We did sign him up (our neighbor’s husband is the coach) and his first practice was last Wednesday evening. Caroline, Wally, Jay and I got there early. We brought a pizza, a picnic blanket, and sat down in the shade beside one of the half-dozen soccer fields by the downtown YMCA. There were dozens of kids running around in various degrees of soccer dress, parents-turned-coaches toting whistles, minivans shuttling here and there around the periphery of the fields. At 5:30pm I walked Jay over to join his team. He clung to me on the sideline and made a grim face when I suggested he might go find a ball to kick around.
For me, the evening was one of the starkest experiences I’ve had as a parent—as in, many times I found myself looking around, watching Jay, and thinking, “I can’t believe I’m finally here.”
There are lots of times in parenting (and life in general) when it takes awhile for your self-image to catch up to the actual circumstances of your life. This begins with the birth. A newborn child becomes a fact in the world faster than your brain can conceive of the idea that you’re now a parent. And that’s just the first dissonant moment. Every time I see Wally’s long, skinny legs laid out in bed, I can’t quite fathom that this racing child is mine.
So, these moments are common, but I wasn’t expecting the experience of taking Jay to his first soccer practice to be as jarring as it was. The issue, I think, was not soccer itself, but how public organized sports are. For the last four years our family life has existed almost entirely in private. Everything Jay has done, every milestone he’s passed, has been mostly just for us. As he learned to sleep, walk and talk, I knew there were other families with older kids whose private lives were intermixed with the public demands of school schedules and sports practices. I loved that that wasn’t us—that Jay and Wally’s entire worlds could fit inside our family life. But then last Wednesday Jay stepped out onto the soccer field. It felt like after years of floating on our own, we’d finally entered the main stream.
As I stood on the sideline with the other parents, the first thing I realized is how dependent we now are on the kindness of other people. Jay was weepy at the start of practice and resisted joining the other kids in drills or the team cheer. After a few minutes, the assistant coach got down next to Jay and rolled a ball in front of him and encouraged him to kick it. Jay did, then the coach rolled the ball again. They went like that up and down the field. I felt so grateful that the coach made a point of helping Jay. It also felt strange to watch someone do something for Jay that I couldn’t do for him myself.
There was also, among the parents, a nervous air. You could tell it from the way they stood close to the sidelines, poised with their children’s sweating bottles for the next water break, and in the slightly strained way they called out directions to their kids, “No hands, Sammy.” The nervousness came, I think, from not knowing how their kids would respond in this new situation. It’s funny that of all the things I know about Jay, I have no idea if he’s going to be good at soccer, and that made me apprehensive as I watched him begin to take his place among his peers.
In this, I think the soccer practice put a point on something that is obviously true about raising kids, but which doesn’t register while you’ve got them all to yourself at home: There’s a lot of uncertainty about how Jay and Wally’s lives will play out, and often enough I won’t be able to do much more than watch.