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“Mom, let’s play outside! Come on!” my daughter pleaded. She raced to where I was sitting in the living room, imploring me with her big brown eyes and begging hands. “Fine,” I said, “but you need to change out of your pajamas first.” She skipped back to her room, and 45 minutes later, after myriad toy distractions and several reminders, she finally came back out to the living room.

I sighed. She had only managed to get one arm out of her pajama shirt, leaving the abandoned sleeve to dangle sadly. The smirk on her face seemed to mock me. Hadn’t she been the one who had begged to go outside, who had been so confident that playing outside, right now, was her ultimate purpose in life?

In similar situations, I would have been tempted to scold her for not being done yet, for not completing such an easy task. But on this particular day, I looked at her failed attempt to get dressed, smiled, grabbed her floppy sleeve and started shouting, “My daughter lost an arm! Emergency!” I scooped her up in my arms and ran around the house pretending to be frantic.

When I set her down, still giggling, she promptly changed her clothes, only pausing to say, “Mom, you’re the best mom in the world.” Her words unexpectedly touched my heart. You see, our spunky five-year-old joined our family only 14 months ago through adoption. Seeing her genuine, life-is-good smile was a strong reminder of how important it is for me to just have fun with her.

The truth is that these types of “fun mom moments” haven’t come as naturally to me as I had hoped. I am thankful I’m learning this about myself now, so early on in the motherhood journey. Although my momma experience is limited, I discovered pretty quickly that I had lost touch with my silly side; I took myself too seriously. I took my schedule, my to-do list, even my need for balance too seriously. I needed to lighten up. I still do.

I’ve always known that I’m not the most laid-back person, but motherhood seemed to make me even more tense, more controlling, less able to enjoy the moment. I couldn’t be silly because I was too worried about making it through whatever task we were doing. Time to brush your teeth, time to clean up, time to learn—even play became another item on the to-do list.

Maybe seriousness was my default response because I felt the weight of parenting this precious little one and the responsibility of teaching and guiding her, and I was deeply afraid of failing. Or perhaps it was my deep awareness of the loss, grief, and brokenness that is wrapped up in every adoption story. Maybe this is what caused me to tighten up and overdo my serious adult persona.

Through prayer and brutally honest feedback from my husband, the message finally started to sink in: “Jenny, chill out. Get over yourself. Stop clinging to fear and control and have fun.” I am learning that this advice is critical, not only to finding joy in parenting, but also to being a present and effective mom. In their book The Connected Child, Karyn B. Purvis and David R. Cross strongly advocate playful engagement as a way to build trust and deep connection with children. Their advice especially rings true for kiddos like mine who have come from hard places on their foster/adoption journey and have difficulty connecting with and attaching to adults. Purvis and Cross encourage adoptive parents with the truth that “play allows you to safely touch the heart of a vulnerable child. Shared silliness, laughter, and games all demonstrate to a child that you mean no harm . . . and the pathway gets cleared for trust and learning.”

Play has been such an important part of my motherhood journey; it has been the secret ingredient in bonding with my daughter and breaking down my own fear and need to control. It’s crucial to her healing and is a huge part of what will open the door for me to teach her and guide her to become the woman I know she was made to be.

Now I’m learning how to play again, how to laugh when my daughter balances her spoon on her nose instead of immediately correcting her for not being an expert utensil user. I’ve learned to be okay with changing my clothes five times a day and taking two showers—even to be thankful for this, because those extra wardrobe changes meant we had been making mud pies and hunting for potato bugs. I’m learning to ditch my flawless schedule, laugh more, and nitpick less. I’m finding my silly side again. Of course, I still have days where I fail and find myself locked into “serious-mom mode.” But it’s getting easier. As the days go by, I’m getting better at inviting my silly side to the party. And my whole family is laughing more because of it.

Editor’s Note: Making of a Mom is a Readers Write column. Share your own story here.