by Jennifer Sey
Reading the recently released Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids , by Mark Hyman, I felt like I was reading the “B” side to my own memoir, Chalked Up . It was the he said to my she said soliloquy on the pressures inside elite level childhood athletics. While it offered little new insight into why my mom did the things she did back then (she became obsessed with my gymnastics which led us down a rocky road), the book reminded me that living my life for me, rather than through my children, is probably a good thing. Sounds obvious, I know, but a girl needs a reminder every now and again.
I often feel guilty about the fact that I actually have my own aspirations despite my choice to be a mom. I’m not around all that much, at least not as compared to my mother’s consistent presence during my youth. I work full time; I don’t cart my kids to and from school everyday; I certainly don’t sit through 6 hour sports practices watching their every move. I wouldn’t dream of splitting my family apart, moving to some out of the way town because there just so happens to be a world class training facility there (my mom and I moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania away from my dad and our home in New Jersey so that I could practice with the best). As an adult, I’m awed by the sacrifices my mother made for me. But I have no interest in going down that path. Hence, the guilt. It’s screwy I know. My mom’s compulsive commitment went awry and yet the parenting standard I fall back on is that. And since I don’t measure up, I succumb to self-condemnation from time to time.
In my head, I recognize that I do a lot for my kids. I work hard to support the family. We have dinner together every night. We read Lemony Snicket. We spend weekends going to the park, throwing a baseball or seeing whatever God awful cartoon movie they fancy. And sometimes we just hang around. We talk and I give them endless hugs and I love you’s. But I do my own thing. I work long days when I need to. I write when there is a quiet moment, often telling them to go entertain themselves – “I’m not a human television set” is a popular refrain I hear myself spewing. Life things outside of my boys matter to me. And this causes involuntary angst. What the head knows (“I’m a good mom!”), the heart doesn’t always believe.
But Hyman’s account yanked me from the guilt spiral. The book is largely a journalistic view of why and how parents fall prey to obsession with their children’s athletic endeavors. But he weaves in his own personal story of his overly enthusiastic involvement with his son’s little league baseball “career”. When his son was suffering from a sore shoulder at 13 years of age, dad takes him to visit a trainer. The trainer says the kid needs a break. Hyman’s response: can he pitch this Friday? It isn't like the kid’s got the World Series coming up. But when you are in deep, it is easy to play the game of: if he misses this game, he won't end the season on top, he won't go into next season a favorite, he won't go into high school as first string, he won't get a college scholarship. And he certainly won't go pro.
My parents and I fell victim to this repeatedly. I broke my ankle at nationals in 1985 and kept a cast on for only 10 days so that I could get back to my grueling practices in time for the next nationals that season. Most of the girls I trained with worked on the likes of half cracked bones so it wasn’t out of the ordinary. And there were always cortisone shots for the pain and swelling.
When I needed stitches after a head crash on the balance beam just one week before the 1985 World Championship Trials, I chose to forgo the suggested sutures, with my mom’s consent. We agreed that the front of head shearing required to stitch me back together would be unbecoming in the competition.
I have no doubt that my mother loved me then as she loves me now. So why would she have allowed this reckless behavior, encouraged it in fact? There were all sorts of rationalizations, which Hyman echoes. Things like: You’ll regret it later if you give up now; You’re doing so well, how bad can it be?; Look at [so and so]… If her parents weren’t so involved she would never have achieved all that she has!
But the fact of the matter is, there is a tipping point when support turns to pressure. And when we push our kids beyond what is healthy, it is to satisfy our own dreams. These dreams may be about our own unfulfilled promise or they may be about having kids that are exceptional. Because that makes us feel like exceptional parents. Either way, it’s about us, not them, whatever the rationalization.
I have made very different choices than my mom made. And while I generally feel pretty good about myself as a mom and a person, these choices cause some ambivalence. Not only do I work full-time – more sometimes – I don’t have my kids in any organized sports activities. They are healthy and fit, walking several miles a day on the hilly streets of San Francisco. They go to karate class, more for discipline and focus than anything else. But we don’t do the usual array of team sports like soccer and baseball. I sometimes worry that this is a mistake. I don’t really have the time to commit. And I fear my own competitive nature – will I want to compete through them? But most importantly, they don’t seem particularly interested.
So we’ll try this a new way and I’ll stave off the guilt that pokes at me when the PTA moms talk of traveling soccer squads and swim team practices. I resented my mom for being so “supportive” it transformed into what felt like conditional love. My kids may well resent me for these choices I’ve made on their behalf. They very well may perceive my approach as a lack of encouragement when they are teenagers inclined to hate me anyway. I’ll risk it. They’re going to hate me for something as they transition to adulthood. I might as well have my own interests to fall back on.
They’ll come to understand that I did my best, as I came to understand with my mom. And then they can choose to parent in the polar opposite manner, turning into crazy baseball dads screaming obscenities from the sidelines.