I’m a lapsed Catholic.   Guilt is supposedly in my blood.  Yet my high school yearbook “what if” reads “What if Lisanne had a conscience?”  I didn’t worry that swigging wine straight from the bottle while hanging out a station wagon window topless meant I had to go to confession and say a zillion Hail Mary’s.  Hell, I specialized in teaching Sunday school then heading straight for Bagel Chateau instead of mass.  Guilt had nothing on me.

Until I had kids.  And with them came the motherload of guilt.

I adore my two boys but they’re a handful and I often fantasize about escaping alone to a tropical island to sip martinis on a sun-kissed beach.  Damned if that fantasy isn’t quickly invaded by two bright-eyed little monsters I can’t live without.  When those little monsters were toddlers, I discovered that I could read to them for hours but ask me to pretend to be an orangutan or make up silly games with dolls and stuffed animals and I was outta there.  I love board games and cards (I come from a long line of card sharks) but have you ever tried explaining gin rummy to a two year old?  Drool and gin rummy do not go together.  Unless you’ve had too much gin.

I realized I didn’t like playing with my kids.  My guilt was spectacular.

Every time I told the kids I had to clean or cook or write or make a phone call instead of play with them, I felt awful.  Not awful enough to pretend to be Owl when they played Winnie the Pooh but awful enough to feel like I was paying penance for my sins.

Then my older son was diagnosed with high-functioning autism.  Suddenly we barely had time to breath, much less play.  We needed to figure out IEP’s and Regional Center evaluations and therapists for all of four of us and – the list was literally endless.  Most days I collapsed into bed thinking only, “Thank God it’s bedtime.”  Who had time for guilt?

Evidently I did.

Once we go through all the paperwork and the diagnosis and the bullshit associated with securing autism treatment, play became an integral part of our everyday life.  It was the best way to reach both my boys, to sooth their chaotic emotions, to let them know that we were there for them to guide them back to themselves, to us.

But I sucked at playing.  I hated it.  So I didn’t do it.  But I felt guilty about it so that made everything okay, right?

I avoided fully participating in play therapy by making lunches and dinners, cleaning the house, spending hours on the phone setting up other therapies for my son.  All this work had to get done, I reasoned.  And if I didn’t do it immediately, no one would.  So I observed our wonderful therapist being silly, goofy, funny, warm and loving – all the things I feared I’d never be when I played with my children.  My husband, always an expert at playing with kids (our friends and I joke that we can leave him alone with twelve kids and a pile of spinach and he’ll not only have them all eating it in five minutes, he’ll have them laughing about it), threw himself into play therapy, doing whatever it took to engage my son’s attention.  I felt pangs of jealousy as I watched him but I was also relieved.  The boys had two loving parents, one of whom had what it took to play with them.  That had to be good enough.

I kept avoiding play and feeling guilty about it.

During that first year, we learned to play more board games and we read together a ton.  But my son was never as engaged during these activities as he was when he made up worlds, characters and plots with us.  Then, he met our eyes and really saw us.  His speech became clearer and he pulsed with ideas as each story played itself out.  He was himself again and so much more.  Our younger son began to tantrum less, to let us redirect his anger into silly guessing games, I Spy and wrestling.   Our boys started to come back to us

Guilt was getting a little old.

I gingerly tried imaginative play with them.  But I never quite fell into their rhythm.  I felt awkward and useless and ridiculous.  They’d correct me or, worse yet, ignore my hesitant efforts.  Instead of pushing my insecurities aside and soldiering forward, I internalized their unintentional rejections and retreated to cooking and cleaning and doing all the practical things a mom is supposed to do.  Both boys became more and more enthralled with our therapist and Dakota and less interested in me.  They were thriving.  I was lonely.

Guilt is a shitty companion.

I mentioned to our therapist that I felt as though my family didn’t really see me, that I was a conduit for household machinations but wasn’t an actual person to anyone.  She delicately said, “You know, when I interact with you, I have too many wonderful adjectives to describe you.  Funny, silly, interesting.  But the kids don’t see that person because you’re always somewhere else, even when you’re in the room with them.”  She was right.  By refusing to participate in my boys’ play, by relegating myself to the keeper of the practical, I had removed myself not just from their imaginative world but from them.  I was becoming a stranger to them, just as my older son had once become a stranger to us.

I kicked guilt to the curb and played with the boys that day.

I didn’t have any breakthroughs.  I still hated it.  I still felt foolish and awkward and inadequate.  But when my older son looked me in the eye and hugged me, when my younger son belly laughed as I tickled him, I knew exactly what the point of play was – communication.  It didn’t matter that I wasn’t good at it.  It mattered that I tried.  I would get better with time – or I wouldn’t.  But without play, I would not reach either of my children, one captive to his spectacular imagination, the other to his gripping anger.

In the four years since my son’s diagnosis, we’ve worked hard as a family to become whole again, to be happy.  Through all this hard work, I’ve made a surprising realization about play.  It’s still a four-letter word that doesn’t thrill me.  It probably never will.  But what I did instead – feeling guilty while I cleaned house, organized, cooked, anything to avoid entering my kids’ imaginative world – isn’t enough when you have a child on the spectrum.  It’s not enough when you have any child.   When my family fell apart, though cleaning and organizing and cooking may have helped keep us afloat, play is what kept us together.

Guilt has nothing on me.

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