Saturday before last was J’s first-ever gymnastics meet. Honestly? It was a bit of a Parental Endurance Test, not least because it involved seven and a half hours combined of driving and hanging around for less than 5 minutes of my kid actually doing gymnastics. J loves gymnastics, but there are plenty of other things that she likes to do, too. And while I’m sure plenty of little girls are endlessly practicing their routines, J’s gymnastics-love manifests itself mostly in doing endless handstand-to-bridge-and-kick-overs using various pieces of furniture. When it came to joining a team, she was more psyched about a team leotard than the actual competitions.
But once her first meet actually approached, she was excited and nervous. She’s worked hard and improved immensely this year, and she was psyched to show off her new skills.
It was all pretty disorienting for us parental first-timers, and I was relieved to find the coach so that I could pass custody of my child to someone who knew what she was doing. But then as soon as J was out of my hands, I was fretting, worried that she was hungry or thirsty or nervous or in dire need of a bathroom. I’d tried to push a banana on her just before we parted ways, but she had no interest in food. As the hours passed, it became a running joke with the other parents, because I was clinging to the banana as the one way that I could be helpful. Like, “Please, honey? Don’t you want the banana? If you’re hungry, you might start to get faint and fall over . . . ” and “Sweetie? I know that you’re not hungry, but three hours from now it might be a different story. Please won’t you take the banana? Please?”
Come to think of it, most of the time I was pretty hungry myself. And bored. I should have brought something to distract myself from all the pre-meet fretting.
Then, actually watching the girls do their routines was stressful.
It took me a long while to relax during M’s soccer games, and I’m still not entirely relaxed. But I’ve been to so many games, now, and M generally does pretty well. Plus, she’s almost always stoic, both out on the field and afterwards. So I’ve adjusted to that level of stress. Also, I don’t know too much about soccer, so while I can recognize the major screw-ups or successes, I’m somewhat oblivious. Cute W is analyzing how they’re passing and positioning their feet and I’m just saying, “Nice hustle!” and chatting with the other mothers.
By comparison, watching gymnastics was excruciating. I know how nervous and distressed J gets when she doesn’t measure up to her own standards. And I know just enough about gymnastics to cause trouble, so I wince over each unpointed toe or legs splayed apart or moves that are out of synch with the music. This is why I basically don’t watch J’s gymnastics classes. Because it is very difficult not to coach, and my child has a coach who is not me. My job is to smile and tell her that she did great and give her a big hug and try to push a banana on her and then to slink off when she shoos me away.
It was tough watching J and all the little gymnasts. It reminded me of when everyone was laughing at Aly Raisman’s parents at the Olympics and I was like, I so get them. That would be me. I mean, jeez, you don’t ever want to see anybody fall off the balance beam, poor things. Which is ridiculous, because of course kids will fall, and they get right back on, and this is a good thing. They are becoming resilient and determined. In my brain, I know that failure is good for us. I know that every time they fall and get back up it’s another step in their character development. But, man! It feels horrible.
So, J did great, but she also didn’t score well enough to “place” in anything. That was my personal least-favorite part of the whole day. We were, like, six hours in, and we had to sit through the presentation of medals, knowing that she was going to get nada. Or, I guess that I was too confused to know for sure, but I figured. So it was hard to watch her sitting there, all hopeful. Oh, man, I just wanted to leave. In fact, lots of kids did leave as it went on, but that’s just rude, so I’m glad that our gym didn’t. But it was hard not to jump ship, when your tired, hungry little child is wistfully watching other little girls with their medals clanking around on their chests.
When the awards ceremony started, I was trying to act all cheerful, remarking to another mother how this was such a wonderful learning experience, because from now on we’d know what we’d need for gymnastics meets. “We need to pack more snacks, and maybe one of those seat cushions, and a book or a magazine. . . ” “And a flask!” she hissed. Oh, yes. I was right there with her.
When I was reunited with J, she was bummed, and she also said that she’d been pretty much starving and needing to go to the bathroom for a good long while. Ha! Just as I’d suspected. In fact, to cap it all off, she ducked into a bathroom without telling us, and Cute W and I were combing the parking lot and facility and beginning to panic before we located her.
J recovered her equilibrium quickly, but I felt bummed on her behalf for a day or two. Of course, it might have been PMS. That’s getting worse in my–ahem!–middle years. But in any case, at about that time I read a blog from Huffington Post called Dear Daughter: I Want You to Fail. She was talking about “snow-plow parents”–have you heard of that one? Parents who want to clear away all obstacles to ensure success for their kids? A news spot had a woman talking about baking cupcakes for her kid’s baseball coach to try to get the her son the position he wanted to play. Which sounds like a common sort of activity these days, at least in our neighborhood.
It got me thinking about why parents act like this, when our own didn’t, or at least not so much. Yes, everything is competitive, and it becomes this vicious cycle. Or it does for me. Sometimes I’ll see that parents around me are whipped up into a frenzy helping their kids along, and I doubt myself–am I being neglectful? No. Probably not. No, really–absolutely not. But staying firm can be tough. Right now J and her friends are doing a project for the learning fair together, and the parents agreed that it was the kids’ project, not ours. But you can’t help but feel a little anxious for them because we’ve all been to these learning fairs, and there is a ton of work that was clearly produced by adults. One of the moms and I were joking that they should group the projects in divisions, the actually-by-the-kids division and the significant-parental-help division. Our kids’ hand-drawn hand-written, dotted-with-sparkle-jewels presentation board is likely to be set up next to somebody’s PowerPoint presentation and someone else’s diorama made with $200-worth of hobby shop materials. Will they still feel that pride in their accomplishment when their stuff is set up next to the grown-ups’ best work? I hope so.
The snow-plow issue also made me think back to my own brief gymnastics career. Meets were far away, and with five siblings, I don’t think that my parents made it to any of my meets (correct me if I’m wrong, Sunny). I was chatting with a mother of another gymnast, and she said that one coach had told her that even ten years ago, hardly any parents would go to a meet. They’d just fill up a van or two with kids and the coaches were the chaperones. By comparison, now almost every parent goes almost every time, which is a huge time commitment for families. But again, if all the other parents go and you don’t, is your child going to feel neglected? So part of the problem for us today is that we’re always there and involved in everything. I think it’s harder to watch than to experience it ourselves. As a parent, if I had seen my 12-year-old self screwing up the freakin’ mount on my very first event and getting a craptastic score on bars at my gymnastics meet, I probably would have had flashbacks for two days. But as a 12-year-old kid, I just had to move on to the next thing, and the excitement of being there and hanging out with my friends and getting a sandwich that tasted unbelievably delicious because I was so hungry and, months later, finally getting a couple of fifth-place ribbons are what I remember. I loved it. Thirty years ago, my parents were lucky enough to miss the trauma and just get the highlights.
So, I think that part of the “snow plow” impulse is to make ourselves feel better. Watching your kid struggle is painful. But we have to remember that when our kids are struggling, they’re learning and growing too. And if it’s painful for us, we just have to remember childbirth, and just try to have a little faith in the process and breathe. And breathe some more. And eat the damn banana ourselves.