It did actually — somehow both finally and instantly — happen.
There we were, watching this girl — this little, brand new baby of a girl, suddenly a 3-foot lightning bolt — racing around a field, with other kids she barely or didn’t even know, full-on and pin-point focussed, playing a competitive sport. I honestly thought we might get through this whole parenting thing without ever having this particular experience… I mean, I’d gone through the meticulous trouble of making absolutely certain that I had only girls, that I honoured their interests in faeries and horses and dancing and drawing and reading and playing, that I never encouraged them to pick up a football or softball or basketball or (as the case turns out to be) a soccer ball. I’m mostly joking here, but the truth has been that I have always been glad I had girls in part because I haven’t been that interested in the prospect of being the sports dad doing all the sporty stuff with my sports-crazed son(s).
Yes I did play both football and baseball for several years as a lad. I excelled at them, as well, in both a performance aspect and sportsmanship aspect throughout. Except when I didn’t. And I even had a good time. Except when I didn’t. As it turns out, I have always had a better memory for the really rough moments in my sporting history than for the triumphs. I remember once being injured but refusing to leave the football field because I couldn’t bear being so disappointing as to need to be replaced even for an instant. I remember being so urgent and/or programmed to “stop the ball” that once, realizing I wouldn’t be able to get my glove into position in time, I unhesitatingly reached with my bare hand to catch a zinging 65-mile-an-hour baseball — in a warm-up. I was awarded sportsmanship trophies twice on different teams during my tenure, but I don’t recall what it was that was said about me in the speeches coaches made at the time. When I look back, it seems to me that they really just meant that I was just being compliant and cheery. And when I think of the overall effect on me, I have the sense that it was one of those life things that we learn from but are better off without after the lesson ends.
To be fair, I don’t think of my sporting years as lost or a failure or with much if any pain, so to speak. In truth I don’t generally think of them at all. I know I had a full mix of apprehension and exhilaration and exultation and devastation and just plain fun during those years. But I will say that, for many years since, I have been less than interested in sports. In recent years, I’ve also become fairly adamantly opposed to competition of all varieties — an opinion that I believe is strongly supported by some of my sports experiences (and not just the result of research I’ve read on the effects of competition itself — which is convincing enough). In parenting, Natalie and I have worked diligently to be sure that our girls don’t feel that they need to compete for our affections or to connect with us, or to be the absolute “best” at anything. We even do what we can to insure that they don’t compete for toys or seats in the car or turns to go first.
So when we got the flier for Y soccer, I was, ooohh, edgy, unsure, protective-hackled, fierce-eyed for any signs of injustice, ready to pull the plug or do battle at the first sign of anything that might undermine my amazing daughter’s opinion of herself, or her feelings of rightness in the world, or her joy in play. I was ready to not like the whole operation, but I stayed open — or as open as I could — and I just kept watching Echo. She has been my measure of the endeavor throughout — and judging by all accounts — soccer is currently a complete success.
Yes — even though the Y has come a long way in this respect and specifically makes several requests of the parents of the younger team members to avoid the negative potentials of high-competition approaches to the game — there were still some aspects that I felt unsure about. They’re not supposed to keep score, but our coach kinda did. Parents aren’t supposed to yell for individual players but celebrate all, and some still did coach they’re kids from the sideline. We’re all supposed to clap when either team scores, and I had to be the odd-ball a couple of times on that one. But for the most part, I found myself laughing and cheering and hoping and empathizing without any concern for the possible deleterious effects whatsoever. I even found myself shouting, “Kick it!” a couple of times, and giving a thumbs-up another time when Echo looked at me. She was having fun and doing what she wanted to do, and doing both in her very own way. And I call that a win!
Who knows how it will all go, of course. I still have reservations about competition. I still think there is good reason for that concern. But there’s a part of me that feels like I am now at such a place with parenting my children that even my own rules for myself and for parenting them seem up for investigation and experimentation. With the locus of love and the reach of empathy, I believe we can explore almost any area of (obviously nondestructive) human experience. Even the things I have been against in parenting seem small compared with the size of our relationships. I know my girls are going to be all right.
I feel a little more like a grandparent than a Papa today.