My career as a student athlete began and ended in middle school PE. Despite my mom spending the better part of the 1980s shuttling me back and forth to activities, I had no interest in team sports. (See also: no skill.)
My favorite position in PE soccer was goalie, a section of the field that saw little action. I joked I could set up a chair and relax while waiting for the ball to make its way down the field. I retained zero knowledge of soccer but remember the joke landed well, which is really all you need to know about me.
As a parent, however, the role of soccer mom held some allure. It was finally socially acceptable to spend practice in a folding chair! And so, I hovered my computer mouse above the registration button at the exact time it opened. I bought shin guards, signed up for snack duty, and researched minivans. I was ready for action.
But not really.
I realized quickly that even on the sidelines, I had no idea what was going on. This was easy enough to ignore with a field full of 4 year olds spinning in circles. As the years passed, however, we joined new sports and while my husband filled in the gaps, I was persistently unprepared to support and guide.
Once, the mother of a talented player mentioned that, as a toddler, her son would ask to watch games as part of his bedtime routine. I smiled and nodded, remaining outwardly calm while my brain tumbled down a shame spiral.
Forget the 3 a.m. pumping sessions, cloth diapers, and homemade baby food. Where did that get me, other than chronically sleep deprived with a high water bill? What I should have been doing is watching ESPN. Why was that not in the baby books?!
My husband and I are not big TV watchers and while we enjoy the fun of attending a live game, we rarely catch one at home. I became abruptly aware that joining a parks and recreation team was a big ask for a kid who had never seen a game on TV. Where did that leave us now? I had not prepared my children to speak the language of sports. Had I failed them? Should I get cable?
Sports don’t come naturally to me, either in terms of proficiency or attraction. My team loyalties are largely limited to apparel. I have reliable Super Bowl recipes but never know who’s playing. If we are discussing how the football/basketball/baseball season is going, please know I’m just trying to be nice. I’m totally faking my end of the conversation.
If my kids expressed an interest in other activities, I could understand the language, if not speak it fluently. Considering dance classes? I still know the five positions and am emotionally prepared for the cost of recital costumes. Want to learn violin? I’ll get the Suzuki books out of the closet and pick up some rosin. Let’s talk about Mississippi Hot Dog.
But for right now, I am on the sidelines, clapping when others clap. Maybe I’ll learn a few things along the way, but inevitably my kids’ interests will change. There will be times I am on familiar ground, and just as many I’ll need to Google ridiculous things like “how do you hold a bat.” There will always be areas of their lives in which I am ill prepared to help.
In those moments, I coax my brain out of the shame spiral by remembering the languages I have prepared my children to speak.
We speak the language of books and reading. We read together every night and visit the library frequently. We speak the language of cooking and baking, including fractions and how ingredients work together. We know almost every playground in town, what a Hidden Mickey is, and the best foods of every Jewish holiday. We speak family and love and the ability to laugh at ourselves.
With that, I’ll take a deep breath, set up a chair, and tell them to have fun out there.
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