"Mom, want to go to Mars with me?" Looking up from the celery I was chopping for potato salad, I saw my son Joe standing in the kitchen doorway as he waited for my answer. Wearing a football helmet with stars drawn crookedly on each side, gray sweat pants, and a matching gray sweat shirt, he looked very NASA-ready to me.
But I shook my head.
"I'm sorry, sweetie. Not right now. There's a mountain of laundry down in the basement for me to fold and put away when I'm done in the kitchen."
Joe's face fell. His brother wasn't home, and his father was still at work. I was his only hope for someone to play with.
"How about Saturn? We could ride around the rings a few times," he added alluringly.
"Maybe later," I suggested, knowing full well that "later" usually never comes. "I'm really, really busy right now."
Joe left the kitchen without another word, and I returned to my celery, feeling a sudden stab of guilt. Something about the slope of his shoulders under his sweat shirt told me how much I'd disappointed him. Again.
"I can't play all the time," I told myself somewhat self-righteously. "I've got other things to do, too."
But the guilty feeling didn't go away.
As a mom, I sometimes think I say the word "no" too often. Not to requests for spaghetti – again – for dinner or an extra story at bedtime or even to a new toy when we go to the mall.
The requests that I almost always refuse are the little, more time-consuming ones: one more bike ride around the block when I need to get back to the house, another round of Go Fish when I'm about to wash my hair, five more minutes on the swings when it's time to go home and start dinner.
But most of all, I say no to the games that involve any and all flights of fancy.
Something has happened to me as an adult. I have zero interest in flying to Mars or sitting under a hot tent made out of blankets while pretending to be in the jungles of Africa.
I no longer want to make believe we are walking on the bottom of the ocean, seeing giant squirrels in the sky, or visiting a family of robots for lunch.
Even though I can clearly remember playing with my Barbie dolls for hours upon hours when I was growing up, I've apparently lost the ability to maintain my imagination for periods of time longer than five minutes.
Where did all my tolerance for such pleasant pastimes go? Is it a natural consequence of having children and accepting the role as the grown-up in the house? Or do I simply have too much on my mind, too much day-to-day clutter taking over the space once inhabited by imaginary friends and pretend trips to Oz?
I believe that being a grown-up involves trade-offs. We learn how to drive a car but forget how to pretend that trees are talking when their leaves whisper to one another. We get to buy a house but forget how to play house. We do all the cooking anyway, so what's the point of being enraptured with a tiny cupcake fresh from an Easy-Bake Oven?
Still, there are occasions when I wish I could recapture my ability to live in my imagination, if only for a little while. Especially when I know how happy it would make Joe if every so often I'd say, "Sure, I'd love to go to Mars with you. When does our flight leave?"
With a sigh, I finished chopping the celery and started downstairs to attack the waiting mountain of laundry.
From the living room directly above me, I could hear the blare of the television. Joe was watching cartoons alone while I was making sure my towels were folded just right.
Looking at the towel I was holding, I realized that a galactic trip with my son was far more important than neatly folded towels, homemade potato salad, or even clean bathrooms.
Before I knew it, Joe wouldn't be inviting me to go anywhere with him, pretend or real. The day was rapidly approaching when he'd walk 10 steps behind me at the grocery store, ignore me if we saw each other on the street, and accompany me to the mall, the library, or the post office with all the enthusiasm of a vegetarian visiting a steakhouse.
All too soon, he'd be grown up, and for most of his life, I'm guessing, he'll do more things without me than he'll ever do with me.
And that's as it should be. He'll go off to college, take vacations, visit Paris, perhaps, and I'd be very surprised if it ever occurred to him to invite Mom along on any of those excursions. Did I really want to skip an opportunity to go into outer space with him?
No, I decided, leaving the laundry behind, I didn't.
Upstairs, I found Joe watching TV with a bored look on his face. The living room had been rearranged to accommodate the sofa, an armchair, and the coffee table shoved together to create a rather cozy looking spaceship.
"Are you ready to go to Mars?" I asked. The look of delight on Joe's face warmed me in a way that towels fresh from the dryer never could.
So Joe and I went to Mars and managed a trip or two around the rings of Saturn.
When we got back to Earth, all of 30 minutes later, I returned to the basement and the ever-present laundry feeling much happier because of the brief trip into outer space with my son.
Best of all, I folded those towels with a renewed sense of energy. In addition to losing my load of guilt, I had the bonus of realizing that my imagination isn't quite as stagnant as I'd thought it was. It had been fun to pretend to be in another galaxy.
It was even more fun to realize that grown-ups can still be capable of a few flights of fancy, too.