A few months ago, joints and muscles all over my body began to ache intermittently. A blood test proved it was neither the life-threatening disease nor early-onset arthritis that I'd catastrophised. My liver function, however, was sluggish. "The liver," my naturopath told me, "is the seat of anger and frustration. You need to make time for play in your life." It was the same thing my writing mentor had advised only a week earlier. They were both right: when did I last do something just for fun?
True, I've always been more 'shy and retiring' than 'life of the party.' But fun is much more than just partying. It's about being playful; doing something for the joy of an activity itself rather than focusing on the end-goal. And therein lies my problem.
As a working mother, I rise early each day to wage war on the enemy of my to-do list; the list of an individual which encompasses a whole family's never-ending needs (schedule swimming lessons, diarise dentist, update underwear). Forever fixated on outcomes and achievement (refer to-do list and add: walk 10,000 steps, eat five serves of veggies, ensure kids off screens one hour before bed), most nights I collapse in pyjamas too exhausted to even watch TV.
But in the deserted alleyways of my gridlocked mind, I remember the way life used to be. Baking rich chocolate cakes, completely guilt-free, instead of preparing wholesome treats for my kids' after school snacks. Losing myself in a page-turner for hours, rather than reading about trends in class action law for a work brochure I have to write. The exhilaration of playing netball on Saturday mornings, compared to dragging myself out of bed to get to 6.00am yoga on Mondays.
The wear and tear of motherhood, it seems has, eroded my sense of play. But who decreed that female parents can't have fun?
In her 2014 book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time, US journalist Brigid Schulte asserts that part of human history can be distilled into three powerful words: "Women. Don't. Play." Schulte quotes American leisure scholar Karla Henderson who says: "women taking time for themselves, deliberately choosing leisure without children or family, is nothing less than a courageous – subversive, almost – act of resistance."
Unfortunately, there's little data about how Australian women spend their leisure time (perhaps deemed too frivolous to research?). But anecdotally, Anne Hollonds, director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, says that "women are typically so engaged in meeting the needs of other people that even when they do have free time, it's hard for them to re-orient themselves and have fun."
Curious, I ask female friends, colleagues and relatives what they do for fun. Answers - often delivered after long pauses – include going out with girlfriends, swimming, meditating and working on art. But perhaps most telling was the response from one grandmother: "Are we allowed to have fun?" she asked, only half-jokingly.
Indeed, leisure researchers have found that women often feel they aren't entitled to have leisure time. They feel they have to earn it first by getting all their work done. Which, as the old adage tells us, never happens.
And yet, prioritising play is essential to wellbeing. As psychiatrist and founder of the US National Institute for Play (which is without Australian equivalent), Dr Stuart Brown, says, "Nothing lights up the brain like play." Humans, he says, are designed to play throughout our lifetime. And if we don't? Brown is unequivocal: "The opposite of play isn't work, it's depression."
Armed with this knowledge, I take two weeks off work, unpaid, forcing myself to override the buttons inside of me which flash Indulgent and Can't Afford It and Too Much To Do in neon pink. I have a holiday at home, dedicating my mornings to creative writing and walks by the ocean. Simply for the pleasures of writing and moving. No deadlines, no Fitbit, no pressure.
I quit 6.00am yoga and sleep in instead. I start a mindfulness course and see a rheumatologist about my joint pain. And my husband and I hold a child-free party; our first, I note with chagrin, since I was pregnant some twelve years ago. By the end of the fortnight, I feel more invigorated than after any family holiday we've ever taken.
My experience is consistent with researchers' findings. Lyn Craig, Director of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW, tells me that Australian women share their leisure time with children much more often than men do, in a phenomenon aptly termed 'contaminated leisure.' However, it's pure leisure (aka 'me time') which has been shown to be most restorative and relaxing.
Back in the routine of the everyday, I wouldn't say I've cultivated an attitude of lightness just yet. But I'm certainly working on infusing my life with shots of silliness. While writing this article, I've been listening to Cyndi Lauper's 1983 hit, Girls Just Want To Have Fun, for inspiration. And while I'm dancing around my kitchen in my fortysomething body, singing along to the catchy tune, I forget about the Coles shop I have to do and the tax return I haven't touched. Instead, I catch glimpses of the fun-loving person I used to be. And I realise how much I've missed her.
Ironically, perhaps my greatest challenge as a mother is to learn to be childlike again.