I Can Think of Several.

By: Jen Shoop

One of Mary Oliver’s most-quoted lines hails from “Humpbacks,” a gorgeous poem I’ve written about elsewhere, without focusing on these particular words:

“I know several lives worth living.”

There is much to nibble on here. For one thing: free agency in the lives we choose to live (a concept with which I remain in a perennial intellectual foxtrot) — but also ampersand thinking, and reverence for possibility, and the agaric notion that there are multiple, equally valid ways to approach just about anything in life, including life itself.

The words came to mind as I was responding to a Magpie who had asked me how I approach playing with my children when there are so many household tasks to attend to, and if and how I counter the feeling that I am saying “no / in a minute” too often. I sat down and wrote roundly about the matter, as if this had been the sole question on my mind for years now, which reminded me of how much we carry as parents on a daily basis. There is a lot happening in the bokeh. These thoughts flocked out banshee-like, as though they’d been waiting months to be put to the sky:

First, I share in this struggle. You are not alone! I am positively haunted by a quote I once read that said: “When your children are asking you to play, they’re really asking you to love them.” Oy! I find phrases like that unhelpful and guilt-inducing, but it remains lodged in my soul, imperturbable. I do think that when my children are asking for my attention with particular tenacity — “will you play with me,” “can I sit with you,” “mama mama mama” ad nauseum — there is an obvious call to action. But I cannot accept that telling my daughter I will not play a round of Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza means I am rejecting an opportunity or need for affection. I also believe that there are many modalities in which we can show and share love, both inside and outside of the realm of play. Which brings me to —

I have learned over time that I’m better with certain types of play. I think it’s important to know which activities will enable you to be the most present, and full-hearted, version of yourself. For example, I have tried for years to play with Legos, Duplos, MagnaTiles with my children, and I run out of steam and interest within a matter of minutes. But coloring, Barbies, stickers, card and board games, crafting, sensory play, baking, beading, nature walks — I enjoy these pastimes with my children and I find they draw out the most playful part of myself. I’ve made peace with that. Mr. Magpie excels in the sports, Legos, running-around-throwing-pillows-at-each-other type of play, and I’m thrilled he evens the two of us out. In short: certain types of play are easier to say yes to, and to be fully present in, so I choose to focus on those, often to the exclusion of others.

Third, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to say “no” to play when I am taking care of my home, unloading the dishwasher, cleaning the countertops, etc. This is making the often invisible labor of running a household visible — and I think that’s important, too. We talk a lot with our children about respecting our home, and one highly legible modality in which to live out this value is by modeling the upkeep and care that goes into a well-run household. I am mindful of naming what I’m doing, e.g., “No, I can’t play right now, because I’m unpacking the groceries / folding the laundry / sorting the kitchen papers.” (The damned kitchen papers!) I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to say “no” to playing when I am spending intentional time with Mr. Magpie. We enjoy playing various board games together, strategizing about meals, sitting on the back patio, and I always think to myself: “I will not regret modeling this happy companionship with my husband in front of them.”

Fourth, my incredible mother was always present and available to me, but I cannot recall her playing with me much in my childhood. She was a mother of five, running a busy and complicated household! And yet I always felt held, and listened-to. There are so many ways to show love. (Ahem.) When my daughter was born, my mother told me that I should not feel I need to entertain my baby all day long. It took me a few weeks to understand what she meant, as I frantically tried to pack in reading sessions, singing sessions, black and white image cards, various age-appropriate toys, etc during her limited waking hours. I’m not saying not to do those things, but — I also think I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to trot out a big song and dance each day, when often “doing the small thing” as a Magpie reader once put it is just fine. Eventually I eased into a balance. I do try to play with my children, especially on the weekends, but I also remind myself that I am showing them love by snuggling with them, packing their lunches with care, sitting next to them on the couch while they watch a movie, engaging in idle chatter in the car, asking after their days at dinner, singing them songs in bed, laughing at their knock-knock jokes. These are all permutations of the same beautiful sentiment: you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.

Fifth, I tell my children to play by themselves a lot, and intentionally. I believe it is good for them to be bored and to learn how to play by themselves, or together, just as siblings. They are constructing tiny worlds beyond my ken without my manipulating presence. They are also developing a relationship with themselves and their own imaginations — learning what they like, and don’t, etc. This past year, we’ve begun to have “quiet play time” pockets — usually after lunch, and before some kind of family activity in the later afternoon. Yes, they groan and resist, but then they retreat to their rooms and I hear them happily tinkering around with Legos, puzzles, Barbies, Tonies. Is there anything more satisfying than poking your head in to see your daughter tangled up with a pile of books? I want to designate time for her self-directed enjoyment.

Finally, and this might trump everything I’ve written beforehand: it is all a balancing act. If I have a sense I’ve been saying “in a minute” or “not right now” too much lately, then I stop what I’m doing and play. If I see my child is having a rough day, or needing more attention, then I bend around that need. Vice versa, too. Sometimes, I simply cannot get down on my knees — I’m in the middle of a personal matter, I’m tired, I’m frustrated, and it’s time to tap out, and that’s OK. Or maybe they’re thriving, playing some strange, slightly violent game in the basement by themselves. Time to be hands-off, even if a stray “mama will you play with us?” comes floating up the steps.

I am not perfect at any of this. Sometimes I am in fact wildly out of balance. There are absolutely nights where I pour myself into bed and tick through the day’s accounting and think: “I should have said yes more.” But I try, and I remake myself every day —

Anyhow: as I pecked these thoughts out, I found myself thinking of how convoluted and multivalent this one aspect of parenthood is (and there are actual thousands of other topics that we could be discussing), and how many different and equally valid approaches there might be. I am sure I am missing entire inputs and philosophies that might be helpful. But that’s life, right? I can think of several answers worth trying — I can think of several types of mothers worth being — I can think of several lives worth living —

And so here I land, at Mary Oliver’s feet, reflecting on barnacles and joy instead. And, as happens on nearly a daily basis, Gretel and her breadcrumb trail being my avatar and all, after thinking all of this, I opened my inbox and saw Michael Ruhlman’s latest Substack waiting for me, and out sprang a newsletter about the diversity of routines that can support exceptional creativity. In it, Ruhlman asks several talented writers how and when they get their words down — “Set hours or random? Daily word count or page count? Music or silence?” — and it will probably come as no surprise that the spread of answers are poles apart, to the point of chalk and cheese. Some approach their work as a 9-5; others squeeze it in every which way.

Which is to say, whenever prompted with a “how might I approach x?”, the best jumping off point:

“I can think of several ways worth going.”

Onward, Magpies —


+On remaking myself as a mother.

+”This is water.”

+On being an archerfish by design.

Shopping Break.

This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through the links below, I may receive compensation.

+J. Crew new arrivals are lovely. I’m obsessed with this tiered shirtdress, these balconette swimsuits (more of that great mid/cobalt/denim blue popping up, as we discussed here), and this knit midi.

+A great graphic tee.

+Cute short-sleeved striped throw-and-go dress. Would look cute with sneakers.

+Cute, reasonably priced fruit bowl / would also look great styled on a shelf or coffee table.

+Speaking of sneaks: a great, less-expensive alternative to the popular Chloe Nama sneaker (on sale here and here): Dolce Vita’s Dolen.

+Speaking of Dolce Vita, I love some of their sandal options. These dad sandal-lites are so chic and come in really fun, punchy patterns/colors, and I also love these. Great price point, too!

+Drooling over this dress.

+Love this belt bag from Clare Vivier’s collab with Mother Denim. They always do such fun, unexpected colors/patterns. I got so many compliments on my “liberez les sardines” hat I wore in Tulum, which achieved the exact intended result: per the site, “Liberez les sardines is a great conversation starter because no one knows what it means.”

+Another great bag: this is the exact Pam Munson bag I’ve carried for years and years (at least five?), and they’ve now brought it back with the leather straps. It is SO good and looks in remarkably good shape given use, age, etc.

+These bralettes spark joy.

+T3 sent me their Airebrush and I’m very impressed. It’s like a higher-powered Revlon 1-Step, with more settings. However, while in Tulum, several of my girlfriends agreed that the Dyson AirWrap is unparalleled. It is now at the very top of my wishlist.

+Have heard this little tray can be a clever way to incentivize picky eaters. Caveat: we’re currently undoing a little bit of the unintentional side effects of using these segmented plates while my children were toddlers, and trying to serve everything on one plate, with various components (GASP!) touching each other.

+I still think Replay make the best, heaviest duty children plates out there. Great colors, last forever, micro and dishwasher safe, etc. But maybe mix in some of the non-segmented plates from time to time.

+Thoughts on the platform Gazelles?

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14 thoughts on “I Can Think of Several.

  1. I just want to add — my parents very rarely “played with us” despite us often begging for it. Now, as I’m older — I’m so glad they didn’t. They modeled a great and prioritized relationship, They encouraged our own independence and the belief that we could figure out stuff on our own was very instilled in us. They always held a great boundary: they weren’t our friends but our parents. They modeled rest and tapping out when it’s too much. When I was young, they were building a business together, and now I understand, and it’s a great gift to me that they didn’t always try to “play.”

    1. I love this perspective – so reassuring to hear, too. My mom has also said many times that it’s important to remember, as a mom, that you’re the parent, not the friend. Sometimes this means saying hard things with love, you know? You’re not in it to win the most popular award — you’re in it to raise a loving person prepared for the world.


  2. Thank you for this, Jen. I cannot tell you how much I mull over this topic. I would never describe myself as “playful” and it’s a tender admission for me to make as a mother. I appreciate how sober-minded you can approach topics like this. Your musings are like opening the windows and taking a big deep breath of fresh cold air. I’m finding that I can be too emotionally-entwined in the feelings of my children and I’m trying to learn how to take a step back from that. I’ll be mulling over this for a while. Thank you!

    1. Hi Danielle – You are so not alone in the conflicted tangle of feelings/thoughts on this subject (and countless others related to parenting). I’m so glad if my words have been reassuring in any way. Hang in there mama – you’re doing great.


  3. Oh, play! A topic I have thought so much about and you covered so well. There are several ways to approach it, indeed. There is not One Right Way to play with your children.

    One thing I wanted to add, on the off chance perhaps it might help a mother in my shoes, is I have learned the obsession with “fostering independent play” in young kids was not good for me, mentally. I felt I was always failing when my eldest at ages 1.5-3 needed me so much.

    But my youngest is way more independent (and always has been!) and I am realizing (again) all kids are SO different and we need not hold ourselves to the same standards for all children.

    Now that my eldest is 4, and he has fostered an ability to play some independently, and I can breathe a little, I realize playing with me is *still* a big need that he has, and I do it a lot, and that is OKAY. I refuse to say doing a floor puzzle with him is a failure because he didn’t do it independently. If he is regulated and engaged, even if I’m involved, it’s a win. He is also a child who benefits from goal-oriented play (like floor puzzles) because super open-ended for him can lead to dysregulation/descend into chaos.

    I think there can be this idea that child-led independent open-ended play, ideally outdoors, is the One Right Way and, again, there are several ways.

    1. Love this perspective and frankly hadn’t thought about how much emphasis we put on getting our children to play independently. Thanks for sharing this!! Also love your insight on how different types of play may be better suited to different children. Fascinating! Motherhood continues to humble me…


      1. It’s tricky! Because on the one hand, of course we want our children to be independent….eventually. But on the other hand, they are children. And children have needs. And I think children “forced” to be “little adults” too soon could actually suffer long-term psychological damage. (Or, anyway, I am reading “The Drama of the Gifted Child” by Alice Miller right now, and Alice Miller definitely argues that.)

        I do think you could make an argument that our culture is hyper-focused on independence, often to a detriment. Toxic Individualism which brings on all sorts of mental health issues: feeling isolated in negative emotions, unable to reach out for help, etc.

        I, too, am forever humbled by parenting!!

        1. Thanks for sharing these perspectives – helpful in rounding out some of my own observations and thoughts!


  4. Beautiful post, Jen! It is truly amazing the details and asides we can wring out of the tiniest aspects of family life – you’re not alone in your musings and adjustments!

    1. Thank you so much — completely agree! We carry all these tiny universes of thoughts around with us at all times!


  5. I have and love the Gazelle platforms. So comfortable and at 5’ tall the platform gives me a much needed lift. Even my 18 year old soon did a double take the first time I wore them and commented on their coolness. Also own that Old Navy dress you mentioned in 3 fabrics. Wore them to death last summer and surprisingly they’re still in great shape. Love they come in petite.

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