The soccer season ended recently, marking the start of the constantly-asking-your-mother-when-the-team-banquet-is season.
Elizabeth was the manager of the girls’ varsity soccer team for Portland High School. Carol and I made sure to attend practices and games, both to give her moral support and partly to make sure it wasn’t just a title. Luckily, her coach, Britney, treated Elizabeth like a member of the team from day one. In return, she got a manager who took her job seriously.
It was definitely her job. I tried to help her with a drill once. She pulled me aside and said, “Dad. I’m s’posed to be helping Britney with the team. Only I’m the manager, not you.”
I must have made some kind of face, because she grabbed my arm and looked hard into my eyes. She does that when she wants me to know she’s serious.
“Are you mad?”
“Sorry I told you not to help.”
“It’s OK, really.”
“Are you mad?”
On the field, she was into it big time, chasing balls, putting out cones, moving cones, picking up cones – pretty much everything cone-related – and watching everything going on around her. It’s often moving too fast for her to jump in right then, but she enjoys absorbing it to think about later. That’s her thing. She might talk about it with Carol at night or tell a story in the car from practice the day before or the week before.
During games she spent a lot of time pacing in front of the bench to work off excess energy, so I thought it was great one time when she got drafted as a ball girl. Wrong. Turns out there’s a pecking order in the Byzantine society of high school soccer.
“Da-ad, I’m s’posed to be helping Britney, not chasing balls.” She gave me an eye roll that made cows on nearby farms stop in mid-graze and lift their heads in curiosity. Big eye roll. Major eye roll.
I was worried when she became interested in going to the team dinners, which were basically social events for the girls on the team. I half wanted them to be limited to players only. Practices and games gave her participation, but the team dinners represented inclusion. Or not. As a backward teenager, I preferred being excluded to being tolerated. If I stayed home from a party or a dance, at least I didn’t have to watch myself being ignored. I wanted to spare my daughter that.
Then I remembered how the cool kids weren’t any happier than I was. I also remembered how I learned a lot more from pain than I ever learned from pleasure.
There was another thing, too. What was it? Oh, yeah: your children aren’t you.
It’s easy to be over-protective, even easier if your kid has developmental disabilities. You spend so much time coping with parts of the puzzle that don’t fit right that you forget about everything that does fit. In Elizabeth’s case, better than mine. She’s not afraid to ask for help, for instance, and she doesn’t think the things she struggles with make her less of a person. Elizabeth 2, father 0.
When I thought about it rationally, and by that I mean listened to Carol, the team dinners were a no brainer.
Not that they were easy. The first one was terrifying: walking into a strange house, trying to make a good impression on the parents, running a gauntlet of girls just waiting to judge you, having a dozen pairs of eyes follow you as you fill your plate with food. Did you take too much? Did you take too little? Should you put one of the cookies back? I’m surprised I didn’t faint.
“GoodbyeDaddyyoucanleavenow” Elizabeth said needily as she turned her back and approached a nearby gaggle of girls. I ignored her transparent cry for help and spent the next hour wandering Hannaford’s fruit aisles while eating cookies. I returned when the parents said I should. The dinner showed no signs of breaking up. Elizabeth was by herself – excluded? Doing her watching thing? She was moving between groups of girls that seemed to be ignoring her, and each other, except when somebody jumped to a new pod like an electron jumping orbit.
The host girl said Elizabeth was welcome to stay. I asked her, she shrugged her “I don’t care” shrug, and we headed out. The closer we got to the car, the slower she walked. I noticed her looking back at the house while I was unlocking the car.
“Did you want to stay?”
She looked at the house, then at the ground about 10 feet in front of her.
“It’s OK if you want to stay.”
It finally dawned on me: she was thinking it through. God knows how many times I was in too big a hurry to let her make her own decisions at her own pace. I had never even noticed. Great parenting. What idiot ever let me reproduce? Just as I was about to swan dive into a black hole of self-loathing, she stopped me.
“Yes, Daddy. I want to stay. Thanks.”
I pushed for this soccer managership (well, I would have if Carol hadn’t already set it up) so it would be a learning experience for Elizabeth and her teammates. It wasn’t supposed to teach me how much I still don’t know about parenting. It’s a little unfair when you think about it.
Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.