A mom in the moment, learning to play

Fabienne Josaphat

THE WASHINGTON POST – “Play Legos with me?” This is how my son invites me to play with him. He’s five, and in his world of fun and joy there are only Lego bricks and figurines. All evening, all day, all morning if he can.

He builds castles, forts, modern homes with garages for his Lego trucks, lookout points and double-decker couches for his Lego men and women, sofas, and his favorite transportation machines like speedboats, ambulances and recycling trucks.

He lives to create scenes and mockups of real-life events with his Lego bricks and gets into character with voice changes.

And then, eventually, he gets bored and wants company.

“OK,” I say. How can I deny him this pleasure? We are six months into quarantine and he hasn’t seen another child since the coronavirus lockdown began.

“What are we playing?”

I’m not good at playing. By which I mean, I am not a player. The writer that I am likes to spend time with myself. I get into my own head and live in it, staging new stories I want to write, piecing dialogue between my characters. It’s where I like to live.

Inviting me to play takes me out of that. Plus, I have two children now, with an eight-month-old in tow. An ideal afternoon for me is when my son entertains himself on his tablet or plays with Lego bricks, and the baby is asleep.

And I say all of this in the same breath as I say I love them, with my whole life.

“We’re looking for Captain America’s helmet,” my son says, and his small fingers toss his favourite superhero of the moment’s helmet away in an imaginary swamp full of alligators, built out of green base plates.

“We need to put a team together to go look for it.”

“Who’s on the team?”

He has a speedboat ready with Lego Spider-Man and Lego Batman to go along, outfitted with drones, a Lego driver and an unnamed assistant. Lego Iron Man flies overhead, because he can. The journey is perilous. No one wants to fall in the water, and then we have to apprehend the villain and explode his lair. I come up with obstacles, but mostly, I come up with questions.

“Why are Iron Man and Spider-Man wearing protective masks that cover their faces, and Captain America and Batman seem to think no one will recognise their lower jaw?”

My boy is confused. He looks at me and I know what he’s thinking: Daddy is the best player, and I’m not. When my husband comes home from work, he showers, we eat dinner, and the boys disappear in my son’s room to spend the next hour building with Lego bricks while I wrestle the baby to sleep. The pressure of becoming a child, and becoming his equal, is off my shoulders. We’ve had a long day together and it’s best Daddy take over. They can go on for hours until I pop in to remind them it’s bedtime.

This is how I found out they have a nickname for me. The Face. Because Mommy always makes a face when she enforces rules. And that’s just the problem, I realise as I switch Captain America’s pants with Spider-Man’s at his request.

As my husband says, I am the bad cop. I’m the enforcer, the bad guy. I show up to discipline and nurture, but never to play. I don’t allow myself to be in the moment with him, and this gnaws at me. It hurts. Because I love my boy. I don’t want him to feel alone because I’m soothing the baby and writing my stories. I want him to remember me not just for fussing about the messes he makes in his room. I want him to remember me for the laughter, and maybe we don’t have enough of those moments. How do I know how much longer we’ll be around to enjoy these?

“We managed to save the day,” I say. “I think it’s time all our superheroes go home and eat some dinner, don’t you?”

I’m wrapping up the game, but it isn’t lost on me that I made it today. I played with my son, using my imagination and the little figurines that are important to him. I was privileged enough to enter that imaginary world. How lucky I was, and how lucky we are, to be invited into children’s worlds!

“And guess what we’re having for dinner?” I look at him as his eyes widen, and curl my fingers before I dig in for a tickle fest. “Riiiiibbbs!” I go in for his ribs and he laughs in that high-pitched squeal kids release when the fun is almost too much. I yell “steak” and pretend to take a bite off his thighs, and baby potatoes when I fake-eat his toes.

This lasts a good five minutes, until our eyes are wet with laugh tears just as the door swings open.

My son beams, “Daddy!” And I, too, beam because I’m thankful, but today, for so much more than normal.