Players: One single mom
One daughter, ages 3-8, prone to illness
Directions: Shuffle and deal. Players take turns drawing cards from each other. If you draw a card that matches one in your hand, place the matches face up. If not, add the card to your hand.
Play continues until all pairs have been matched. The player left holding the old maid card loses the game and becomes the “old maid” unless, alarmed by the message this sends, you abruptly alter the rules. Unless you impulsively tell your daughter, “The player left holding the old maid wins! She gets to hang out with this fabulous independent woman who has the pioneering courage to violate tradition and forge her own path!”
Stick to this improvised rule until, at eight, your daughter hoards the old maid card at a sleepover, relishing the moment that she’ll throw it down and win the game. The next morning when you pick her up she will confront you, tone fraught with betrayal and disillusionment and humiliation. She wanted to win, but because of you, she lost miserably.
You used to love games, even the dumb ones of your childhood like Mystery Date. The object of that one was to win one of the cute dates inside the secret door—the guy dressed for a formal dance, a bowling alley, or the beach—and avoid the dud. He looked just like the other dates, except, you thought, cuter, a little scruffier, with messy hair and a five o’clock shadow.
But the ulterior motives of Old Maid and Mystery Date were pretty much the same: to teach players to avoid undesireable people, guys who don’t wash, women who don’t marry. Never mind the messages of other thankfully now-vintage games, like say, Mother’s Helper, described by the copy on the box as “A Real Fun Game that Takes you Upstairs. . . Downstairs. . . All Through the House!”
And so what you once thought of as easy forms of entertainment during endless winter weekends and long days when your daughter is home from school sick all seem like minefields, full of explosive subtexts you must head off about women and girls, about roles and choices, about the very nature of competition itself.
Players: One desperate mom seeking diversion for her
4-year-old daughter home sick from daycare again
Directions: Draw a card and move your piece to the space matching the color on the card. Continue in this manner along the game’s colorful winding paths, past the peppermint forest and lollipop woods and peanut brittle house, past the blond twins and gumdrop-shaped monsters, until you reach the candy castle.
Experience relief that you can offer this simple, colorful world to your daughter who is prone to asthma attacks that land her in emergency rooms, to fevers that flare suddenly in crowds, to mysterious swellings of knees and lips, to throbbing headaches and upset stomachs. This game might encourage the rotting of her teeth but otherwise carries no negative implications, as far as you can see.
Should this seemingly pleasant innocuous game get tedious—and it will, in no time—try reverse cheating, stacking the deck so that every card your daughter draws will be purple. She’s too young to be suspicious of easy wins, and this method will speed her right along to victory. Wonder: are you doing her any favors? But your pride takes over. Look how fully you’ve embraced motherhood and self-sacrifice! Look at how little you care about winning!
Players: One daughter, ages 5-8, becoming a competitive gymnast and making fewer trips to the ER
- who suddenly finds herself having childhood flashbacks, reliving those moments when she sat poised to pounce and crow and gloat as soon as her big brother landed on Park Place. Reliving the moment that her brother, whose jokes about BO Railroad had lost their edge, flicked his Scottie dog game piece across the room and turned on the TV, saying, “I’m not playing with you anymore. You’re too competitive,” and then her cousins all deserted too, enragingly unconcerned that she’d been deprived of her moment of glory. Leaving her feeling caught out, a girl who’d harbored a fierce desire not to soothe other’s feelings but to smash their egos
- who as a child eventually learned to space out during games like Monopoly, her detachment more acceptable to her peers than her previous bloodthirsty focus on amassing cash and celebrating others’ destitution
- whose altered approach, while perhaps suggesting a more harmonious worldview, meant that she’d never win another Monopoly game
- who when young was pleased to take second place in a beauty contest, winning $10 and an imaginary sash and bouquet
- who was happy to take a trip on Reading Railroad, since she loved to read and pictured herself on a train with a pile of books
- who joined her friends in cooing over the cute game pieces, the top hat, the shoe, the thimble, the dog
- who learned to be relieved at cooperative games, like the Ouijia board, which told her when she was thirteen that she would grow up to be a dill pickle
- who now is happy that Title 9 has fully kicked in. That girls aren’t pressured to be ashamed of their competitive instincts anymore. That girls get to enjoy winning too.
Directions: Get past the sense of dread that overcomes you when Monopoly Junior appears in your mailbox on your daughter’s fifth birthday, the memories of your complicated relationship with competition. Tell yourself that you should instead be relieved to be yanked from a vibrant candy landscape into the seemingly more interesting cutthroat world of shady real estate deals and rent gouging. Be shocked to discover that it’s just as boring. Invent new rules to hurry it along.
Feel burdened by an enormous weight of responsibility: to model the balance between striving for achievement but not basing your whole sense of worth on it. To encourage her to push herself but never feel that you approval is out of her reach.
But when she wins at Monopoly Junior, wonder: are you cheering for her or just cheering that the game is over?
The Game of Life
Players: A Mom, increasingly perturbed at the sneaky cultural conditioning of games
A Daughter, 10, who sleeps a lot but is mostly healthy
A Daughter, 10
The babysitter’s children, 11, 9, and 5
Directions: Travel the Path of LIFE making decisions, building a family, earning money, buying homes, and collecting LIFE tiles. Win by accumulating the most wealth by the end of the game.
First, spin the spinner and move your car forward in the direction of the arrows. If you choose the computer version of this game, it works exactly the same way, except that it won’t move forward until you enter a heterosexual union. If you object, purchase the board game version so that you can exercise choice and acknowledge gender fluidity, the continuum of sexuality, and the range of possibilities regarding social conformity and parenthood.
With the board game, you can resist the official rules and decide whether to be a pink peg or a blue peg or no peg at all should you not be in the mood to adhere to cultural constructions of gender, or should you be feeling that day like a square peg unlikely to fit into a round hole. Decide whether to choose a life partner, and if so, one of the same sex, or one of the opposite? Decide whether to have children, with or without a partner.
But be forewarned that at her babysitter’s house, your daughter, after choosing a pink peg for herself, might land on the marriage square and reach for another pink peg, musing, “I think I’ll be a lesbian.”
And that her babysitter might rear back as if a bullet had just zinged past her head, throwing out her hands as if to cover the ears of her own children, and bellow, “No!”
And that later you will have to come to terms with the fact that not only do the babysitter’s values not remotely align with yours, but you also find rearing up around that babysitter all of those competitive instincts you thought you’d conquered. You’re convinced that she sees parenting as a contest she’s determined to win, requiring everyone else to lose.
Wonder how to respond when this woman makes disparaging remarks about your daughter’s handwriting and spelling; when she corrects (incorrectly) your daughter’s pronunciation of a novel character’s name; when she brags that her kids walked much earlier than your daughter, who had developmental delays but is now a gymnast; or when she criticizes your daughter’s future marriage prospects after your daughter announces that Disney princesses are too dependent on men. You know that heteronormativity is par for the course in your conservative small town. Still, discover that the babysitter’s reaction to your daughter’s choices during the Game of Life adds another layer to your concerns about the childcare arrangement.
A mom who can’t play this game without remembering the time when she was nine that Natasha Landers insisted that she was cheating by making out the reflections of Natasha’s cards in her glasses
A ten-year-old daughter, doing pretty well, if a bit confused by her babysitter’s criticisms
That same ten-year-old daughter, still mostly healthy
That same babysitter
Those same babysitter’s children
Directions: Mr. Boddy is found dead inside of his mansion. The object of the game is to use deductive strategies to determine the killer, the murder weapons, and the room in which the crime occurred.
Expect that your daughter will be entranced by the colorful, cozy rooms and the adorable little weapons—the coil of rope, the cast iron lead pipe. Allow her to remain oblivious to the inherent sexism that the female game characters, Miss Scarlet, Mrs. White, and Mrs. Peacock, are all titled according to their marital status while the male characters, Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum their professions. It’s best that you not point this out to your daughter, who might bring it up and be subjected to more of the babysitter’s ridicule.
Then make the vast mistake of teaching your daughter how to use the process of elimination to trounce her opponents. Be surprised that as a result, the babysitter’s family will accuse her of cheating. To win, it seems, is regarded as antisocial, though not so much when the babysitter’s children win.
Find yourself troubled by ambiguous messages about female achievement in opposition to the actual rules of the game, the bizarre idea that there is something not nice about logical thinking, that, in order to avoid disapproving opponents, players should confine themselves to random guessing.
Players: A daughter, 10,
- who learned to play Mancala at a museum, where a volunteer challenged her to a game, then, kindly, the mom thinks, allowed her to win ten times in a row.
- Who then proceeded to beat not just her mom, but her mom’s friend with a genius IQ and her rocket scientist husband
and a mom
- who gets beat every single time and feels secretly proud of her daughter every single time
- who is totally okay with losing this one, unlike when she was young and couldn’t ever seem to win games with her cousins, who were sadistically pleased to disqualify her. Like during Scattergories, when the category was “Things that are cold” and the answers all had to start with the letter S, and the cousins jotted down sherbet, Siberia, snow, spritzers, salad, Saturn, then ruled out the future mom’s answers, like Socks in the freezer and then banned her answers again over what they saw as her misinterpretation of Category C, “Things to trim a tree” because they’d filled in words like candy canes, creches, and ceramic angels, while hers made her sound like the family psychopath, someone who’d once again failed the good girl test, a purple peg in the Game of Life, without any place where she fit, and she was convinced that they were just punishing her for her overzealous childhood competitive streak. Her own answers had nothing to do with holiday decorating: cutting tools, chainsaws, the cuticles of Edward’s scissorhands.
A Daughter, 10
The babysitter’s children, 11, 9, and 5
Directions: Players take turns removing stones from pits along the edges of a wooden board and depositing one stone at a time into neighboring pits, each time adding a stone to a larger pit, or bank, on the end of the board. The object is to collect the most.
“Why are you letting her win?” the babysitter will scold her children. “You’re the smart ones!”
“I’m not smart?” your daughter will ask you that night.
Terminate the babysitting arrangement. Thereafter, keep tabs on every mediocre performance and instance of unoriginal thought on the part of the babysitter’s children.
Apples to Apples
Players: A single mom
- who basks in compliments about her daughter’s sharp wit or fast tumbling speed, but who runs the other way rather than cross paths with braggy moms in the grocery store
- who knows that her aversion to boasting parents isn’t just about them, but about the person she becomes around them, reaching back to an insecure younger self, struggling, sometimes unsuccessfully, to resist the pressure to match their boasting
- who tries just replying to their bragging, “That’s great!” or instead relates anecdotes that emphasize her delight in her daughter as a whole person, not just as a list of activities and accomplishments, or, alternately, asks questions designed to elicit the same sorts of stories about their children, though in response other parents eye her suspiciously, like she’s employing some sneaky technique for finding fault with them
- who cringes at the fact that the high school honor roll is published in the local newspaper, and upon spotting her daughter’s name, feels less proud than relieved, then tense, knowing full well that her daughter’s increasingly frequent illnesses might knock her out of the running next time
- who knows it’s unhealthy to see your child as an extension of yourself, your child’s wins as yours, even when she’s beating you, yet lives with a sense of vague dread, wondering how she’ll weather it when, not if, her daughter fails. When, not if, she loses. Because, after all, failure and loss are inevitable. Necessary even.
A daughter, 11-16
- who has never shown much interest in going the extra mile for an A or seeking promotions to higher gymnastics levels
- who used to be healthy more than she was sick, but then at fifteen flips that ratio, developing debilitating headaches and severe fatigue
- who can’t get out of bed some mornings, who suffers from nausea and throws up constantly
- who is at first sick for a week at a time, then two, then a month, then, in the spring of her junior year, misses five months. Gives up altogether during her senior year. Lies in bed.
and the mom
- listening to other parents sort their children neatly into categories—valedictorian, prom royalty, champion athlete—fights to get homebound tutors just to keep her daughter from dropping out of school
- worries her way through those quiet days when her child sleeps in her room, doesn’t pass Go, doesn’t collect $200, doesn’t even go upstairs, downstairs, all through the house
- drops, or is kicked, out of the world of parental one-up-manship as doctors keep concluding, frowning and staring at their charts, avoiding eye contact, that the daughter’s problems are emotional. Psychosomatic. Stress. What doctors always say when they can’t make a diagnosis
- is sent into a tailspin, wondering why the daughter would be so stressed that she can’t function
- lives with a nagging belief that her daughter’s illness must be her fault. That she transformed from unacceptably competitive girl to harmfully competitive mom, that she was only fooling herself when she thought that she was taming and channeling that drive. Why else had she allowed the babysitter’s comments to throw her into such turmoil? Why else had she harbored so many barely-suppressed savage impulses toward this woman? How much had her reactions inadvertently pressured her daughter, allowing twinges of disappointment to show, deep fears of failure to surface?
- is stricken with guilt that she caused this as her daughter squints at her through pained eyes
- is convinced that she’d managed to head off the troubling messages of so many games only to send her child the worst one: that winning mattered too much
- wonders why the braggy moms have managed not to damage their functional children, exceptional children, robustly healthy and energetic children who calmly get out of bed each morning and rake in awards and accolades while she just keeps thinking about more S things that are cold, like the Sorrow of believing that somehow, by enjoying winning, you have ultimately lost.
And then the daughter
- finishes high school through homebound instruction, and when she walks across the stage, her mom will think about all of the kids not wearing honor cords, not raking in multiple scholarships, who maybe aren’t going to college at all, kids for whom this graduation, despite family crises, illnesses or disabilities, or the need to work to survive, is a bigger achievement than anyone in the audience can ever imagine
- eventually also will finish college, and over time her symptoms will be traced one by one to food allergies and other sources, all of them physiological, none of them, after all, related to her mom’s shameful lifelong competitive impulses, her deeply internalized belief that being competitive can hurt people, can cause lasting harm, but will always know that illness may not be a game you ever really win. Even if symptoms dissipate, recovery may not be quick. And then at any moment, despite all efforts at control, they may flare up again.
Directions: Apples to Apples is a game of comparisons. Its title suggests that it’s about comparing things that can be reasonably compared, unlike different children, which is like comparing apples to oranges. In the game, power rotates, each player serving as the judge and making capricious decisions, blatantly favoring their children or best friends, faking out opponents, or leveraging knowledge of others’ psychology.
If, for instance, you’re the judge and the word is boring, and to illustrate it, everyone else throws out cards that say The Shopping Channel, Shakespeare, and Sleepy Cats, your daughter knows it’s an easy point if she plays the Candyland card. Or say the word is sickening and your daughter is the judge: you know that she will choose, over Getting a Shot, Teenagers, and Gorillas, the card that says A Princess.
So often you have no perfect answer in your hand and you just have to select from limited options. You might get Intelligence but have no Honor Roll, National Merit Scholar, or Child Prodigy cards in your hand, but no cards, either, for Quick Comebacks to Any Insult, Ability to Assemble a Bookshelf in No Time, or Skill in Writing a Parody in Response to a School Acrostic Assignment.
For Courage, there is not, but should be, Girl Who Just Keeps Going despite Impossible Odds. For Love, or Pride, or Joy, no cards for the things you’re left with when life won’t let you play by anyone else’s rules. Mom who Learns to be Thrilled Whether Daughter Becomes a Doctor or a Dill Pickle. No cards for the things that are, after all, perfect, despite, or maybe because, of the fact that they’re so improbably miniature, so exquisitely tiny: cast iron top hats, thimbles, candlesticks, wrenches. Or because of the simple pleasure of their smooth, cool feel in your hands, like stones gently lining up in their little slots.
Nancy McCabe’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Massachusetts Review, Newsweek, Michigan Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. She’s the recipient of the Pushcart Prize and eight recognitions in the notable sections of Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She’s the author of six books, most recently Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir (Missouri 2020).
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