I lived to play house when I was a little girl. I had roughly a gazillion baby dolls, my mom’s old high heels, a sandbox kitchen, and a neighbor boy that was occasionally willing to play the part of my platonic baby-raising partner. I could get lost for hours dreaming up various scenarios in which I cared for my army of babies, rocking them in a little wooden cradle, feeding them disappearing milk from cheap toy baby bottles, cooking up sandy mac and cheese and generally bossing everyone around. I felt totally in my element when I played house.
I got married when I was just 21-years-old, and a lot of those first years of marriage felt like an advanced version of playing house. There were no babies to care for, but I might as well have been in my old sandbox kitchen as I learned how to cook, one burned casserole at a time. I might as well have been in my mom’s old high heels as I tried to prove that I was an actual grown up in my advertising sales job, answering the question of how old I was with a confident “old enough” anytime someone questioned my experience level. We had two incomes, no kids, and — with parents that probably still paid our cell phone bills — a safety net that felt indestructible. Stakes were relatively low, so we learned by playing, as 21-year-olds do.
Eventually, the jobs got more serious. Then there was a mortgage and a host of other grown up bills (yes, including the cell phone bill). I got laid off the day our very first mortgage payment was due, and I aged by at least a decade in the blink of an eye. We wove our own safety net, with retirement accounts, a community of friends in our neighborhood, and a marriage conference at our church. We weren’t playing house anymore. We were doing real life.
And then we were parents. I quit my job to stay at home. We moved across the state to be closer to my parents. We bought a private health insurance plan and a breast pump and a Baby Einstein DVD boxed set. My husband worked long hours and we adjusted to life on one income and I called him at 5pm every day to ask when he would be home to save me from the baby and the laundry and the conviction that I was doing everything wrong. The air conditioner in my car broke in the middle of August and we didn’t have enough money for the $1800 repair. I sat on the edge of my bed and cried. This had never been one of the scenarios I dreamed up all those years ago.
As playing house gave way to the hard work of building a life, play vanished from my life altogether. I loved watching my son play, joyfully butchering the hokey pokey dance with his karaoke Elmo, but it never occurred to me play was still an option for me, too. Not simply playing with my son, graduating from peek-a-boo to chase to monster trucks, but letting my own spirit play. While seeing my son’s delight in our silly games made my heart explode with joy, I felt myself begin to slip away a bit as my days became more and more centered around him.
My first essay for Coffee + Crumbs, published in August 2014, was about how a childhood friend’s offhanded comment made me realize that I had forgotten how to play. In my quest to initially prove that I was a real grown up, and then in my quest to be the best version of a stay-at-home mom that I could imagine, I had completely turned that part of myself off. There was no room for play in a life I had filled up with to-do lists and never-done-well-enough lists.
It’s strange, how such a casual comment by a friend I hardly see anymore could have had such a big impact on me, but it was — not to sound dramatic here — a revelation. I began to think about what I did for fun before I was trying so hard to be responsible all the time. What made me laugh the hardest? What would I blow off my homework to go do? What had I dreamed about accomplishing when I didn’t know about mortgage payments and safety nets that you have to weave and repair yourself?
Slowly, I began to make time for some of those things. I had loved running along the beach trail and swimming in the ocean when I was in college in Southern California, so I signed up for an all women’s triathlon on Mother’s Day, just to try it on and see if it still fit. Even though I had to buy a new swimsuit for it (spoiler alert: my college bikini no longer fit), being active and being outside brought me just as much joy as it had back then. And doing it just for myself, no stroller, no destination, just for the hell of it, felt totally indulgent.
I had always loved writing and had once-upon-a-time maintained a blog where I wrote whatever I wanted for a marginally entertained audience of probably 11 friends and family members. I shut that blog down not long after becoming a mom, though, too busy to maintain it and too embarrassed by some of the years-old posts that felt clunky and naive from my new perspective. As I searched to learn how to play again, I came back to writing to see if there might still be some joy there. There was, of course, and with every word I wrote, whether about motherhood or not, I knew myself better. Writing felt like nurturing my whole self, not just my mom self.
Playing house may not have prepared me very well for the real work of caring for babies and navigating a relationship with a partner (although I can still wear the hell out of some high heels, thank you very much), but perhaps that was never the point. Perhaps the best part about playing house was simply that it taught me how to play. How to know what I liked to do, to be imaginative about it, and make time for it.
At the tender age of 35, I’m still learning how to play. I still forget how important it is sometimes. I tell myself ridiculous stories about what I’m allowed to do and how much time or energy or money I’m allowed to invest in letting my own spirit feel free. I’m constantly fumbling at finding a balance of being responsible and being fun.
As I raise these two boys of mine, who know how to play more surely than they know how to walk, I understand anew how utterly human it is, how innate, how necessary it is to simply play.
“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
What is the most playful memory you have of yourself? Not playing with your child(ren) or playing for the purpose of entertaining someone else, but a time where the rest of the world seemed to disappear as you were totally caught up in the sheer joy of what you were doing? Write a personal reflection essay about this memory, taking time to think through why you found so much pleasure in that moment and if you can recognize broader themes about the moments/memories/activities that make your spirit feel most free.
Write out an itinerary for a kid-free full day of play for yourself. You can be either realistic or outlandish about the financial and geographical constraints, but you must be totally authentic about planning out an itinerary that would allow you to shake off your responsible self and get in touch with the most playful version of yourself.
“A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.” - Anonymous
We all know that moms spend a good amount of time planning playdates. When asked what a mom’s job is, Anna Jordan’s son once said “make snacks and text friends about playdates,” and let’s be honest, he was not totally wrong. But this time, we want you to make snacks and text friends about a playdate for you.
Pick a free day, schedule a sitter, or let your husband know he’s on duty for a big ‘ole chunk of time. Plan a fun activity, throw together some delicious snacks, or make reservations at a hip restaurant.
Do something you haven’t done in a long time or try something new that you’ve always wanted to do. Wear your cozies and host a movie-and-manicures night, or get dolled up and head to the nearest karaoke bar.
We don't care what you do, we just want it to be FUN. Rally some girlfriends and go play!
(And, obviously, take some pictures and let us know what you did so we can all be inspired. Use #yocplay on IG!)
If you're on Instagram, you've probably seen Mari's cartoons floating around.
Click on the image to download this PDF!
Artist Interview with Mari Andrew
1. Tell us about your process. Have you always done sketches and cartoons?
I’ve only been doing them for a little over a year. I’ve always been a writer, and my cartoons involve a lot of text, so it feels like a natural extension of writing—just in shorter, more colorful bursts.
2. You’re currently working on a book of illustrated essays – what will that look like? What topics are you covering?
It’s a book of essays about my 20s, sort of my navigation into adulthood. Each chapter will focus on a theme such as love or loss, and I’m creating original illustrations for each theme.
3. Your work feels really fun and playful – is this a style that you’ve always had or is it indicative of your life season?
My work is the same as it’s been since I was 5; I can’t really draw any other way! I’ve never taken an art class or really tried to work on my style, so that’s why they look like a child drew them. My inner child drew them! Also, since my work is text-heavy and the drawings are just there to support the words, I keep the illustrations very simple. Some of my themes can be a little dark, so I’m happy to keep the visuals cheerful.
4. You capture elements of life so succinctly. From where do you get inspiration for your cartoons?
I get every idea directly from my life. It’s either something I’m going through right now, or a memory I’m reflecting back on. Sometimes I’ll post something that seems so specific to my life that I assume I’m the only one who’s ever been through it…and then I get hundreds of comments saying something to the effect of “Me too!” That’s the best feeling.
5. How has your recent “fame” on social media affected your work? Do you feel more pressure to produce now?
I try not to think about it! I do feel pressure to keep posting every day and sometimes that gets challenging, time-wise. But, I rarely get a creative block because I draw from my life, and I’m always out there living!
6. How are you seeing the fruit of your creative work blooming now from seeds that you planted long ago?
I’ve always been trying to find my creative “home,” really since I was able to pick up a pen. I am naturally very expressive and wondered for a long time what exactly that would look like in my adult life: whether I’d be a photographer, journalist, essayist, songwriter, whatever. The options paralyzed me from picking a lane. I started drawing just because it made me happy, and I’m very pleased to report that it’s still a very relaxing part of my day. Now that I have this hobby, I’m able to draw from periods of my life that felt much more confusing or directionless. It’s all come together, and I’m really grateful for it.
7. What or who do you read to help inspire your work? What other resources do you recommend to fellow creatives?
I don’t read much about art or creativity (although I highly Big Magic to everyone!), but just soaking up the genius of others is really helpful! I’m especially inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jonny Sun, Chance the Rapper, Brene Brown, and Tig Notaro. I’m trying to do the same thing they do—take life experiences, particularly the painful ones, and make something new out of it.
8. Do you have a scripture, word, or mantra that guides your work?
9. What is something you have learned in the past year that you are taking in to the New Year with fresh eyes?
Last year was the first year of my career as an artist, and I spent a lot of time getting my sea legs. I worried about every little thing and took criticism very seriously. Now I finally feel confident in calling myself “an artist” (it’s my job now!) and what goes along with that is the knowledge of what to worry about and what not to worry about. There are some people whose thoughtful criticism I would really take to heart, but most others I have given myself permission to ignore. It takes a lot of emotional energy to make art, so I can’t give that energy to things that ultimately don’t matter, like comments from trolls.
10. If you could provide a word of advice to about making art in a busy season, what would it be?
You can’t make good art if you don’t have time to read, and you don’t have time to read if you don’t make time for yourself. Some obligations have to be postponed for you to tend to the obligation of self-discovery.