The Apple and the Tree

The Apple and the Tree

By Jody Mace

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Lately, my two kids, Charlie and Kyla, have a new way of communicating with each other. They talk with each other via these handheld electronic gadgets called MiniMaxes. For instance, one types in “Hi” and the other one might enter “Hi” back. And so on. This lessens the need, apparently, for conversation. Except when they type at the same time, and then they yell at each other for interrupting.

They can play games on these gadgets as well. Particularly odd is their electronic version of Rock/Paper/Scissors, as if the folding and unfolding of their hands into fists had become so tiresome that they needed a technological workaround. One night they decided to play Tic-Tac-Toe. They sat across the room from each other silently, and in turn entered Xs and Os.

I thought this was a good moment to talk about the old days.

“Back when I was your age,” I told my children, “I played Tic-Tac-Toe as well. We’d get a piece of paper, see, and a pencil. We’d actually draw the lines. On the paper. We’d sit next to each other, and on the same piece of paper, we’d draw the Xs and Os. That’s how I did it in the old days.”

Charlie looked up. “Yeah. That’s how we did it too.” He looked back down at his MiniMax. “Before we got these.”

This struck me as bizarre, so I went to my computer and wrote about it online where I communicate with my friends and family. The gist of my journal entry was: “These crazy kids today and their newfangled electronic gizmos.”

It wasn’t until I was in bed that night that I saw the irony. My first reaction when I saw something interesting wasn’t to call a friend, to ponder it quietly, or to scribble my observations into a notebook, but to go immediately to an electronic journal so that my far-flung friends and people I don’t even know could read it.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The dependence—I won’t say addiction yet; I’m still in the denial stage—on technology is just one of the faults I share with my kids.

Gluttony is another. Imagine this scene a few years ago with a four-year-old Charlie: His impossibly large tears were racing down his screwed-up face, splashing onto his flannel puppy dog pajamas. The cause of his misery was pudding. It was 9:30 in the morning, and he wanted chocolate pudding for breakfast.

When I told him that he had to eat something healthy first, he was devastated. “But-but-but,” he wailed, “I already got out my spoon!” He desperately waved around a huge serving spoon, a forlorn symbol of his dashed optimism.

He was determined. “I’ll have one of those vitamins that say they are for people age three and up!” he announced. “And then I’ll have the pudding!”

My attempts at humor (“How can you have your pudding if you haven’t eaten your meat?”) fell flat, but then Charlie’s viewing preference was more Dragon Tales than The Wall.

During this battle (which, by the way, ended in a draw: he had string cheese before the pudding), what I was really thinking was that if I weren’t his mother, the person responsible for his development into a healthy, responsible adult, I’d be on his side. I’d rather have pudding for breakfast, too. And I have.

I’m every bit as weak as he is in the face of temptation. The only difference is that there isn’t anybody stopping me from indulging. I’m unwisely entrusted to be my own keeper, so I engage in monumental struggles against things like brownies. Once I went to a Weight Watchers meeting where a woman triumphantly told the story of how she resisted temptation by taking a plate of leftover brownies, putting them in the sink, and running water over them. At this last part I emitted an involuntary, audible gasp. I pined for those lost brownies, sitting water-logged in the sink. I can’t fathom standing that strong in the face of leftover brownies. In fact, I’m not sure that I even understand the concept of leftover brownies.

When I discipline my kids, sometimes I feel like I’m just going through the motions. Can I really expect them to overcome things that I can’t? Am I just playing at the role of the grown-up when inside I want to binge on pudding, abuse the Internet, stay in bed until ten a.m.? Is there no hope for them? Or with my training and instruction, no matter how forced it feels to me, might they defeat their demons early in life? I don’t know, but I do the responsible thing and correct them when I should, even if I’m really just as bad as they are.

When it comes to areas that I’ve improved upon, though, I’m not quite as sympathetic. We used to all be equally guilty of leaving messes throughout the house. We were happy-go-lucky comrades in chaos. Cereal bowls and books were left carelessly on tables and couches. This drove my husband nuts, and I dutifully picked things up when the piles of stuff got too high and I admonished the kids to do the same, all the while inwardly sympathizing with them. “Let’s humor him,” I’d think benevolently as I pointed Kyla toward the collection of dirty socks in the family room. Although I made them clean up after themselves and even delivered the standard spiel about how “you don’t have servants to pick up after you” and “if you don’t care about your things maybe we should give them away to people who do,” I felt like a second-rate actress in a poorly scripted television movie. My heart wasn’t in it, and I didn’t expect it to work.

But about a year or so ago I got inspired to improve myself, and I made a concerted effort to become tidier. I started putting things away when I was done with them. Although it seems like crazy talk, I found that it was really not very hard at all, and if I cleaned up right away things didn’t get out of hand. Incidentally, this was what my mother had always told me, but I’d never really believed her. I thought that keeping things neat had to be much more complicated and that I had an inherent character flaw that caused me to be unable to put things away. It was truly a surprise to me when I found out how simple it was.

It was like a dream I used to have in which I learned how to fly. All you had to do was jump up and not come down. It was so simple! So obvious! And all this time I had thought flying was impossible. Keeping things tidy was the same way. You just put them away! Naturally I wanted to spread the word.

I found myself growing furious at the kids for doing exactly what they, and I, had always done—leaving their crap everywhere. See, now I knew that there was a better way, and if everyone would just fall in step behind me we would all be much happier, and, plus, people would know where their damn shoes were. When I saw Kyla holding a small, crumpled piece of paper in her fist, her words became muffled like the teacher’s in Charlie Brown. My eyes and attention fixated on that hand in fatalistic anticipation. What would she do with it? Would she remember about taking it to a trash can? I could feel my jaw tighten, and when, predictably, her fist opened and the paper dropped to the floor, my head started to throb and I felt like I would explode. It doesn’t have to be like this, I insisted to my children. Look at me! Look at how I’ve changed! You can do it too! I was as evangelical as a reformed smoker. I tried to drag them along kicking and screaming into the new regime.

Naturally they were half hearted about cleaning up and wholeheartedly unimpressed with the new me. So what if I had conquered this one personal demon? What did it have to do with them? They just wanted to be left alone to enter “How R U?” in their MiniMaxes.

I find it interesting how much more tolerant I am of the kids’ doing the wrong things that I do, as opposed to the wrong things that I don’t do anymore or the wrong things that are all their own. Charlie is a spectacularly bad listener. What I mean by this is that if I say, “Charlie, put your socks and shoes on,” ten minutes later, I find him, barefoot, pulling his shirt up to cover his face and talking to himself so that he can hear what it sounds like to talk through his shirt, or putting little rolled-up pieces of masking tape on all his fingertips to see if he can climb the walls.

Then I say the obvious: “Charlie, your shoes and socks are not on!” and he says, “I didn’t hear you say that I should put them on.”

And he sounds quite sincere, even affronted by the suggestion that I had said anything whatsoever about socks and shoes. Bad listener.

I don’t identify with this at all. It’s not like the pudding scenario, where if I were in his place and couldn’t eat whatever I wanted I might cry too. I don’t understand at all how he can be so distracted that he forgets to put on his shoes and socks. I am a good listener. I can follow instructions. I was the attentive child at school who always put the paper in the right colored folder and who brought the signed field-trip permission slip back on time.

So I tend to interpret his poor listening skills as an indictment of his character. Either he is defying me by ignoring me or he really can’t hear and remember what I said. Either way, I sometimes believe that there is nothing but trouble ahead for him.

Back when I had an office job, I worked with this guy named Ed who was a bad listener. He once told the folks in the office an enlightening story about when he was in first grade: His teacher told the class that they would be having a Christmas gift exchange. She would be handing everyone a little slip of paper with the name of a classmate, and they were each to bring in a gift for their assigned child. Ed wasn’t listening while the teacher was talking, and so when she handed him the slip of paper that had a little girl’s name on it, he figured it wasn’t important and threw it away. When the big day came and his classmates started exchanging presents, the magnitude of his faux pas became apparent to him. As he told this story to us, his co-workers, it was clear that he was still traumatized by his blunder (although I imagine that the little girl who didn’t get a present might have been even more traumatized).

I tell this story for one reason: Ed hadn’t changed. Adult Ed was still a terrible listener. He didn’t even read his e-mails. One Christmas, our organization was giving gifts to orphans. The person running this program sent out an e-mail that explained it all: We would buy gifts for orphans from the coffee money collected throughout the year. A few people would take all the money and a list of the children’s ages, and they’d trudge through Wal-Mart, buying sweaters and CDs. And then we’d get together for a big giftwrapping session.

When the gift-wrapping session was revving up, Ed had a blank look on his face.

“What’s all this?”

“This is where we wrap the gifts we bought for the orphans.”

“Orphans?”

Immediately understanding that Ed had not read the e-mail and sensing weakness, I lied. “Didn’t you get the note? Everyone was assigned an orphan to buy a Christmas present for. This will probably be that child’s only present. There was a list, remember?” I had a moment of evil genius and zeroed in for the kill: “You were supposed to buy a gift for a six-year-old girl.”

He staggered backwards as if he had been shot.

When you are a bad listener, you are an easy mark.

So when I see traits like that in my kids, I worry about them. I project those faults into the future onto their adult selves, and it’s the fear of my kids’ being dogged through life by their flaws that causes me to react the way I do. But when I think about it, it seems like a strange sort of conceit on my part. After all, are Ed’s bad listening skills really worse than my weakness in the face of brownies? Or, for that matter, whatever cruel compulsion inspired me to traumatize Ed? That’s not a very nice trait either.

Maybe what it comes down to is remembering that we are all works in progress. If I didn’t make a dent in my housekeeping challenges until I was in my thirties, and if I still have no self-control when it comes to chocolate, why am I so impatient with my seven year-old for not listening or so annoyed with my ten-year-old for being messy? I’m not saying that I shouldn’t have expectations for them or that I shouldn’t correct them. Just that maybe my inner volcano shouldn’t be erupting when they leave their socks on the floor.

My kids have their own weaknesses, just like I do. Some they will overcome—maybe when they’re children, maybe when they’re thirty. But some weaknesses will just be a part of who they are. I need to accept that, just as I accept my own weaknesses. Parenting isn’t like polishing a table, where if I do it diligently enough I can get a perfect result. It’s like polishing a table, walking away, and coming back to see marks on it that have very little to do with how well I polished. When I’m done parenting, what I’ll have is a human being every bit as complex and flawed as I am but in new and surprising ways. One of the hardest parts of parenting for me isn’t really the frustration of having a kid who doesn’t listen or finding a mess in the living room—it’s accepting the uncertainty of it all, how little control over the result I probably have. And then polishing anyway.

Auhtor’s Note: My latest self-improvement scheme is running (or more accurately, “shuffling”) as a sort of compensation for my chocolate addiction. Now I am just as evangelical with my kids about running as I am about tidying the house. I pull them out the door with me, crowing annoyingly about “fresh air” and “healthy bodies.” They’ve picked up more on the running than the cleaning and run ahead of me and then look back and make fun of me. I guess I’ve had it coming.

Brain, Child (Summer 2005)

Jody Mace is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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A Numbers Game

A Numbers Game

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I have always been a woman of words, so it came as something of a surprise how motherhood has made me fixated on numbers. And not necessarily in a good way. It seems to be a thing these days, a tendency: to tally, to count, to know where your children stand in one numerical line or other. A normal means of marking time and gauging development, for sure. But also, let’s be honest, a confidence booster in the face of the uncertain work of parenting that all is well and, in some instances, that all is better than well.

It started in the hospital, this obsession, when my first child was born. Actually, no, it started before that, with the ticking off of months then weeks then days until he arrived. 8 days late, but he was big and I was proud. An Apgar score of 9 after 1 minute, his hands and feet a dusky blue, but a perfect 10 after 5. 8 pounds 13 ounces, or as the cupped scale in the UK hospital told me: 4 kilograms precisely. I began to breastfeed him, watching the clock as I went, 25 minutes on one side, 10 minutes on the other. I couldn’t see how much was going in, so I counted what was coming out instead. How many pees today, how many poos? Let’s get him back on the scale. 75% for weight, 91% for height, we charted his growth intently that first year, the dots on the page stretching out like a broken constellation.

The next pregnancy was 1 baby, but the pregnancy after that was 2. I wasn’t gaining enough weight. The morning sickness was legion, turning me inside out, turning me green. 19 weeks it lasted, 19 weeks until I could peel the sea bands off my wrists, the skin there chafed and dappled where the pressure points sat. I started playing new number games, as the fear of prematurity took hold. How long could I carry them for? How big would they be? How much time in the NICU? 38 weeks. 38 weeks before they were cut from me. 6 pounds 14 ounces, that was twin number 1. Twin number 2 was 6 pounds 4 ounces. I’ll do the math for you, that’s 13 pounds 2 ounces altogether. 3 days in hospital, they never left my side.

Feeding 2 babies is an ordeal. Hour upon hour with a breast pump balanced on my knees. The whirring and the drip-drip-drip and the don’t waste a drop. Every day I counted how many ounces I pumped, how many millilitres, depending on which side of the bottle was facing forward. There were days when it cracked into the 100s. I siphoned off the milk, making sure the lines were even. So I knew how much they were getting, that they were getting the same, so I could make sure they would sleep. She slept through the night at 10 weeks old, 10 hours the first time, but then a dream feed at 10 p.m. and she was sleeping the full 12. He was up 2 times a night, but still managing a near 7-hour stretch.

With my babies, it was the high numbers that were good. Steady weight gains, long patches of sleep. When the babies became toddlers, it was the low numbers. The low numbers were good, because the earlier they could do something, the better. The less I had to worry. Son number 1 walked at 15.5 months, but son number 2 walked at 11. He also said his first true word at 11 months, but my daughter said hers at 10. It was actually 2 words, “all gone,” except she blended them to the tune of “ah-gah.” I counted their words, until I couldn’t count them anymore. And then I counted as they put them together, small edifices of syntax. By 2 years old, my first child could say a 7 word sentence: “I see a man riding a bike.” It seemed important and relevant at the time, 2 nouns, 2 verbs, 1 pronoun and partridge in a pear tree.

Son number 1 started school when he was almost 5. Son number 2 when he was 4.5, son number 3 will start, with his sister, when they are 5.5. The school years extend before us, with so many more numbers to bandy about. Test scores and reading ages, rankings and percentiles. The Apgar, it turns out, was only the beginning. Soon they will be measuring themselves, reporting back to me or not, how many birthday parties, how many first-place trophies, how many Facebook friends.

The desire to quantify experience is human. It goes back to the beginnings of time. The compulsion to quantify our children to the extent we do is far more recent. There is so much anxiety in modern parenting and there are so many yardsticks available to us, it’s no wonder we use the second to quell the first. We put our faith in weeks in utero and ounces fed and pounds gained and hours slept and words spoken and milestones hit on time because we want, desperately so, for our children to be healthy. And we want them to be special. These numbers are the ticket, the golden ticket of reassurance.

But they can also make us fret. The paradox of numbers is that they drive, at once, both reassurance and anxiety. We cling to them seeking the former, yet often inadvertently we end up with the latter. Normal is such a vast range. Normal is the petite baby who isn’t gaining weight at the pace of her pudgy playmates; normal is the quiet toddler who isn’t stringing his sentences together as eloquently as his brother; normal is the Kindergartener who doesn’t yet read, even though many of his classmates do. Numbers inspire ready comparisons and comparisons pave the way for competition. Competition can be healthy. It can also be harmful.

I understand why numbers matter for children, as problem spotters as much as pats on the back. I understand it all too well. But sometimes I just want to stop counting.

 

Lauren Apfel is originally from New York, but now lives in Glasgow, Scotland (thanks to the Brit she married). A published classicist turned stay-at-home mom of four (including twins), Lauren thinks less about the Greeks these days and more about parenting, the tragedy and comedy alike. She writes regularly at www.omnimom.net. Connect with her on Facebook  and on Twitter.

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Sunday Night News: July 20,2014

Sunday Night News: July 20,2014

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Welcome to Brain, Child’s Sunday night news update where we look at issues impacting women and children. Tonight we hear from Your (Wo)Man in Washington, Valerie Young of the National Association of Mothers’ Centers:

A few key things happened last week in political momland that you should know about:

First, the bill that Democrats tried to get through Congress to avoid the effect of the US Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision failed.  Called the Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act, it would have prohibited employers from invoking their religious beliefs  to avoid federal law requiring coverage of contraceptive costs.  CNN predicts that the issue will figure prominently in the November elections.

A Tennessee law that allows a pregnant woman to be charged with assault if she is found to have narcotics in her system  was applied for the first time to a woman who tested positive when her child was delivered.  Advocates of the bill say it protects fetuses and infants.  Critics say it makes it less likely that addicted expectant mothers will ask for the help they need.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued an official “guidance” regarding discrimination against pregnant workers, still astonishingly common even decades after such behavior was made illegal.  Many women do not know their rights and find themselves forced onto unpaid leave, or fail to receive reasonable accommodation to continue their work.  NPR has an article and audio, and you can go right to the source at the EEOC.

Police arrested the mother of a 9 year old who was allowed to play unsupervised in a public park while her mother was at work at McDonald’s.  The child was placed in foster care.  The child typically sat in the restaurant when her mother worked, playing on a laptop, but their home had recently been burgled and the laptop stolen, so the child asked to go to the park instead.  Reports unleashed a veritable firestorm in the media.

Valerie Young writes about news at the intersection of motherhood and public policy. Follow her on Facebook at Your (Wo)Man in Washington, and on Twitter @WomanInDC, and find a weekly blog post at WomanInWashington.org.

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Not Pregnant

Not Pregnant

By Aubrey Hirsch

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When I got married, I was shocked at how quickly people started asking me when I was going to have a baby. And when I did have a baby a few years later, I expected a fairly lengthy reprieve from all the pregnancy speculation. But I soon discovered that the window between giving birth to a baby and when people expect you to start on another is vanishingly short.

Almost worse than the embarrassingly direct, “When are you having another baby?” are the little nods and nudges. “Is that water you’re drinking [WINK WINK]?” If I had a dollar for every time someone has accused me of being pregnant in the year since my son was born, I could buy a lot of negative pregnancy tests—and not just the cheap ones, the really nice digital kind.

The thing is, though, I’ve still got nearly a decade of fertility ahead of me and I’m already sick of telling people when I’m not pregnant. And I’m guessing I’m not alone. So, for you budding fertility detectives out there, here’s a handy list of things that non-pregnant women of child-bearing age also do:

1. Throw up. I blame the media for this one. While it’s true that every time a woman on television or in the movies vomits it’s because she’s pregnant, in real life, this is not quite the reliable pregnancy indicator it’s cracked up to be. Just like men, children and post-menopausal women, non-pregnant women of child-bearing age sometimes get the stomach flu. This is especially true for those of us who already have a kid or two. When I take my son to the library for story time, I have to weigh the amount of fun we’ll have against the possibility that he’ll bring home some infectious disease that I thought had been eradicated in developed nations. In any case, the appropriate response to your friend saying, “I was up all night puking my guts out,” is “That sucks,” not “ZOMG! Are you pregnant????”

2. Drink water. Let’s say you’re out to dinner with a group of girlfriends. The drink menu makes the rounds and your waiter comes to take orders. Instead of a grapefruiterita or a cosmotonic, your pal says she’ll just have water. Before you jump to the conclusion that she’s gestating, consider these possible alternatives. Perhaps she’s driving home later and doesn’t want to risk being mildly tipsy. Maybe she hit the hooch a little too hard the previous weekend and is still in recovery. It’s possible that she wants a fruity drink later, but doesn’t think orange juice will mix well with the beef bourguignon she ordered. Or maybe she just feels like having a glass of water. In any case, this is probably not good evidence that your pal is pregnant. Sorry.

3. Pass on the sushi. Although this may seem like airtight evidence that your friend is knocked up, it’s probably best to keep that speculation to yourself for now. Some people just don’t like the taste, texture, or even the idea of raw fish. I was once the subject of a pregnancy investigation because I passed up a tray of warm tuna tartar that had been sitting around for more than an hour. Spoiler: I wasn’t pregnant, I just didn’t want to end up with Anisakiasis. Trust me, you don’t either.

4. Choose decaf. I know that steam coming off her decaf latte makes it seem like a smoking gun, but non-pregnant women of child-bearing age do sometimes choose decaf for reasons that don’t involve her uterus. She may be worried about getting to sleep later, or already be wired up from the three cups she had before you met. In any case, treating her decaf latte like it’s an ultrasound photo on Facebook is likely to leave you swallowing your words.

5. Gain weight. Science has proven that you don’t have to be pregnant in order to put on a few pounds. In fact, the burrito I had for lunch weighs more than a fetus at 22 weeks. Just because your friend’s jeans are fitting a little tighter than the last time you saw her doesn’t mean there’s a bundle of joy on the way. And here’s a pro tip from one lady to another: most people don’t like to have their little weight fluctuations pointed out to them. If you can stand the suspense, keep your pregnancy conjecture to yourself.

Of course, this doesn’t even touch on the reality that we can’t always know what’s going on in the lives of our friends. Maybe the woman in question actually is pregnant, but worries about spreading the news too soon. She might even have a very valid reason to worry that her pregnancy might not be viable. Or she could be experiencing infertility or have suffered a recent miscarriage. For many women, constant reminders that they aren’t pregnant aren’t just annoying—they can be downright cruel.

These family-building years are fun and exciting and I know that the inferences and guesses most often come from a good place. But that doesn’t mean they are a good idea. The next time your friend passes on the beer and has a soda instead, try to ignore it. Just enjoy your time together and feel confident that if she ever does have news of a pregnancy to share with you, when she’s ready to talk about it, she will!

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. Her work has appeared widely in print and online You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com or follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Mad About Sports

Mad About Sports

By Kate Haas

unnamed-3My four-year-old son stands on our neighbor’s lawn, holding a purple plastic baseball bat over his shoulder, his eyes alight with excitement. As far as I know, he has never picked up a bat before.

“Throw me the ball, Mama!” Nate calls.

Reluctantly, I put down my book, get up from the porch and pluck the whiffleball from the grass. I toss it in his direction; he swings and misses. Confusion clouds his eyes.

“Keep your eye on—” I stop. This phrase cannot possibly be emerging from my mouth. I try again.

“I mean, uh, just keep watching the ball, and swing the bat when it comes near you,” I manage. It feels like an awkward attempt at a foreign language. I toss the ball again. Thwack! It sails over to the next yard. He does it again the next time, and the next. He hits that ball with the bat all afternoon. I am no judge of these things, but my kid appears to have a knack for baseball.

To some, this would be a cherished scene of parenthood: the proud mother, the eager youngster, the wholesome passing on of the sporting tradition. Not to me. The thing is, this isn’t my tradition. People in my family did not play sports. Readers all, we regarded athletics with a combination of bewilderment and disdain. We didn’t join teams or wear uniforms, and to this day we remain completely indifferent to anything whatsoever concerning professional athletes. When I was growing up, it was understood that the sports section of the newspaper went directly to the trash. My siblings and I got plenty of exercise running around the neighborhood, but gym class was the bane of my school days.

I was picked last for every team in P.E. I daydreamed in the outfield or talked with the other bookish outcasts. When the ball came my way, I avoided it. Team captains groaned when I came up to bat but I endured their scorn with fortitude because I knew my cause was righteous. They might have been popular and cool, but my strength was as the strength of ten, not because my heart was pure (it wasn’t) but because I was a reader.

As a reader, I knew what was important, and hitting a ball with a bat was not it. Nor was throwing a ball into a basket, kicking a ball into a goal, hurling a ball at another person, or doing sit-ups. Kindness, courage, loyalty, standing up to oppressors, protecting the weak, wielding power wisely: these were the values I had gleaned from reading. Values which (as anyone with a claim to human decency will attest) are conspicuously absent from most P.E. classes.

The party line held that participating in the boring, arduous, and unpleasant activities of P.E. would confer indispensable benefits later on in the Real World. I doubted it. Did Lucy engage in sit-ups before opening the wardrobe door into Narnia? Hardly. True, Narnia wasn’t exactly the real world, but it felt a whole lot more real than the one I lived in. The world in which mean, loutish boys who could throw a ball received the acclaim of peers and teachers, while bookish, uncoordinated girls like me were (at best) objects of pity.

Having to throw a ball around when I could have been happily reading a book made me grumpy and miserable. But after twelve years of sports-induced misery, I escaped to college— and just like that, it was over. It was hard to believe at first but gradually the reality sank in: No one was ever going to make me run, jump or throw a ball again for the rest of my life.

As the years passed, unmarred by forced basketball, dodge ball, or even badminton, I mellowed somewhat on the sports issue. With the wisdom of age and experience, I was willing to concede that not everyone who enjoys sports is a mindless adherent to all that is worst in American culture. Some of these people, I now understood, actually find athletics as vital to their happiness as reading is to mine. Some of them are my friends.

I did not, however, expect to give birth to one of them.

At first, there was no cause for alarm. Simon, my older son, was just as attracted to all things beautiful as he was to chasing a ball. After he spent the summer of his fourth year wearing a dress, I figured my future involved schlepping the kid to and from play rehearsals and cheering him on at debate team events, a prospect I relished.

I don’t recall exactly when I realized that my younger son didn’t seem destined for the life of an introspective poet. It could have been when, at fifteen months, he hurled himself down the playground’s twisting tube slide—the same slide Simon didn’t venture on until the age of three. It could have been right after he turned two, when a stranger watching my uncannily agile little boy maneuver around the climbing structure asked, as so many had before her, with an awestruck expression, “Is that your kid? How old is he?” By the time Nate climbed onto a bike (without training wheels) at age three and took off down the sidewalk with the confident balance of a pro, I could no longer deny what was perfectly plain to everyone else: this child was a born athlete.

My older son’s delight in books had thrilled me. “That’s my boy,” I thought with pleasure, when Simon begged for one more chapter of The Trumpet of the Swan. It was the thrill of recognition. He was my boy, after all. I had never doubted that my children would inherit my love of literature. My husband, a biologist, took it for granted that they would be at home in the woods. (They were.) My husband is as indifferent to sports as I am, so watching Nate in action fascinated us both. How had we produced this astonishing little dynamo?

More disconcerting than Nate’s athletic abilities was the pride I felt as I watched him climb, pedal, and race his way through life. I could hardly take credit for Nate’s physical fearlessness, yet I was absurdly pleased each time someone complimented me on it. I did my best to conceal this. “Yeah, well, God only knows what he’ll be up to at sixteen,” I’d answer wryly, shaking my head as Nate hurtled past on his Razor scooter. Isn’t he amazing? I wanted to shout. But how could I? Hadn’t I scorned this sort of thing my whole life?

Perhaps it’s precisely because Nate’s action-oriented nature is so foreign to me that it captivates me so much. How can I help rejoicing in the fact that my child possesses something so uniquely his own? I never expected my kids to be carbon copies of their parents, of course. But that one of them has a talent for athletics is delightfully exotic. Watching Nate’s intent, joyful expression as he does anything physical, I feel like the discoverer of some foreign land. And maybe, I’ve started to believe, living on its borders will be pretty interesting.

That thought isn’t always easy to maintain. Lately, parent after parent has been prophesying my future with “a kid like that.” “Just wait till soccer practice starts ruling your life,” they say, knowingly. In the view of these seasoned parents, soccer practice and its accompanying, weekend-devouring games are simply a force of nature, like a tsunami; there is no option but to be sucked under. Even a mother I knew to be a fellow reader could offer no mitigating vision of the future when I protested that this wouldn’t be happening to us.

“Yeah, I thought the same thing, back when I was a vegetarian who read books all weekend,” she told me. “And then I had these boys. Now I’m eating hot dogs at the games and organizing the practice schedules.” She laughed merrily, as though this transformation from bookworm to soccer mom was simply one of life’s delightful ironies. I shuddered. I love my son, but watching a weekly soccer game—even with him in it—has all the appeal of an afternoon at the DMV. (Will the other parents despise me for reading on the bleachers?) Of course, it’s possible that a similar transformation will occur in my case, too. Could it really be as simple as: My Child + Soccer = I love watching him play? I suppose I’ll find out.

Still, the prospect of soccer momhood troubles me far less than the thought of how sports culture may affect my son. Sure, I enjoy the sight of Nate careening around the neighborhood on his bike and scooter. But when I picture him in a uniform, on a team, I flash back to high school and its rigidly segregated hierarchies. What if loving sports turns my son into a jock? Someone who looks down on everyone not similarly gifted? Someone who—God forbid—doesn’t like to read? It may well be true that team sports build character. But the characters of the male athletes at my high school were all pretty much the same: arrogant, entitled, and—how to put this—less than literarily inclined.

My husband has three words for me whenever I go on one of my tirades about the conformist tribal rites of Little League and the dreadful possibility of raising a mindless jock: Get over it. Growing up in our household, Nate will know full well that kindness, courage, loyalty, standing up to oppressors, protecting the weak, and wielding power wisely are more important than winning any soccer game.

Of course, there are those people—several of my friends among them—who claim that sports can be the ideal venue to transmit these very values. The part of me still mired in adolescent hostility toward high school jocks wants to argue this notion. But the rest of me, the part that really knows better, can’t help conceding that my friends are right. I’ve heard their stories, after all: the fidelity to teammates, the sense of justice acquired through learning about fair play, the satisfaction of working toward a shared goal. I may have found P.E. unpleasant and pointless all those years ago, but I realize that my experiences are just that: mine. Many of my friends credit participation in sports with everything from shaping their characters to preserving their mental health, and I have no reason to doubt them. (Didn’t books do the same for me?)

As I listen to them, I realize that I want what they are describing for Nate. Not sports, necessarily, but something they and I shared, readers and jocks alike: a passion.

I’ve long believed that I’m a reader because I was raised by readers in a house full of books. But it doesn’t always work that way. I have reader friends whose parents kept the TV on all day and barely read to them. They found their way to the library, just the same. Perhaps our love of reading, like Nate’s apparent talent for athletics, is more a gift than anything to do with our upbringing. I don’t know whether Nate’s love of physical activity will be the thing that sustains him over the years or whether some new passion will be revealed. Whatever it turns out to be, that joyous dedication to something is what I really want for my son.

I see it in him now. I watch him speed his scooter around a corner, his body leaning effortlessly into the curve, his face intent and deeply happy. I recognize that expression; I’ve sensed it on my own face often enough while reading. It’s the look of someone absorbed in what he loves, caught up in the unselfconscious enjoyment of his powers, a simple moment of transcendence.

Author’s Note: At the skate park recently, a teenager watching Nate in action turned to Simon. “Your brother’s a rad little dude,” he told my seven-year-old, admiringly. I’ve sometimes wondered if Nate’s natural derring-do might ever be a source of tension between him and his more cautious older brother. But Simon reported this compliment excitedly, obviously thrilled to be addressed from on high in skater lingo. I was thrilled on his behalf.

Kate Haas is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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