A guest blog: my wife, who writes about the profound pleasures, challenges, frustrations and worries of being mother in a sporty family
My life as a mother to three sporty children is very different from the world I grew up in. I was the middle of three girls, in a family where there was little or no sport, beyond the semi-occasional bad tempered Sunday afternoon walk and where organised sport of any variety was loudly and violently opposed by my father. Sports Days were ridiculed, failure to achieve at sport was lauded and sport on television was sworn at, with the single exception of the barely tolerated Wimbledon fortnight as a sop to my mother. People who liked sport, or attempted to engage in discussions about it, were branded ‘stupid’ and ‘brainless’.
I now believe that my father’s vehemence on the subject was a direct result of feeling excluded from what he saw as a club to which he was not eligible. I felt/feel this too, but as a girl from a family of girls, going to a girls only school, I think I had an easier ride. The place was full of sports avoiders, citing various recently acquired ‘women’s troubles’ to excuse themselves from games.
The sense of being able to belong to a club – not just a literal sports’ club pursuing an individual sport, but a type of sporting fraternity – is one of the main reasons that I feel sport is hugely beneficial to my children, particularly my sons and even more particularly, my elder son. He is a clever, articulate boy of 12 who has always achieved very highly at school (like his grandfather), has always found exams and tests almost laughably easy (like his grandfather), who spouts obscure facts and, magpie like, acquires bits of general knowledge constantly (like his grandfather), who could quite easily be branded a ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ and who is nevertheless enjoying his time at school because he is accepted by his peers and has a lot of friends (unlike his grandfather). Without sport in his life, I am not sure that he would be having as enjoyable a time. Sport gives him an instant passport to friendship. Not sure what to say to that boy who he thinks is way cooler than him? Kick a ball to him, try out skills with him and you won’t even have to talk, not yet. Get a goal past him and you can walk back from lunchtime break a little bit taller – especially useful if you are the shortest boy around, which he usually is.
My younger son (just turned 8) also fits in with his classmates because he is good at sport. It is so integral to his sense of self that he divides the boys in his class into ‘football boys’ and ‘others’. He always has someone to play with, even if he never has a meaningful conversation with them, just because they like the same thing, he is good at it and that is enough. He is more naturally sporty than his older brother and I am aware that this could cause tensions in the future. He is so fast and strong that he can now beat his older brother in a running race and he can match him at football. I fear that sibling rivalry could rear its head, but so far, this has been by-passed, due in no small measure to his older brother’s somewhat surprising magnanimity and self awareness. ‘He is a much better footballer than me, it’s right’ he commented, when his little brother was scouted for a more prestigious club, an honour which has never been conferred upon him. Perhaps it is because there is still enough of an age gap – and a sister in-between them.
The sister, my daughter (10) is also very sporty. Gymnastics in her case, although she is also good at climbing and running. When I think about why sport is good for her, my reasons are not the same as those for the boys. She fits in at school by walking around the playground with a small group of girls, talking, laughing, writing stories. She doesn’t need to impress by being faster or stronger. What I see that sport gives her is a pleasure in the power of her body. She is tiny and skinny, but strong and flexible and has such an ease about herself. It is my profound hope that she can retain this sense of self through her teens and adult life. I do not want her to be tormented by her body and look at herself with self loathing, as I do and have done for as long as I can remember. I want her to inhabit her 10 year old self, to look at her body and know that it is strong and capable and healthy, even if she loses her current ability to jump down into the splits or throw herself backwards on a beam. I hope I can encourage her to continue with sport once her body starts changing, once her peers cover their burgeoning curves and introduce the idea that there should be shame about the adult female body.
I love that sport has given my children fitness, strength and confidence and yet I do feel ambivalence about it also. Enabling their sporting lives leaves me feeling depleted and inadequate. I am the driver, who does not get enough exercise herself – it is so difficult to find the time with four football sessions, three cricket sessions and two gymnastics sessions a week (not counting any grammar school fixtures and not taking into account music lessons, play-dates, homework etc which all have to be fitted in after school, after my work). I am the kit-washer, drowning in a never ceasing tidal wave of sweaty, muddy polyester and constantly accused of having lost various vital items. I am the cook, catering to different tastes, obsessions and timetables; needing to fuel them with sufficient calories to keep them going and fighting a losing battle not to join in on that, if not with the sport itself. I am the wife of a cricket loving husband, playing second fiddle to his tweeting and blogging obsessions. I remain a facilitator, not a participant and, though I never wished to fall into a stereotypical position, that is exactly what I have done. The mum who beavers about behind the scenes, but doesn’t always make it to cheer from the sidelines. The one who is a bit rubbish at anything physical herself; not part of the club.
I feel a lot of ambivalence about being on the sidelines. I spend a lot of my time in the home trying to talk to my children about being sensitive to others, not being aggressive, not trying to be competitive and definitely not talking about it if they do better than one of their friends at something. Sport turns all that on its head; their coaches talk to them about beating the opposition, about getting the gold medal in gymnastics and it goes against much of what I try to instil in them in other areas of their life. I find the testosterone fuelled matches very difficult to tolerate, particularly the bullying shouts of some touchline dads: ‘pull yourself together’, ‘that was rubbish’ etc.
This spills over, for the boys at least, into a commercialised world that, again, goes against what I try to say to them about other areas of their lives. They are bombarded by the latest boots, at extortionate cost, the latest Manchester City kit (at more than £40 for a small boy’s shirt alone), the acceptance of an ideal of sporting excellence that is at odds with my own sense of what is morally right. And yet, this is part of the male club they wish to inhabit. This is part of their expectation of what being a sporting man involves and I do not want to be the spoilsport who tries to stop them accessing their world and fitting in.
So when I think about my views on the value of sport for my children, I find myself, as a mother, trying to move on from my childhood inheritance. I value – greatly – my children’s physical health and love of sport. I love their perfect bodies. I love their shining eyes, their wind reddened cheeks and their exhausted innocence, sleeping at the end of the day. At the same time, I mourn my own ageing body and fear the influences of their teenage years knocking at my door. We must all fight against the gender based stereotypes that potentially await us and seek to trap us: I have the challenge of finding my own way with some sort of sport/exercise; I must make sure my daughter is equipped to address the expectations that puberty and teendom will give her; I must allow the boys to grow into men, whilst ensuring I try to maintain my own influence on how they do that. Sport is part of their identity; I don’t expect that to change.