Sunday, May 3, 2015

Confessions of a burned out soccer mom

The older I get, the more I seem to like writing about scary things. Flesh-eating scavengers and vampires, or a soul-stealing spirit. I never liked horror movies, and even now my monsters tend to have senses of humor, albeit dark ones. I was thinking about this in the shower, and something struck me (not the shampoo, thank God, which was one of those gigantic bottles they trick you into buying at Beauty Brands).

Imaginary monsters can be evil, bloodthirsty and cruel. But they can be vanquished, killed, burnt, destroyed in a few hundred pages. And then they're gone. There's something very satisfying about concocting an evil character and then controlling his fate. Control being the operative word - because let's face it, there's not nearly enough of that in this world, is there? I'm an adult and I still don't feel in control of my own life, but at least within the lines of text I can shape how things happen.

Children have very little control. We all might complain about how our kids dictate our lives and how we spend our weekends shuttling from one sports event to the next, but really? That's all us. Children don't map out multiple games and activities and teams and practices, each one ostensibly to teach them about sportsmanship and competition, and promoting healthy bodies and minds. And they often start out that way. But, just like a monster crawling quietly from the pages of a book, they turn into something else entirely.

I love that my kids enjoy sports and (unlike me!) are actually good at them. Is it just me, though, or do you ever stop and wonder why we're the ones prodding them to get up on a Saturday morning after a long week of school (which, FYI, is way the hell harder when when we went) and hustling around as though these events are somehow a reflection of our own parental organization? Which, let's face it, they are. But surely it doesn't always have to be that way. I mean, recreational sports are for fun, right? Ha. If you have a kid over the age of 2, you already know how silly and naive that question is. Because you know what ruins kids' sports? Parents. And I include myself in that group.

Before my own son's game the other day, I sat in the bleachers watching the previous game that was running late. I didn't know any of the parents from this team, and I don't pretend to know anything about their lives or their kids. But I know they had very healthy lungs. They were screaming, cheering, yelling with everything they had. Some of it was encouraging. Some of it was not. And I sat there thinking smugly, not me. I don't yell like that. But I was fooling myself. When my son's game started and he caught a ball in his glove, I jumped up and down, screeching like he'd just won an Oscar. Not to put down his accomplishment, but it was his, after all. Not mine.

Incidentally, he didn't even want to be at the game. He wanted to play in a soccer game, as part of his end of season tournament. But we'd made a commitment for him to be at this other event (notice, "we" made the commitment. Not him, the one actually playing) so I took him to baseball. He complained of leg pains, but knowing there weren't enough extra boys on the team to allow him to sit out without forfeiting the game for the team, what did I do? I bribed him with one of those silly baseball necklaces and a forbidden Dr Pepper to "tough it out" and play. I tried to rationalize it, remembering myself as a ten-year-old being given black coffee to keep me awake past my bedtime to sing at a music festival. Except that didn't happen weekly, and I thought it was exotic and cool. If I'd been told I "had" to do it, it would have lost some of its charm, much like the violin lessons I was told I had to stick with for two years, and passive aggressively refused to learn anything but "Love me Tender" (which, incidentally, sounds horrible on the violin).

But at that moment at the ball park, I pretended that Dr Pepper wasn't really bribery. He'll be fine, I said. Because that's what we do. We get ourselves and our kids into these hamster wheels of activities and then the only thing we can to do is finish them out. But they never end. And come next season, we do it again.

Or it doesn't even have to be next season. The day after I told my son he had to play or the baseball team would forfeit the game, I found myself yelling at his younger brother, "if you don't stop changing clothes we will be late for your brother's soccer tournament and we have the game roster, and if it doesn't get there on time, they'll forfeit the game!" Way to go, Mom. Blame the outcome of a soccer season on a five year old who just wanted to be dressed in a soccer uniform like big brother. Sometimes I think I'm so lucky to have such wonderful children, and then I wonder why I'm so cavalier with their feelings as I scramble through too many things that really, in the end, are not that important.

As parents of babies, we start out with all these lovely intentions - we speak in soft tones, tell them about each and every tiny triumph. But then something happens as they get older, and we get busier and more exhausted by a multitude of obligations we've somehow all agreed we must shoulder. The soft tones turn into shrill yells of "Hurry up!" and "Why can't you get ready?" "What's wrong with you?" Or maybe if we're really tapped out, "I bet ___'s mom doesn't have to yell at him to get his shoes tied!" Once the game starts, the screaming really ramps up. And some parents are purely positive in their shouts, which is great. Others are not so much, and I can't help but wonder what it would feel like to have my parent yelling at me, "that was yours, you lost it!" My son's friend recently said in amazement that the coach "actually" said something good to him after a game. "Usually he just yells at me," the boy said. "I can't seem to do anything right."

I'm not saying every word that comes out of our mouths should be sunshine and rainbows, but I assume the kids already know when they make a mistake. I remember being 8. I didn't need to be told when I screwed up, I knew. Having your mom or dad holler it at you in front of everyone probably doesn't help. And you don't even have to yell. You can send them a message without raising a voice. When you sign them up for multiple teams and practices and activities, when your whole weekend revolves around a chaotic race from one field to the next, you're teaching them a valuable lesson. That making sure you aren't missing out is the most important thing of all. That family time or just free time without somebody telling you what to do & how to do it aren't really necessary. Don't think for yourself about what you really want to do, we essentially tell them, we'll do it for you.

I'll never forget my son's first foray into team sports. He was maybe three and a half, and loved kicking balls. We signed him up for a YMCA small fry team. One little boy lay down in the grass in the middle of the game, refusing to play. I figured that was pretty normal for this age, but after the game when I approached him offering the post-game snack, his mother refused. "Snacks are for boys who play. Maybe next time he'll get out there and then he can have a snack." I was appalled. And again, feeling a little smug. My son, after all, had wanted to be "out there" the entire time. And I was being positive and encouraging, unlike this other mom. But after the game, when I asked my son "Did you have fun?" he just shook his head.

"I didn't do good," he told me. "I didn't score a goal." Just as quickly as the game had ended, so had his little moment of happiness. Who put that idea in his head, I wondered. Not me, I hoped. But I wasn't feeling so smug anymore.

Kids' sports can be good, even great for kids. Playing on a team can teach valuable lessons and build confidence - and sports team can be fun ... if we let them. But we steal that fun when we turn sports into such a highly regulated and pressurized activity that our kids are really just players in a game that we're controlling. We drive them to game after game, yell at them if they are tired or don't want to play, yell with glee or disappointment, depending on their performance ... and then we're somehow surprised at their sullen glances. The rec team turns into the club or select team and the practices get longer, and then homework becomes this annoying obligation that must somehow fit into their after-school activities.

Every activity is an opportunity for them to learn more skills and become better, and isn't that important to teach them? Sure, in theory -- but if your kid plays on multiple teams and has practices or games every school night, where exactly is the opportunity and what is it for? There's a fine line between healthy competition and too much s&** to do -- not just for kids, but for parents. I don't know about you, but as a long day at work turns into a night of juggling kids' schedules, my patience and energy flag. As for the famed family dinner around the table? Please. It's more of an urban myth than a nightly routine.

Sometimes I fantasize about taking the kids and moving to another country. Or Vermont. Someplace where (in my imagination, at least) the boys would just run outside with their soccer balls or their mitts and strike up a game without any adults. No coach telling them what to do, just kids being kids. And then I remember how my boys act on their own, and I estimate it'd be all of ten minutes before a fight broke out and a grownup (possibly me)would stomp outside and try to enforce rules to keep them from smacking each other in the head with a baseball bat. The reality is that no matter where you live, elementary-aged kids can't drive and they can't always walk down the block to just see if the neighbors want to play a pickup game, as much as we'd all like that to be true. Obviously parents or adults are going to be part of sports for children, at least of a certain age. But surely we can balance that a little more sanely?

Wouldn't it be nice to let the kids do the coaching for a change? We could bench the grownups and let the kids pick one of their own to lead the game. I know, I know. Even if our kids went along with it, some other teams' parents might not, and then we'd all stress that our kids would be crushed by the competition. Who would be more upset, though -- us or them?

I don't have the answers. Writing about imaginary monsters and scary things that go bump in the night -- it's so much simpler. Bad things are scary and may try to kill you, so you should avoid them. The world of competitive kids' sports is infinitely more complicated, and it's not always easy to know what's the right decision for your kid. I think you have to pick your battles in life. School is not negotiable -- and for that matter, neither is work. But I don't think I'm completely crazy for not wanting all weekends to be consumed by sports, and so structured and scheduled there's barely enough time for kids to eat lunch, let alone play an imaginary game, or just shoot hoops without anyone telling them how they're doing it wrong.

Am I?