This essay originally appeared in our monthly newsletter for The Mom Hour podcast. To get our emails, subscribe here. –Sarah
Last night a pillow fight broke out in our hotel room, and I joined in. I had every reason to shut it down: the walls separating the rooms in our cheap motel were paper thin; my tolerance for chaos and mess even thinner. It was past nine o’clock, the third night straight that the kids had been up later than normal. And I was already starting to think about leaving in the morning, mentally packing up and getting organized for the travel day to come.
But when the pillows started flying (who started it? I’m still not sure) I returned fire. They were perfect fighting pillows—cheap, lightweight, many in number, and not our own—and I didn’t hold back the enjoyment I took in chucking one after another at my kids and husband. By the time the last cushion dropped unanswered to the dingy carpeted floor, I was out of breath and smiling.
If it sounds out of character for a mom who prizes early bedtimes and thrives on order, it was. And it wasn’t lost on my kids either. “I’m surprised mom is actually enjoying this,” my ten-year-old commented, pausing mid-attack to register what the whole room was thinking: How is she letting us get away with this? When did mom decide to be fun?
While the comment stung for a hot second, it wasn’t unfair. I have lots of strengths as a person and plenty of aces up my sleeve in the mom-game, but being The Fun One isn’t among them. Most of the time I’m okay with that (it happens that I married the get-down-on-the-floor-and-pretend-Lion-Guard type, which is an enormous win for all of us) because I truly believe that moms don’t have to do and be everything for their kids. But this summer I decided it was time to up my participation factor in family fun, and it didn’t start with the pillow fight.
It started a couple months ago, when I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I swam in the ocean. We live just a few miles from some of the world’s best beaches, and I grew up in a beach town where, even as a relatively cautious kid, I boogie boarded and swam in the surf pretty regularly. I’m far from a thrill-seeker, but I love the feeling of being lifted off my feet by the swells, of making that last-minute decision either to dive under a wave or jump over it. And yet when I stopped to think about it, I couldn’t remember a time in the last decade when I’d waded in deeper than my ankles.
It happened so gradually, this shift from being the person who swims in the sea to the mom who stays on the sand. First I was pregnant, then breastfeeding, then stuck under a sleeping baby or home with a napping toddler. At some point I was pregnant, breastfeeding, and nap-bound again—only this time with a toddler to look after. And then I did it all one more time.
After three such cycles things got easier, but we found ourselves outnumbered and exhausted, which meant that if there was fun to be had—an ocean swim or a concert in the park or a round of mini-golf—I was usually first to opt out. After all, there was always work to be done that allowed the fun to be had. I’d pack the picnic and book the tickets and apply sunscreen; I’d pick up sand toys, drive around the block with a cranky preschooler, and head back early to start dinner. I facilitated the fun. I took photos of the fun. I witnessed the fun, happily and gratefully. But somewhere along the line I literally forgot how to pick up the nearest pillow and throw it at someone. I forgot how to swim in the ocean.
Let me be clear: I’m a natural homebody who loves ritual and routine, so embracing this more passive nurturing role for a decade or so didn’t cramp my style. It didn’t leave me wanting. It was, in fact, really gratifying and snuggly and worthy stuff. But to every thing there is a season; my kids are getting older and even the littlest can go on amusement park rides now. Nobody needs me to hang back or opt out anymore. So this summer I made an intentional effort to Be The Mom Who Does Things.
What did I do? I was first to try the stand-up paddleboard (thank you, 20 years of ballet, for the balance training). I dragged the family on a tour of a historic mansion in Newport, Rhode Island (hey, we each have our own definition of “fun”). I played miniature golf and ladder golf (in the same day!). I made my own s’more just the way I like it, because nobody needed me to make theirs for them. And yes: I swam in the ocean, and it was as fun as I remember.
Yesterday, a few hours before the pillow fight, I was at a big family gathering when some raucously competitive lawn games got going. My older two kids held their own with the adults, but my five-year-old pulled her lovey from my purse, climbed into my lap, and fell asleep within minutes. My sister pulled up a chair next to me and held her napping 9-month-old while we watched the games, careful to cover the sleeping girls’ ears when the cheering got too loud. She’s at the very beginning of motherhood, and likely has years ahead of her of sitting on the sidelines. But I’m transitioning out of that phase with mixed emotions, and one more nap-induced fun break felt like a tender throwback. They’re so much fewer and far between now, and I don’t know how many more there will be.
Just because I’m now The Mom Who Does Things now doesn’t mean I have to do all the things, all the time. I’m in a sweet, sweet spot of having the choice to watch or to participate, to stay at the edge or to swim in the waves, to shut down the rowdiness or pick up a pillow and join in the battle. It took an intentional mindset shift to start choosing fun more often this summer, and I’m so glad I did. I don’t want my kids to be shocked out of their shoes when I join in a pillow fight or follow them into the surf. I want them to include me in their fun before it’s not cool to do so.
That said, I’ll never turn down a kid who needs me to postpone a game for a snuggle. If I’m being honest, that’s pretty much the most fun there is.
Are you a fun mom? Do you like to swim in the ocean? What’s the most out-of-your-comfort-zone thing you did this summer? Comment and let me know!