What My Children Teach Me
By Margaret Renkl
Ladies’ Home Journal, October 2007

Four years ago, through a fluke of YMCA scheduling, my two younger sons ended up on the same fall soccer team. Sam, my eldest, had abandoned soccer years before in favor of baseball, so each week I had to sit through only one soccer practice instead of two, the Saturday obligation was over with one 40-minute game, and I had a single absurd jersey color to wash each week instead managing one load for fluorescent orange and another load for Barney purple. Plus, the coaches were brilliant—offering just the right combination of skills, encouragement, and gentle reminders that soccer players don’t tackle each other, especially not when they’re on the same team. I know a gift from God when I see it, so that team is exactly where my sons have stayed ever since. (Henry, 11, plays in his own age bracket; and Joe, 9, plays up.) All the other soccer moms I know are jealous. They think I’ve pulled off some kind of cosmic act of fraud. Isn’t total subservience to the demands of the league the whole point of being a soccer mom?

The thing is, I was not meant to be any part of a sports team. I am, in fact, a miserable athlete, though no one had the heart to mention that fact to me in childhood, so I kept signing up for teams anyway. I once broke all but two of my fingers in a single volleyball play. In softball, I played right field—until a left-handed batter happened to come along, at which point the coach summarily transferred me to left field. I comprehended so little about the game that I didn’t understand until years later, when Sam explained it to me, that I’d essentially been moved to a spot on the field where no ball would ever come near me. It made sense: I had about as much chance of catching a pop fly as an asteroid, and I tended to spend my time in the outfield making necklaces out of crimson clover.

By the time my children were born, I’d become a total sports agnostic. It’s not that I was ever hostile to the team mentality—I always liked the idea of people pulling together, using their wits and their stamina and their marvelous God-given bodies to achieve a single, ardent goal. It’s what they’re working for so ardently that puzzled me. How can so many people genuinely, passionately care about whether a ball makes into a net or a goal? Even if the team happens to win the game, they still have to play the same people again next year. I just never got the point, and eventually I gave up trying: I even fell asleep at my first high-school football game, leaning against the warm knees of my best friend’s older brother.

I was never meant to be a soccer mom, but there’s something about the glad animal movements of a child on a playing field that I’ve come to love just because it’s so heartening to watch—the exuberance, the pleasure, and the concentration, all playing across a little face that’s shockingly small for such intensity. My kids care about soccer, and I care about them, so I have gradually—though, it must be admitted, somewhat grudgingly and often only partially—learned to care, too. Without even meaning to, my children have taught me to understand what people love about sports.

For me, this is one of the most surprising and gratifying things about being a mother. Throughout my first pregnancy I fantasized about the wonders I would someday share with my child: I’d teach him to love a growing garden, as I did. We’d curl up together on rainy afternoons, and I’d read him my favorite books and teach him to play my favorite board games. At night I’d sing him “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the same lullaby my father sang to me. During the holidays, we’d watch It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas and Charlie Brown. Having a child, I thought, would let me relive the best parts of my own childhood.

You see where this is going: I got the lullaby, and that’s pretty much it. Even “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” didn’t last long—only until my kids could talk clearly enough to request another number, or to change the words and create a complete parody: I once heard Henry singing “Swing Low, Sweet Cherry Pie” to Joe, who was laughing hysterically at each new outlandish verse. My kids hate board games, and the horse stories I loved so much back in the 70s? They leave my 21st century children completely cold. I no longer have time to grow fresh vegetables myself, much less attempt to teach my kids to love the feel of the soil in their hands and the smell of freshly turned earth. Anyway, to them it would probably be just another chore. Even Charlie Brown strikes my boys as passé. They’re all Garfield guys.

Still, there’s been an entirely unexpected compensation: Parenthood has forced me to step outside my own comfort zone, sometimes complaining all the way, to explore what my kids are interested in, to meet wonderful people (teachers, parents of their friends, coaches) I would never have encountered otherwise, to read books and play games I missed—or deliberately passed up—in my own childhood. In the process of rearing children whose tastes and interests so often diverge from mine at their age, I’m getting another shot at childhood. My father tried to teach me to play chess, but I found it dull until Joe needed a partner. I’m listening to music that wasn’t even written in my teen years—Sam is horrified that I still can’t tell Green Day from U2, but I can sing along with every song—and reading aloud from whole categories of books I disdained to read at all as a child: A Wrinkle in Time and Narnia, just for starters. Fantasy was a genre I despised, but my children’s love for it has taught me to understand how brilliant some of these stories really are.

And then, of course, there’s soccer. Actually watching the game can be excruciating for a mother whose first two children are the kind of soccer players one might expect my gene pool to produce. My third, Joe—who takes after his athletic dad—is a different story, but thanks to his own cussed determination not to play on a team with the “babies” his own age, he’s always competing against kids who are two years older and far, far bigger than he is. So for nearly 12 years, I sat and watched my children fail at soccer. At 20 games a year, I watched 236 soccer games in which no child of mine ever scored a single goal. The coach started muttering darkly about a family curse.

But then there was the game we were losing last spring when Joe on defense stole the ball from the other team and dribbled it all the way down the field. While the crowd roared, he delivered the most beautiful, over-the-goalie kick I ever saw in my life. The whole team knew he’d just broken the curse, and every one of them leapt into the air, fists pumping, and careened by him for high fives.

I don’t remember leaping to my feet and starting for the field; all I know is that Haywood grabbed me just as I was heading out to pick up Joe and spin him around and around the field, shouting in exultation. This sounds ridiculous, but it was one of the proudest, most purely happy moments of my life. I didn’t even mind, much, that the other team won, 3-2. I know we’re going to kick their sorry little tails next year.