play with one the other also wants an so on and then i say; okeyyyy now you guys play together mama has to do some things. I wish i was a mom who likes to play with them, roll on the floor, hide and seek, paint together or cook, but im not, i wish i wish…..

  15. I am so glad that I’m not alone!!! I hate playing. My son’s dad (and now ex husband) has always been a get on the floor and play cars type of dad. I never could seem to get into it. I haven’t ever been a kid person and didn’t even want kids until I was getting into my late 20s. I had my son at 30 and he was born 14 weeks early. He’s a miracle baby for sure and I think I have quadruple size helpings of guilt because I think I should just be grateful to have him at all. I was pretty much a single mom for most of his life with his Dad being in and out, sporadically at best. I do everything, including managing my son’s medical care which is a full time job sometimes since he’s been sick a lot due to his prematurity. His dad just finally moved back to the state we live in and has an actual visitation schedule. He now takes whatever opportunity he can to criticize the amount of time I spend with my son and how I manage things like medication and appts. I inevitably start to question if I am doing the right thing by letting him stay with my parents so I can go out with my friends or take that weekend trip with my fiance. He’s 3 years old and has the worst case of mommyitis ever! I can’t go to the bathroom or take a shower by myself. My ex likes to say it’s because I don’t pay enough attention to him but I can’t believe that’s even remotely true. The kid gets more attention than he needs. He’s the only grandchild for my parents and the rest of my family and friends dote on him constantly. I set aside time to do stuff, just him and I and I always read to him and cuddle with him when he’s sleepy or sick. I just hate to play. I really do. Im always thinking if the million other things I could be getting done. I work and go to school and I’m the only one that makes his Dr appts and deals with our insurance and pays bills and cleans and cools and manages our lives!! I wish his dad knew half of what it takes to make sure my son gets all the things he is eligible for and needs to ensure that he’s developing and that his lungs aren’t getting worse and so on. It’s exhausting. I just can’t find the time or energy to play Batman or whatever. Im just glad to see I’m not alone.

  16. Father here looking to commiserate and find help. I feel the same pressure from my 3 year old, and struggling. I feel terrible telling him no and I really struggle with the fact that when I do play, I am not having fun and feel absent in mind from the activity. I grew up without my deadbeat biological father that loving me the way I love my son. My stepfather never put any effort into me like he did his own son (which I understand). I am also a stepfather to my 10 daughter and as hard as it is to admit, you look at your own DNA – someone that looks like you as a child and you feel a little differently about it. So where my guilt comes from is trying to be the father (and a better stepfather) that I never had. My son will be my only as I came from a family of 7 and we didn’t really have much growing up. I want to be able to help and provide for my children the best I can financially and not have to tell them that I cannot afford to send them to college if they’re worthy of it. The guilt is exacerbated by the fact I know I only have him and one chance to get it right. I don’t have any back-up kids to resolve any guilt lol. I don’t want to look back and regret I did not get 100% satisfaction of raising him or feel like I missed out on something watching him grow up. I just wish that when I played with him, I didn’t feel like it was a chore.

  17. When my 3 year old asks this question (as he did tonight which led me to this post as I’m PMSing and generally not so prone to guilt) I rephrase it in my head: “Mom, will you make a connection with me?” So, playing with his cars or whatever isn’t what he’s really asking for…it’s just a moment to reconnect, a checking in so to speak. Biologically, if we don’t maintain a connection to our spouses or kids, we wouldn’t feel the need to stick with a marriage or feed a child right? So, this is actually a great thing kids do (not so much when the hubby does hahaha). Think of ways you can spend with your kids that you do enjoy where you’re both giggling and making eye contact as well as physical contact- for my son, I like to throw him on the couch and tickle him or swim together much more than playing with toys! Or we cook and I make a point to go slower and really acknowledge him. When I’m busy managing the home (I have a 1 year old baby too), I say “it’s mommys job to manage this home; it’s your job to play! I love you!” *hugs* Or “mommy and daddy’s work hard all day; other kids your size are for playing with. I love you!” I make a mental note he’s reaching out for a connection and I start considering how to fill that need in a doable way. I can’t live with guilt. It’s not fun, for any of us, but I can live with the reminder that connection is important and I could use to slow down a little for my kiddos.

    • Great point, Jenny! Thanks for giving us your perspective. Love it.

  18. I’m a dad of a four year old. I read all of these comments and I feel the same. I love my son very much, but many days though i feel exhausted from work, housework and the daily routine of stuff that must be done. But I’m not going to explain my guilt, I’ll just say what works for me. I still feel guilt, but I tell myself this is the best I can do.

    1. I do set a timer. I can’t play forever and there are things to do. If there is no timer and I break off mid-play he feels angry and frustrated. But when the timerr goes off, he understands i have to do something else. He will ask me how long we can play and I will tell him 10, 20, 30 or 1 hour and he accepts it. It is good, because when I literally only have 10 free minutes before I have to leave for work, we can fit in quick play.
    Timers don’t work for everyone, but it’s one idea.

    2. Tell him the day’s plan and don’t say maybe yes to something that will be a definite no. For example, on a Sunday, I’ll tell him “we” have to clean the bathroom, then toilets, then do the laundry, then go food shopping, then have lunch, then we can go to the park. Or for example on a weekday he might ask me if we can play after dinner, but I know it’s bath night. I won’t say”yeah, maybe” I’ll just say no, it’s bath then bed, sorry. But after a few times he gets to understand I mean everything I say.

    3. When I don’t know what to play, then I replay days out we had. “Let’s play the zoo game.” And then pretend to go around our home imagining seeing animals. Instead of zoo you can do park, supermarket, restaurant, grandma’s, beach, library, anything, even mundane things like a gas stand. The good point about this is that you both know the flow of the roleplay because you already did it for real before. You will be amazed how much they remember, like “don’t forget the cucumber!” Because one time 4 months ago I forgot the cucumber, really makes you realise they notice more than you think.

    4. You are never a bad mother or father if you are on here reading this.

    5. If you are too tired to even move, it is okay to watch a movie or TV show, but i ask him questions like i don’t understand what’s going on. “Who’s that? Why’s he going there? Is he the good or bad guy?” You are making them explain situations, that’s good communication, if you can ask questions like ‘do you think that’s a good idea? How would you feel? Would you that?” Those questions are good for getting them to think and articulate, too.

    That’s all I can think of for now.
    Thanks for everyone writing how they feel. I feel guilt a lot about being reluctant to play. I need more ideas. If anyone has more ideas to play, please tell me.

  19. Don’t sweat it too much. When I was in my 20s, my mom asked me if I resented her for not playing with me more. I was baffled. I didn’t remember things that way at all. In the grand scheme of things, your kids won’t mind, and it’s good for kids to entertain themselves.

  20. Thank Goodness for the honesty of all you Moms and Dad. I obviously looked this up because of the guilt I feel. Have been a single non working Mom but with a five year old trying to start up something of a job. The question can you play brings me so much guilt. I have the time to but the pretend play is like finger nails on a chalk board for me. I try to detour her to puzzles, board games and projects but she just wants pretend. Very good suggestions here and I have tried the timer but felt guilty. So glad to hear some different takes of the timer and feel more confident to use it. Thanks. Feel so not alone anymore!

  21. I’m so glad we could give you some perspective and peace knowing you’re not alone. I really appreciate all of the comments, ideas and commiseration – thanks to everyone who’s contributed!

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