Care and Feeding

I Love My Son. But I Suddenly Have Zero Desire to Play With Him

A toddler boy plays with blocks.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by zGel/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a full-time mom to a 2-year-old. We had him right at the start of the pandemic and have been his only caretakers (his grandparents are in different countries). Since then it has been just my husband and I, taking him to parks, hospitals, stores and everything. We finally enrolled him in a lovely daycare close by three days a week, since I was starting full-time work after an extended break. Once he started going, I began to feel like I have no energy to do anything with him. I am not up for taking him to the park, I don’t want to play outside with him or feed him. I don’t mind putting him to bed, sitting next to him for hours at a stretch reading his favorite books, feeding him while he sits on my lap (not running around), or doing quiet activities but I have absolutely no energy to run behind him. I feel miserable and out of sorts wondering if there is something more serious than just tiredness. I cannot pull myself up from the sofa to play with him, but I am more than happy to hold him in my arms and sing songs with him. What is wrong with me? Is this normal?

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I love my dear baby with all my heart and want to be an engaged mom to him but these doubts are killing me every day. My husband has picked up on this and takes more than his fair share of parenting duties, but I can see him being stretched out thin too. He suggested I take him for quick walks around our home which I do when weather / time permits but it is not every day. It’s more like I am looking for excuses to get out of engaging him physically than anything else. I cite anywhere from “I need to run the dishwasher to I am having a headache.”, It’s obvious there is something at play here, but I need an outside perspective so I can work on myself and find out what I am not seeing in this situation. He is a normal 2-year-old—energy levels off the charts but an easygoing kid. He does not throw tantrums (at least not yet) and is easily calmed. I have always been a nerd and was always more comfortable with a book in my hand than being out in the sun. I am not sure if am destined to forever remain the boring, unengaged parent.  Help me!

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—Tired But Willing

Dear Tired,

I think most parents would agree that it’s normal to feel some level of exhaustion when it comes to raising a toddler, but I’m worried that what you’re describing is something completely different. I was a full-time stay at home dad when my daughters were young, and there were numerous days when I could barely motivate myself to get out of bed to make breakfast or engage with them in any physical activities. Not too long afterwards, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and realized that was the main reason for my malaise. Once it was treated, I became happier and more engaged, and the rest is now history.

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I don’t know anything about your situation beyond what you’ve laid out here (and I’m not a mental health professional), so of course I can’t say for sure that you’re depressed, but from an outsider’s point of view it certainly seems that way. I think it would be wise to meet with a licensed therapist to discuss how you’re feeling in order to get to the bottom of it. While you’re at it, I would suggest getting a full physical with your primary care physician to rule out any possible illnesses.

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It’s also possible that you’re completely burned out from the nonstop sprint of raising a child alone for two years. The desire to sit down, take a break, and say, “I really don’t want to do this right now,” is completely normal and quite frankly, expected.

Also, you shouldn’t feel guilty for letting your son play by himself while you watch in the background. It’s a healthy practice to have him discover the world on his own terms without you engaging with him at all times.

One thing I really want to tell you is to be kind to yourself. Every parent on the planet has dealt with mental health challenges of some sort. Not to mention, your son isn’t the only human in this equation who has been sheltered for a long period of time. I’ll go out on a limb by guessing that child-free interactions with grownups aren’t as plentiful as you would like, and that would be hard to handle for most parents. You’re not broken, weird, or a bad mom — you’re just going through a rough patch that requires you to seek help to overcome. I’ve been there and I made it to the other side, and if you follow through with getting professional help, you will too.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We recently moved into a new house a few months ago and our neighbor across the street is an elderly Chinese American woman. She lives alone, though her kids occasionally visit her, and she has a small dog that my kids (boys aged 5 and 8) adore. Recently I was talking to her while my sons played with her dog and she said some very disparaging things about our Black neighbors, and Black people in general. Since she is a woman of color, I don’t feel it’s my place to lecture her on her comments. As such I politely dismissed myself from the conversation and took my children home. My kids keep asking me when we can go see her and her dog again. I am worried she might say some of these things around my kids. Either I potentially expose my kids to language I find offensive, or I forbid them from being around this neighbor, which doesn’t feel right either. What should I do?

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—Unsure

Dear Unsure,

I need to challenge you on this. I’m not sure where you got the idea that white people can’t call out people of color for making bigoted comments. I’m an anti-racism facilitator, and I think it would be pretty silly of me to say, “We need to stop racial prejudice and bias—but only when white people do it.” While white people have the majority of power here in America, which means a lot of the work in fighting racism falls on them, that doesn’t mean people of color should get a free pass when they make insulting comments about people of other races.

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This is not nearly as difficult of a decision as you’re making it out to be. Don’t make excuses about her being a woman of color, or an older person who’s set in her ways. Tell her that you’re not OK with her making those comments about Black people in front of you and your kids. If she gets offended, then who cares? Why would you want your kids to be exposed to someone who held those beliefs? It doesn’t make you out to be some holier-than-thou white person for speaking out — it makes you a person who understands the difference between right and wrong.

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All of this hatred in America won’t go away if we continue to turn a blind eye to it. We must be willing to have difficult and uncomfortable discussions with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors — and even choose to “love them from a distance” if they continue with their hateful ways. Trust me, you can find another person in the neighborhood who has a cute dog and isn’t a bigot.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Monday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a mother of a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. My question/debate is whether to enroll my 5-year-old in kindergarten part-time this fall or home school. The concern is over COVID. Our 5-year-old is vaccinated and our 2-year-old will be as soon as the vaccine is authorized. My 72-year-old mom is living with us, and she is up-to-date with her COVID vaccines and boosters (parents are up-to-date on the vaccinations as well). However, even with vaccination, breakthrough infections are common and nobody knows anything definitive about the rate of long COVID in kids (and not enough in adults for that matter), and long COVID is frightening and keeps me up at night.

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These past 2 years we have tried to be careful about COVID exposure. We have tried avoiding large crowds whenever possible, always wear our masks in public regardless of whether we are outdoors or indoors (including the youngest of our family), don’t travel anywhere, don’t go to restaurants, do our haircuts at home, don’t socialize or have playdates where masks have to be off, etc. We do go to playgrounds and outdoor attractions like zoos but we are always masked. So far our kids have been disciplined about mask wearing whenever we are in the company of anyone who does not live in our household.

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I feel like my 5-year-old wants to be among his cohorts. They pretty much have said so. Their pediatrician has also said so. I think they are hungry to explore the world. But then there is COVID and the prediction of another surge in the fall/winter, and the knowledge that the current vaccines, while good, are targeting an older strain of the virus and may be nearly useless at preventing infections. My sister keeps suggesting that if I am that concerned about COVID I should homeschool the 5-year-old. I am torn between the knowledge that our 5-year-old’s mental health (and ours) would benefit from attending kindergarten part-time and the threat of COVID and long COVID (where homeschooling would be the safer option). Please help me decide!

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—COVID Concerned

Dear COVID Concerned,

I’m happy to offer my opinions on your dilemma, but at the end of the day, the decision you’re going to make about your child is a deeply personal one that you should make with your family and pediatrician.

We’ve dealt with Covid for over two years now. We certainly don’t have all of the answers, but we do have a vaccine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has outlined the benefits of in-person school. Yes, I think it’s wise to be careful. But my personal belief is that there becomes a time when—as long as you and the eligible members of your family continue to stay up to date on boosters and vaccinations—we have to trust the science and experts in order to live our best lives. Again, this decision should be made under the guidance of your pediatrician and family members, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m 100 percent in favor of sending kids back to school — especially if everyone is taking the proper precautions.

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Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

It’s a bit early in the year, but we have a racial sensitivity/cultural appropriation Halloween costume question. Our (white) 3-year-old daughter loves The Princess and the Frog, in particular anything in the movie having to do with voodoo and Dr. Facilier (aka the Shadow Man). Can she dress up as him? Obviously, we would not use blackface. I do think that dressing as Tiana would be OK, but Shadow Man seems like it could be more complicated. Shadow Man seems to be based on Baron Samedi, a figure in some African descended religions (sometimes called voodoo),  and we (a military family) are now stationed in Louisiana, where there is more affinity for this religious tradition than in most parts of the country. We don’t want to be offensive. Would this be? As I’m writing this out, the best option seems to be just steer to something else, but we’d appreciate your thoughts!

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—Shadow Man is Cool!

Dear Shadow Man,

People usually fall into one of two categories when it comes to this. Some people believe that we live in a soft, politically correct society where everyone gets upset too easily. They’re usually the type of people who will show up to an Atlanta Braves game wearing face paint and Native American headdresses while tomahawk chopping without a care in the world about who they’re offending. If that happens to be how you feel (and I have a feeling that you don’t feel that way, or else you wouldn’t have written this letter), then you should have your daughter wear whatever costume she wants and let the chips fall where they may.

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The other category would be the empathetic people who don’t want to make a mockery of anyone’s culture, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. just for the sake of a costume on Halloween. Since I’m assuming that happens to be you, I would highly recommend that your daughter just find something else. Heck, we have a lot of time before the holiday gets here, so I’m sure that won’t be a problem. I’m not the spokesperson for Black America, but I agree with you that dressing up as Tiana seems OK because she’s a mainstream Disney princess that kids of all races and ethnicities dress up as. A Shadow Man costume is concerning due to the reasons you laid out in your letter.

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You should also use the time between now and Halloween to discuss the ills of cultural appropriation and why the Shadow Man costume could be problematic for many people. Quite frankly, not enough parents are having these conversations, so I give you credit for recognizing the issue in the first place.

—Doyin

More Advice From Slate

I feel like I am in crisis. I have three wonderful, adorable young children. For years, I have been unsatisfied in my marriage for very typical reasons. My husband and I have no physical and little emotional intimacy, though we do have a low-conflict household. I carry the bulk of the labor in our household concerning all domestic and child care responsibilities, despite the fact that I work full time at a stressful career. My husband is impatient with the kids and does not seem to like being around them. I can’t help but feel I’d be happier divorced. What should I do?

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