When Louise Westra’s youngest son Tyler, four, asks Mummy to roll toy cars on the floor with him, she says: ‘No, thank you.’
Politely, she explains that she is busy reading a book and he should wait until Daddy gets home instead. While spurning a child’s pleas for company might wrack some mothers with nagging guilt, Louise is unrepentant because she hates playing with her kids. And she’s not afraid to admit it. ‘I’d rather stick spoons in my eyes,’ she laughs. ‘I don’t do trains or cars or imagination games. I’ll spend time with them outside or reading together instead . . . but I have to enjoy it, too.’
The 46-year-old naturopath, from Crieff in Perthshire, thinks many mothers are afraid to admit that they feel the same way.
She says: ‘As women, we are conditioned to put everyone else’s needs above our own. It feels controversial to put boundaries down that protect your own energy and interests, but it shouldn’t.’ She is just one of many mothers who are feeling frazzled after almost three months in lockdown, juggling work alongside home-schooling and maintaining relationships. And she may be one of the few prepared to speak openly about a feeling that many secretly share.
British mothers who hate playing with their children, revealed how it impacts their family life. Pictured: Louise Westra with Noah and Tyler
When little hands tug at Mum to play after months of stress and little outside distraction, perhaps it’s no wonder there are times when they’re met with irritation instead of joyful smiles.
Hollywood star and Girls actress Jemima Kirke confessed recently that she ‘can’t stand’ playing with her kids.
But what about the children themselves? Does having a parent who refuses to play damage their confidence and their family bonds? Or does it, as some argue, increase their creativity and self-reliance?
Louise is quick to stress that she believes her two boys (Tyler, and Noah, ten) benefit from her refusal to join in.
‘I’m teaching my sons to be independent,’ she says. ‘I want them to learn autonomy and self-reliance, and they won’t get that if I always sacrifice myself to make them happy.
‘As a mum you give so much already — with the time it takes to care for the boys, and make them 21 meals a week and tidy up after them, in my spare time I don’t want to play with them as well.’
Louise is self-employed, as is her husband Rob, 49, a movement coach. They take it in turns to work in a garden office away from the bustle of their children playing.
Louise says: ‘Being self-employed means we have to put whatever hours we can into growing our businesses around family life. I want my boys to learn that women have passions outside of mothering and are not here to meet their every need and demand.
‘I tell them that my work and my time is just as important as their dad’s work or their interests.’
Sarah Birchall, 39, admits that her mind wanders when she plays shopkeepers with her children. Pictured: Sarah Birchall with husband Glen, Casper and Edie
Louise says that admitting to not loving every part of being a mother does sometimes make her suffer an ‘internal tussle’,
But she adds: ‘I console myself with the fact that in life, it is so rare to love 100 per cent of anything. It is OK for women to feel this way without any shame. Otherwise resentment will show up in other ways that aren’t healthy for you or the family.’
Mother-of-two Sarah Birchall, 39, is another who admits she doesn’t share her husband’s enthusiasm for playing Lego and making crafts with their kids Casper, seven and Edie, four.
She says: ‘A favourite in our house is playing shopkeepers. I find it so adorable to listen in as Edie gives her order to her big brother. Their imaginations make my heart soar.
‘But the minute I have to get involved, I am bored and my mind wanders.’
We send the kids to their rooms early most nights
Sarah admits that, given the choice, she would rather spend her free time in the house tackling the laundry pile — or with her teacher husband, Glen, 36.
She says: ‘I set boundaries so my husband and I have a chance to connect. I say to the children that Daddy is my best friend so we like to spend time with just the two of us. And they do get it. They don’t get upset because they know we’re always here when they need us.
‘There is more in our life as a couple than being parents.’
This means Sarah and Glen prioritise their adult time. Sarah says: ‘We send the kids to their rooms early most nights. Our bedroom is our sanctuary; the children aren’t encouraged in and have never slept in our bed.’
Sarah says having this downtime helps them feel less impatient and stressed with the day-to-day pressures of work and parenting.
She adds: ‘Outside of lockdown we both work and the children are busy in school or nursery, where they have the chance to play all day. I don’t feel like I need to do it at home, too.
Zoe Lacey, 36, (pictured) who lives in Islington, London, explained that she feels judged by helicopter parents, when she takes her son Noah (pictured) to the park
‘Glen will play Lego or run around with them and sometimes I envy his energy for it. But the truth is that it would be counterproductive for me to pretend to love it. It’s worse to fake it and feel distracted and miserable. I’d just end up resentful.
‘I have more guilt about it at the moment, because it is such an unusual time. I have no doubt that in ten years or so I’ll look back and feel desperate that my teenagers don’t want to play with me any more, but that’s parenting for you!’
Early years expert and teacher Hazel Cassidy, who runs The Hands Off Parenting blog, says sometimes parents get too involved with children’s play.
Hazel says: ‘I have over 20 years’ experience in early years learning and I certainly don’t feel guilty saying no to playing with my children.
‘When adults join in, they usually take over without even realising it. They’ll correct the child, showing them the right way to place the blocks or draw a flower.
‘Saying no to joining in sometimes and encouraging independent play will actually strengthen the bond between parent and child.’
Hazel follows the influential teaching philosophies of Dr Maria Montessori, who claimed in the early 20th century that the role of a parent should be to observe rather than actively play with children.
At the time it was a mainstream belief, but over time the expectation that parents will get involved in play and provide opportunities for learning and development has grown exponentially.
Marie Farmer, 30, who lives in Mill Hill, London, revealed that she feels guilty, when she sees other parents being creative on social media. Pictured: Marie Farmer and August
Many modern middle-class parents feel swamped under the pressure to offer children a smorgasbord of creative challenges, educational toys, expensive extracurricular activities — and on top of that to be constantly available themselves for play.
Child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer, founder of Dr Gummer’s Good Play Guide, agrees that lockdown has simply increased that pressure, but encourages parents to find the energy to connect with their child’s play on some level.
She says: ‘So many parents are feeling, understandably, somewhat played-out right now. With schools still closed to most pupils, many parents are guilt-ridden that they’ve had enough of being their child’s main playmate.
‘But however fed up and frazzled you might feel, play remains a vital element of your child’s day-to-day life. Play helps children learn about the world around them; it sparks imagination and nurtures creativity. Without it, life for a little one becomes dull and uninspiring.’
But she agrees that women shouldn’t ‘force’ themselves to play if they don’t want to, since neither parent nor child will benefit.
‘Often, when a parent doesn’t play with their child — or does but would rather not — it’s because something that can be joyful and special has been relegated to a task on a long to-do list. And trust me, your child will pick up on that negativity. It becomes frustrating for you both.
Child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer, said playing to your strengths can help to avoid time spent with your child feeling like a chore (file image)
‘To avoid it feeling like a chore, you need to play to your strengths. You might hate imaginative play but love board games, so make that how you play together.
‘Others like to be more active, kicking a ball around the garden together or enacting fairy tales. How you play is up to you. The main thing is that if you enjoy it, then they will, too.’
Unsurprisingly, play of any sort has been high on our children’s agenda during lockdown. A Welsh government study found that 53 per cent of those aged between seven to 11 have been playing more during the pandemic. So will they miss out if Mum refuses to join in?
Zoe Lacey, 36, is divorced and lives with her son Noah, seven, in Islington, London. Before lockdown, she would take Noah to the park to play with other boys his age.
‘He would socialise with other kids while I read my book,’ she says. ‘But I never chased him around or got involved. We don’t go to the park for me to play; it’s time for him to meet other kids and enjoy himself.’
Her approach isn’t shared by many others who use the park, she acknowledges. ‘I feel the other parents judging me as they helicopter-parent — buzzing around their child and cheering them on as they use the climbing frame.
Psychotherapist Anna Mathur, explained that there are other ways of connecting with your child, instead of playing (file image)
‘But the way I see it, they aren’t allowing their kids the freedom to explore and make their own mistakes and fun.’ Zoe, an illustrator, admits she hates to play make-believe and get involved in her son’s games of hide-and-seek.
‘I will build him a fort that he can sit in without me, but any other creative play is out. It just isn’t me,’ she says. ‘I do feel the mum guilt rise when my son says: “You never play with me, Mummy.” He might shout that he is “so bored” and storm off, but it doesn’t take long for him to find something else to do.
‘Usually we will agree to a task or game together later in the day when I’m less busy.
‘I do like to play cards or board games, and we are both really competitive, so it’s good fun. I mostly win, which Noah can get in a strop about, but I like to think he is learning while we play.’
Zoe says giving in and playing imaginative games leaves her feeling an ‘inner frustration’.
‘I end up zoning out and checking my phone,’ she says. ‘It’s my brain telling me I’m not making constructive use of my time.
‘It’s better to be honest, so I tell Noah I feel a fraud when I play. I just don’t want to, and I’m not good at it.’
Instead, Zoe would rather observe her son’s independent play. She says: ‘I get so much more pride and pleasure in watching Noah play alone, stretching his own imagination.’
Psychotherapist Anna Mathur, author of Mind Over Mother, says there are other ways to strengthen the bond between parent and child. She adds: ‘The shock factor of saying no to play is likely because we so strongly associate play with connection, when actually there are so many other ways of connecting with your child.
Psychotherapist Anna Mathur, recommends asserting healthy boundaries to avoid flying off the handle (file image)
‘Asserting healthy boundaries is a way of organising our lives and personal resources. Then we are less likely to fly off the handle or feel our blood pressure shooting up should a work or parenting challenge arrive.’
The compromise for married mother-of-one Marie Farmer is what she calls ‘sprinkle parenting’. She says: ‘What that involves is two minutes here and there, to set up a game or check my son is happy, then I can go back to my work or any other jobs that need my time.
‘I don’t have my son’s energy levels. I cannot keep up. When I have done all the other things on my to-do list I rarely have the energy to play, too.’
Marie, 30, is the founder of a healthy eating app for kids. She lives in Mill Hill, London, with her teacher husband James, 36 and their son August, four.
She says the pressure to play creatively comes in part from comparing herself to other mothers, especially on social media.
She says: ‘I see mums online making elaborate dens and intricate crafts and models for their kids, and sometimes I feel inadequate.
‘Mum guilt is rife at the moment. But if these parents are showing off their A+ parenting online, who is it really for? Is it really to benefit their kids, or do they want other mums to praise them and see how well they are doing?
Marie Farmer revealed that she tells her husband to back off, when August is peacefully playing alone (file image)
‘I hate it when people say to parents: “Enjoy every moment, it goes so quickly.” It is supposed to make you feel guilty for needing time to yourself, away from children.’
Marie says she is lucky as August has always been an independent player. He has autism and liked his own company even as a baby.
She says: ‘Now he’s older he likes to play by himself. He asks to take a picnic lunch into his little tent and will say: “Go away, Mummy!” He likes his private time.
‘And for me, that time when he is happily entertained is my break.
‘My husband will often interrupt the peace to join in with August’s play, and I have to tell him to back off. It’s a great skill for kids to learn to be self-reliant and entertain themselves.
‘I don’t feel guilty that I need some time for myself. I don’t think it’s healthy to want to be around your children all the time. I did that when he was a baby and I breastfed on demand — there wasn’t even time for me to get a haircut.
‘But as children grow, they want as much freedom and independence as you can give them. That’s the way it should be.’