Last week, we stepped into a new phase of parenting, and it sort of felt like the first time you step foot in the ocean after growing up in and around small Midwestern lakes. Just a few steps in and you know you’re out of your league – in the ocean, the water moves enough to take you with it…there are creatures that could conceivably kill you, lurking unseen beneath the surface…and you quickly realize that salt-water is not something that should ever be in contact with your mouth or eyes.
That’s how it felt watching Owen attend his first soccer “practice” through the park rec leauge near our house last Wednesday. If that sounds melodramatic, it is. But as I watched him walk out towards the three “coaches,” his oversized park-issued t-shirt tucked so far into his shorts that it was coming out the bottom, I felt all of these feelings.
Apart from our church nursery, Owen hasn’t really had much experience with being in a classroom environment where an adult other than Eric or myself is telling him what to do. As the coaches started explaining the first activity to the kids, I made myself breathe like a normal person so the other moms wouldn’t side-eye me. I was completely unprepared for the emotional-crazy train that hit me:
Is he listening? Oh! I wish they knew his name so they could get his attention. I don’t think he’s hearing what they’re saying. Is he going to know what to do when it’s his turn? Why is he looking the opposite direction as everyone? Oh man…he totally doesn’t know what to do. Does he feel embarassed? Does he care? Okay…good, good…he’s looking at the adult speaking. I can tell he’s trying to listen…aaaand, now he’s a solid ten feet away from where he’s supposed to be. Owen, c’mon…oh goodness, he looks insecure. Did we do this too early? Are the other moms judging him? If only they KNEW him, they would know how smart he is. And yes, he’s not the best at following directions, but I swear, we’re working on it so hard.
It was ridiculous. I mean, this soccer experience really couldn’t be any more low-key. Forty-five minutes a week for five weeks. $30. We figured he’d enjoy the chance to be active and learn a new sport. This is not a big deal.
But still, I was internally melting down while I made msyelf make very normal small talk with the parents around me.
I remember the very first time I watched Owen face rejection. We were on a road trip and had stopped at a rest stop with a playground. He was around fourteen months old, just beginning to walk confidently, and he almost ran to the playground where a four-year old girl was already playing. He was beaming. He’d been alone with me in the car for hours, and he was at that age where he loved seeing other kids. He walked up to her, happily yelling, “pay? pay?”
He chased after her as she ran away.
Toddlers don’t feel rejection the same way adults do. So the piece of me that shattered that day was not for the girl running away from him on the playground but for the first time he’ll come home from school saying he didn’t get picked or when he tells me his friend wouldn’t talk to him at lunch or when he’s crushed because the girl he likes is going to prom with some kid named Chad.
It’s a cliché played out over decades of family sitcoms: It’s hard to let go of your kids. It’s hard to watch from the sidelines and hope they’ll make it and not intervene even when you it might help.
So I took deep breaths. And I looked around.
A young girl with a butterfly clip in her hair laid down, mid-field, for a few minutes about halfway through the practice. Another boy spent some time picking a really nice bouquet of clovers, and still another kid kept coming over to ask his mom for a snack. I realized that all of these three and four-year-olds are trainwrecks in their own right, just as all the parents lining the soccer field probably are too, each one of us hoping that our kid will be okay and find a way to make it, all of us with quietly shattering hearts in these first attempts at letting go.
I stood next to Parker’s mom for a while at the end of practice. I know this because her son and Owen had been lined up as passing partners. Parker’s mom and I high-fived each other because at one point, our boys successfully passed the ball back and forth a few times, even making sure to stop the ball with their toes, exactly as they’d been instructed.
It was a small victory. A miracle really, because, well, they’re three. But I breathed a little more easily afterwards.