When I was a pre-teen and young teenager, the kind of age my own children are now, I liked nothing better than curling up with a good book or doing some sewing. I happily ploughed through the works of the Bronte sisters (fondly imagining I was one of them), Noel Streatfield, Jane Austen and their like, then spent time emulating my grandmother, making patchwork bags and cushions. Sedentary, contemplative, solitary pursuits. Sport for me was something to be endured and the best I could hope for was to get through PE lessons unscathed and escape humiliation, whether it be on the hockey field or – shamefully – cross country running in nothing more than an airtex t-shirt and a pair of sturdy gym knickers, as was the requirement at my northern grammar school in the early 1980s.
Fast forward thirty odd years and I have three pretty sporty children and do my best to encourage and support them in their interests. This has several expected consequences: my children get a lot of exercise and are reasonably fit and strong; the house and garden are littered with bats, balls and sundry pieces of kit; and they (and my husband and I) spend a lot of weekday evenings and time at the weekend driving to and freezing at various training sessions or matches. However, I have recently also noticed a number of more unexpected consequences, showing how sport has invaded every aspect of my life. For example, the contents of my email in-box. It is full, not with meaningful emails from friends, but with contact from various sports retailers and team coaches. I get at least daily emails from Sports Direct, UK Soccershop and the Grip Guy (whoever he is), regardless of how often I try to unsubscribe, as a result of buying a seemingly endless supply of kit, boots, skins and leotards from them online.
These purchases are not just for replenishing worn out or grown out of gear, but also because the lot of buying Christmas and birthday presents for the children generally falls to me. Not just for presents from me, either, but also from grand-parents and other relatives who kindly give me money to buy the children presents ‘as you know best what they want’. What my sons generally want, several times a year, is football boots. Fancy, branded football boots, with the latest bright colours and designs, not the plain black affordable ones that I would buy if left to my own devices (and funds).
This also means that I have an intimate acquaintance with local sports shops and spend what feels like a wholly disproportionate amount of my free time in these appalling, soul-sapping venues. Hours are lost in vainly trying to attract the attention of some poor, bored, unhelpful teenager on minimum wage to ask him or her to get stock down from the ludicrously high height at which they are stored or in waiting as they saunter off to search the out of sight stock room for differently sized football boots. Afternoons slip by as I try to show an interest in the design of a ‘swoosh’ or the brilliance of a boot’s white shine (without muttering under my breath ‘two minutes on Saturday and you may as well have got the black ones, they’ll be so muddy’). Trying also not to show my disgust at the prices companies – particularly football clubs – charge for branded merchandise marketed at young children. Trying very hard not to rain on their parade when the children have saved all their birthday money, for example, and want to spend it all on one current season football shirt at a cost of £50 or £60, with a hefty extra charge for getting their own or a favourite player’s name printed on the back. It’s their money, after all, and I absolutely do not want to make them feel bad about something that obviously means so much to them, but it makes me so angry that the clubs can continue to get away with it knowing that the children set so much store by getting the shirts and fitting in. To voice my concerns too vociferously makes me into the bad guy, so I now try to button my lip and hope that as they get older they might come to appreciate my point of view.
Another unexpected change in my life is around food. I have hungry, growing, sporty children who have inherited their father’s slight build and fast metabolism and I yearn – quite rightly – to feed them up. I really do try every day with the healthy stuff but, as they are fussy and I am weak, they also have a regular supply of biscuits, crisps, cakes, doughnuts etc which they burn off immediately. Not so for me, alas. An unintended consequence for me of having sporty children is the difficulty in remembering I am not a marathon running mother, but a sedentary forty something who does not need to curb-load for the school run and the office job. It is also difficult to remember that just being really, really cold at the end of watching a match in biting January winds does not justify a stack of buttered toast in the same way as actually playing in that match. Before I married, I had largely empty cupboards and a fridge containing, usually, rotting salad and a hard lump of old cheese with which to manage my poor willpower around food. I have now swung to the opposite extreme of a bulging fridge and cupboards full of crisps and biscuits, but with little change in my willpower.
As a non-sporty person, I can sometimes feel like an alien in my family. I do try to take an interest but feel I never quite pull it off. Take the terminology, for example. I have spent very many hours trying to perfect the relevance and timing of the ‘well in!’ cry at a football match. Usually I ask for clarification, sotto voce of sympathetic companions, ‘was that a well-in situation?’. If I’m feeling confident, I might try it out loud, only to meet with a disgusted shake of the head from whichever son is spectating with me and not participating, showing that I have failed again. Recently I really thought I had been paying attention and was eager to show off my knowledge, commenting breezily ‘good nutmegging there!’. Pitch side, I got the sorrowful shake of the head; later on, my teenager pulled me to one side to explain, quite kindly, that the only acceptable thing to have said would have been an understated ‘nice meg’. To use ‘nutmegging’ as an expression had caused acute embarrassment and marked me out as a. ancient and b. someone who didn’t understand the game. Guilty on both counts, obviously.
When it became clear that my children were sporty, it gave me a lot of pleasure to watch them enjoying themselves. However, what I did not expect as they began to kick balls or walk along the beam was the level of fear I would start to feel as a spectator as they got older, faster and more proficient. I try not to, but I gasp at near collisions, wince at tackles, shriek at falls off beams and bars. I have seen other people’s children breaking bones and know how little separates a brave tackle from a recklessly incurred injury; how easily grasping the bars from a flight through the air can turn into a near miss as little fingers fail by a crucial whisker to make a firm connection. Sometimes I can hardly bear to watch at all and yet with churning insides and adrenaline coursing through my veins try to appear cheery and nonchalant, knowing that my fear could be contagious and not wishing to spoil it for them. I am hugely relieved that, at the moment, none of them seem interested in rugby (but remain worried by my younger son’s gleeful watching of free running videos on You Tube).
There are other side effects of how my children’s interests have infiltrated my life that I notice from time to time. The fact that, eight years or so since my older son started playing football, I have now acquired without realising it an encyclopaedic knowledge of parks and backstreet recreational grounds in my borough, which would otherwise be hidden to me. The fact that I have a nose trained to sniff out the smell of screwed up football kit rotting in corners of my car and house and intimate working knowledge of the nylon wash setting on my washing machine. The fact that we are developing a family tradition of a trip en masse to a New Year Premiership match.
The most important thing it has taught me, however, is the need to respect my children as individuals. I never would have predicted that I would have children whose interests were so different to mine. I never would have thought that being solemnly invited by my beautiful, trusting eight year old son to take the final, crucial decision between the shiny orange boots and the brilliant white boots would feel like having a sacred privilege bestowed upon me. I would not have thought that there could be as much poetry in watching my boys run at full pelt across a muddy field in the rain, wind in their hair and laughs at their lips, or in seeing my daughter’s face light up with joy after landing a backwards walkover on the beam, as there ever was in reading Wuthering Heights.