Category Archives: young shoulders

Mothering a Teenage Son – A Moment

It didn’t happen overnight, him being taller than me. It just felt like it did.

For so long, he was a little, little boy, catching up with me, inch by slow inch, agonising about how long it was taking him to grow, about how all his friends were towering over him. One year, he was under my chin, the next up to my mouth, then my nose, my eyebrows, my hairline; small amounts, year on year.

Then one day, I glanced over at him and realised that my eyes had to adjust upwards, to take in a defined jaw and handsome, long face. I realised that the tiny, incremental, years-long changes had crystallised into a beautiful young man, my teenage son.

……………..

When he was a very little boy, before he learned to speak properly, he would nevertheless make his views perfectly clear, as only toddlers can. ‘Big Up!’ he would command, imperiously holding his pudgy arms aloft in my direction, demanding to be picked up and carried.  ‘Big Up!’ I would repeat, swinging him up to my lofty height, showing him the world from my vantage point as he nestled his smooth cheeks into my neck and clung on to me.

The Big Up phase seemed at the time to last forever, an oft-repeated refrain punctuating my long, stay-at-home-mother days. A demand I found increasingly difficult to obey, as he grew heavier, as my belly swelled and my arms filled with his siblings.

Now, it seems like it went in a flash and I wish I could hear his baby voice lisping the command one more time.

………………

Last week, he came home from school and showed me the work in progress of the muscles in his  biceps whilst I was cooking the children’s tea in the kitchen. ‘Punch me there, Mum’ he exhorted in his deep, deep voice, ‘punch me, so I can see if it hurts’.   I explained, patiently, mother-like, as I carried on cooking, that I was not in the habit of punching my children and I had no intention of starting now.

He was briefly distracted by food, but waged an impressive campaign throughout the evening, continually urging me to punch his upper arm. ‘I don’t want to hurt you’, I repeated and he just raised his eyebrows at me quizzically, dismissing that notion as so self-evidently ludicrous that it did not even require a comment.

So, eventually, I did. I danced around on my feet to try to make him laugh, telling him I was going to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, as he stood there, bicep clenched in anticipation of the blow.   I didn’t put my back into it, of course. I wasn’t about to try to hurt him deliberately and I like to think I would have punched an assailant with considerably more force. Nevertheless, my pride also made me want to impress him with some modicum of strength.

Is that it?’ he said, with a disarming grin, when I had landed my blow – ‘never mind Mum’ and he ruffled my hair with a devastating smile, adding ‘Is there anything else to eat? I’m still hungry’.

Advertisements

18 Comments

Filed under individual development, parenting, young shoulders

Ten

We had a difficult start, my last child and me, ten short years ago this month.

Three pregnancies in four a half years, a difficult birth keeping me in hospital for several days and the demands of mothering a four year old boy and a two year old girl had left me bone-weary and ill-equipped to give him the attention he deserved in those early days.

I don’t think any of us coped very well that first year. He cried, they cried and I cried: my memories of 2006 are a blurred confusion of tears, sick, nappies, double buggies, plastic animals and plain boiled pasta. His (as then undiagnosed and now outgrown) food intolerances to dairy and egg led to prolonged screaming and endless vomiting from him and frustration from me as he tried to digest the milk I produced on my dairy and egg rich diet.

A decade on, it is almost impossible to conjure up the difficulties and the tiredness I felt then. My baby is now a beautiful, mostly cheerful, entertaining, irreverent and endlessly affectionate boy who has a great capacity for joy and who makes me laugh every single day. As the youngest in the family and the only child still at primary school, I see him now testing out a number of roles for himself – the joker, the sportsman, the Mancunian man-in-waiting, the eternal baby of the family.

At a time when I am having to reconcile myself to my older children of 14 and 12 growing up and away from me, I find great solace in the manifestations of the physical attachment to me which have thus far not left him. He is still keen to hold my hand, to sit on my knee or to ask me to lie next to him in his bed to help him go to sleep. More than this, though, he has a touching tendency to communicate the exact nature of the comfort this gives him: ‘I like this part of your shoulder the best Mummy’, he said to me recently, intently stroking a specific two inch length of my collar bone for a couple of minutes. Or, at the point of drifting off to sleep, whispering ‘I missed you in Maths today Mummy and wanted you to be on the seat opposite me so I could look at you’. As a younger boy, his class were asked to write a description of somebody and he wrote about my ‘soft hands’. In fact, he sets great store by softness generally. He has a special furry pillow case and will usually only wear soft trousers with a fleecy lining.

Another defining characteristic of my boy at ten is his enormous physical energy. I have often heard it said that boys are like dogs and, whilst it is a lazy analogy, the comparison certainly holds partly true in his case. He needs at least one outing a day, preferably more, otherwise trying to contain his energy indoors becomes painful.  He has a propensity to roll in mud and chase balls and regularly comes home from school in another child’s spare trousers, presenting me with a mud-soaked bundle of his own clothes with a rueful smile.

Although there are some encouraging recent signs that he is starting to sleep later in the mornings, he has thus far in his life awoken ready for the day, metaphorical tail a-wagging, at a painfully early hour and gone into everyone’s bedroom to enquire in a stage whisper whether they are awake yet. He is constantly hungry, wolfing down his favourites in surprisingly large quantities for a boy his size, big brown eyes looking eagerly for more. When he is happy, his energy erupts from him, causing dives and rolls around the floor, leaps around the furniture and an uncontrollable, infectious belly-laugh which can make adults in nearby rooms pause and smile at the wholehearted joy of it.

He is a committed, enthusiastic and competitive sportsman who has his older brother’s achievements in his sights. He is fast, bold and strong, often beating bigger and older boys at running and football. He is fearless and heroic on the field: his spells in goal often have me wincing and shielding my eyes as he launches himself towards metal goalposts to throw himself in the path of a hurtling ball.

He is careless of injury and impressively stoical when it invariably happens, enduring the studs in the leg or balls in the face which have other children understandably crying and being led from the pitch. In stark contrast to his first year of life, he now rarely cries in pain and I feel true panic if he ever does cry. He is also stoical when ill. When his siblings are occasionally struck down by illness, they will cry or throw up where they are, rendered instantly vulnerable and requiring rescue, but, since being very little, he has trotted obediently to the bathroom to complete the necessary unpleasantnesses in the neatest way possible.

However, whilst displaying stoicism in the face of physical challenges, pain or illness, my boy at ten is increasingly showing vulnerability in other more cerebral areas, as he comes to terms with growing up in our particular family, in our particular world. He is recently tearful, fearful and jumpy, imagining that strangers will attack our home, mistaking the noise of fireworks for gunshots and worrying that we will be gunned down if we travel to Europe on holiday. He is easily spooked by the tall tales from boys at school about ghostly faces in windows and is easy prey for an (occasionally) merciless older brother, who is trying to distance himself from his own previous insecurities by mocking his little brother’s.  The boy who shows no fear of physical challenges or danger can be reduced to a shaking, shivering, crying child who can only get to sleep with an overhead light shining directly in his face or a parent next to him holding his hand, the furrowed brow and quivering lip softening into a toddler-like curve of flushed cheek and swoop of long eyelash as sleep quickly overtakes him.

He is acutely aware of his place as the youngest child in the family and displays increasing vulnerability when comparing himself to the achievements of his brother and sister, particularly living in an area still ‘blessed’ with a selective secondary school system, which is now looming large for him. Whilst his teachers do not recognise my descriptions of a boy who hates school, he usually comes out of his classroom sulky and miserable and declares on a daily basis that he hates school and is no good at anything (or at least anything academic – he acknowledges some sporting prowess). Perhaps this is some sort of self-protective mechanism against his fear of failure, the result of having siblings decreed by the system to be clever and successful, or perhaps he genuinely just does not enjoy school and I am over-analysing the situation. Either way, it upsets me that my lovely, clever, intuitive boy feels this way and I am at a loss as to how to resolve it for him.

He also shows that he is testing out an identity for himself as a northern boy, in a northern town. He revels in his northern accent (consciously making it stronger and broader), prefers the nylon football strips of his sporting heroes to the jeans and jumpers I buy for him and spends time perfecting his goal celebration signature moves, usually involving thumping his chest, running around in circles whilst acknowledging the adulation from an imagined thousands-strong crowd and sliding on his knees. I gave him dolls and even dressed him up in his sister’s princess outfits in his early years, but he has rejected all my attempts to avoid stereotyping and deliberately chooses mannerisms, actions and clothing which signal his preferred role models to the rest of the world.

 

My last child entering double digits is a rite of passage for me. For nearly fifteen years, I have found my identity as a mother to young children. My last child leaving single digits heralds for me a brave new world of less physical parenting, more time to myself and the need to develop a new relationship with my son as he grows, when I know I will still see the face of the beautiful baby he was in the face of the beautiful, complex boy he is becoming, when I turn off the bright light shining in his sleeping face.

12 Comments

Filed under individual development, parenting, young shoulders

Bold fearful boy

FullSizeRenderObserving no.1 son grow up has, on many occasions, felt like undergoing a psycho-therapeutic exploration of my childhood. So many of his motivations and anxieties trigger memories of my own youth and the predicaments that my thoughtful but naïve younger being would self-inflict. And seeing my older son heading up cul-de-sacs of his own making would make me wish I could convey what I have learnt: making mistakes is uncomfortable but worth getting used to; doing something is almost always better than doing nothing (exceptions: sinking sand); you only look embarrassing if you are looking embarrassed.

I have never been unaware of the possibility that I am merely projecting my personality and motivations onto my older son. Approach a problem with a particular frame and you’ll see what you want to see. I believe, though, that I have indisputable evidence that this is not a solipsistic delusion. The most persuasive argument I can present is: no.2 son.

Four and three-quarters years younger than his older brother, the third and last of Mother in the Middle and my progeny, he clearly has different influences to the first born: the example of two older siblings, relatively relaxed and experienced parents, a busy household, a school and social life where for many he is so-and-so’s little bro’.

Yet, allowing for these environmental factors, there is an innate distinctiveness. When friends ask how the family is, I relate Mother in the Middle’s non-stop life and then for the children I will summarise the latest achievements of no.1 son and the 1&onlyD, then pause. “No.2 son, he’s just a [insert age] BOY.” That sounds belittling, but I know when I’m saying it, I’m shaking my head with wonder, trying but failing to encapsulate the essence of energetic, affectionate, noisy, charming infancy that he represents. Where his older brother and sister have been precocious, pushing some of the boundaries of their age, no.2 son exists comfortably within the developmental median for his calendar age. He’s a pup in no hurry to be a dog.

Mother in the Middle booked our summer holiday before last Christmas. The kids had months to speculate and build expectations of their two week stay in France in August: the pool, the tennis court, canal, river, pizzeria, beaches and French folk. One day, earlier in the summer, rain falling outside, the 1&onlyD was longing for this trip. It would be so good just to sit in the sun and read, we agreed. No.2 son heard us, expressed shock: “No. There’s a pool and a river, we’re going to be swimming, not reading.” We had, but really didn’t need, fair warning.

The first morning of the holiday, I woke early. I carried a chair, a book and a cup of tea out into the sunny garden. Minutes later, no.2 son was at my shoulder, asking for breakfast. Not many minutes after that, he was back, in swimming shorts.

Can we go to the pool?

No. It’s too early.

Will you play football?

Not yet. And can you speak quietly, there are lots of people sleeping around here

Ok. [withdraws, singing heartily]

Throughout the two weeks, no.2 son’s appetite for activity was continuous, and probably entirely consistent with that of a nine year old. In child- and adulthood, I have had a threshold where the desire for activity is submerged by a preference for comfort. Sure, I’ll play in the pool. But once I’ve dried off, getting wet and cold again has insufficient appeal. A kickabout in the garden is fun, but tea time means full-time, not half-time. No.1 son shows similar reservations and qualified commitment.

I admire and envy my younger son’s relentless pursuit of physical fulfilment. Another plunge into the pool, yet more charging after a ball in the garden, gymnastics with his sister if that’s the only action on offer. This physical boldness equips him well for sport: tackle after tackle on the football field; every time he gets the ball, a dribble past opponents or attempted defence-splitting pass; in goal, he bursts out towards attackers, diving at their feet; on the cricket field always closing in on the batsman, defying the coach’s instruction to take 10 steps backwards; sliding, sprawling to stop the ball hit in his vicinity.

Standing on the touchline, I see him play without fear. It is exhilarating, the most predictably exciting part of my week. And it’s disorientating, that a child with my genetic inheritance runs unencumbered by fear, the very impulse that has inhibited my every sporting fixture or active adventure.

He’s not tireless or immune to pain, but neither are reasons to stop. Activity is an end in itself. Comfort, reflection, quiet time are reluctantly accepted and usually attempted swinging from a chair, singing or chatting in a funny voice. A family friend once asked Mother In the Middle what it must be like for no.2 son to live in such a quiet family. It’s a good question.

Where might this boldness end? In A&E, Mother in the Middle worries, particularly when we’re on holiday. Our time in France, though, showed that it has its natural limits.

Sitting together on the flight, I tried to distract no.2 son’s anxiety of flying by reading and offering sweets. Twenty minutes after take-off, his hand still gripping my arm, Bilbo Baggins’ adventures were lost in the drone of the plane’s engines and no.2 son’s anxious inattention. A lady in the row behind tapped me on the arm. “My daughter wondered if your son would be happier with this,” handing me an iPad, headphones and a Pixar movie, which he used for the rest of the flight.

Shopping in France, there was a bouleversement in the supermarket. A known shop-lifter was being escorted out, against her will, noisily. No.2 son grabbed my arm and tried to drag me away from the till which the assistant was keeping shut while the incident was dealt with. “It’s a riot. I want to go. Take me out,” he implored.

Then there was the thunderstorm. Like flying (and dogs) it’s not an unusual fear for a nine year old. But, given his bullish, bold presence through so much of life, it’s a reaction that surprises me.

There’s one rather bland conclusion to this reflection about my younger son: that we are all complex beings with apparent contradictions at our heart.

Writing it down has helped me reach a slightly more sophisticated insight. It suits my shorthand image of my family that no.1 son is ever so similar to me and his younger brother a different animal all together. As a shorthand it holds a lot of truth. But as an appreciation of my children it short changes them and risks me under-appreciating where my older son is different to me (his ease in the company of adults, is a strong example) and the many aspects of my younger son where I can’t just sit back and say, “Wow, I could never have done that.” Difficult as it is to do, I would be better off keeping the comparisons to myself out of it.

9 Comments

Filed under individual development, young shoulders

Shoot-out

IMG_0910No.1 son’s team capped off a season in which they won every league match with a cup run. The final was played on a bright, blustery spring afternoon – cherry blossom swirling across the pitch to give a brief wintery feel. The venue was a local non-league club ground, several steps up from the public park environs the teams normally play in, with their undulating fields, haphazard grass-cutting and careless dog owners.

The match fulfilled one of the cup final archetypes that all football fans will recognise. The stronger team (‘our’ one) dominated possession, created chance after chance, but couldn’t score against dogged, determined opponents with a hero-in-the-making in goal. Mid-way through the second half, the archetype shifted. In a rare break out of their own half, the other side’s lone striker ran past ‘our’ central defenders and struck the ball firmly past the keeper.

The match reverted to type, with no.1 son’s team piling on pressure and with ten minutes left, equalised from a corner kick. More chances were saved or missed before full-time. The game re-started with 20 minutes of extra time. Despite the rolling substitutions, the size of the pitch had tired both teams so that a sustained attack was beyond them. Penalty shoot-out.

“This will end in tears,” was the conclusion my touchline pal and I reached as the players gathered in the centre circle for the penalty prelims.

No.1 son’s team were to maintain their perfect season, winning the shoot-out 5-4. The image at the top of the post shows him driving his penalty into the top left hand corner of the goal.

The other side’s second penalty taker steered his shot wide, lifted his hands to his head and walked slowly back to the centre circle without showing his face. There he sat, staring at the grass, amongst his teammates, who were presumably offering their support. His miss, as he must have feared, as all of the boys dreaded for themselves, was the difference.

I question the value of a penalty shoot-out in a junior match, where the result has no further consequences. Earlier rounds in a knockout tournament do need a winner for the competition to progress; I’ll return to that subject shortly.

Having joint cup winners is to me an entirely legitimate result for the teams that cannot be separated over full and extra time. The trophy can be shared; the individual statuettes would just need ‘finalist’ inscribed on them all, instead of one-half; both teams can celebrate. I see nothing to be gained from spoiling one or two young lads’ days, as almost always happens in a shoot-out.

I imagine proponents of a definitive result arguing that youngsters should not be sheltered from the harsh truth of life and its repeated sifting into winners and losers. I think kids know that well enough. Everything they do is imbued with competition: school, gaming, appearance, getting noticed by girls. Why not, in these rare instances when the score remains tied, show magnanimity and recognition that the contest, not the result, is all important?

“They don’t take it that seriously,” may be another rebuttal of my idea. Many, I agree, probably don’t, and can stride on after a penalty shoot-out miss, walk tall in the playground on the following Monday and savour the opportunity for another chance to take a penalty. Others, though, do not. The coaches, I observed, selecting their five penalty takers, are not overwhelmed with volunteers. It’s a stress that many boys (indeed, professional footballers) prefer to avoid.

Several weeks after the final, I took my younger son to play a cricket match. There were puddles on the pitch and storm clouds overhead. The game would normally have been called off before bedtime the night before, but this was a cup-tie and a definitive result was needed. The method used, a bowl-off, is cricket’s equivalent of the penalty shoot-out. Bowlers deliver a single ball at an undefended set of stumps. Whichever team hits the stumps most often wins the tie-breaker.

The situation was tense, the boys were anxious during the match. One team was delighted and the other disappointed at the end. There was a key difference to the penalty shoot-out that made it less likely that a single player would feel the burden of responsibility for defeat. Instead of each team fielding five players (as in a penalty shoot-out), all eleven in each cricket team had to bowl. The greater number of competitors and efforts means that the margin between teams is a lot less likely to be a single point. The individual is a smaller part of the team score and gains protection. With all players participating, it is more of a team event.

This should be the model for penalty shoot-outs in junior football. Involve the whole team. Do less to isolate individuals. Try not to spoil one young lad’s day.

1 Comment

Filed under winning and losing, young shoulders

Fourteen

14-1Fourteen flings his arm easily around my shoulders and tries to push down on me to elevate his own height, keen to prove that he is taller than his small mother. He’s not, quite, but it will only be a matter of months. If I turn my head just a small amount whilst his arm is around my shoulder, I am startled to see his face, right there, where once I had to bend over him in his cot or his highchair to press my cheek to his.

His face is still as beautiful as the baby face I adored, but is now morphing into a man-face.   There is heft and length to the jaw, a new untamed bushiness to the eyebrows and a definite dark shadow on the upper lip that will soon need attention.

The hand that playfully claps me on the back, accusing me of only being taller because I am wearing heels, is bigger than mine. The feet that he tries to raise imperceptibly to give him the height edge on me as we stand back to back have gone through several growth spurts in the past year, pausing for too-brief months at a point where we could share shoes. Suddenly there are almost-man sized extremities on a still slender, still short, boy’s frame, presaging the growth to come.

His voice has deepened and is deepening still, his laugh catching in his throat, unable to settle on the right register. He can kick a football with such force and strength that his younger brother sprains his wrist trying to stop it powering into the net.

Fourteen has bursts of physical energy, playing football and going to a gym. He seems to need to spend the rest of his time in recovery, lounging on the sofa for hours watching episode after episode of The Big Bang Theory or How I Met Your Mother sighing ‘I’m so tired…’ periodically. The boy who for years and years woke up (and woke me up) at 5.50am every….single….day now needs rousing on school mornings and lies in at weekends. He has become the slug-like teenager that people told me he would, but I never believed possible.

His appetite has grown to facilitate the changes. I see him standing by the fridge-freezer, opening the top half hopefully to seek (vegetarian) fuel within and realise with a shock that, standing at full height, he used to fit under the door, clinging to my legs as I cooked. I wonder how I have missed noticing his boyhood passing so quickly.

Fourteen has the twenty first century teenager’s reliance on technology down to a fine art. He likes nothing better than playing FIFA on his Xbox whilst simultaneously flicking through Instagram on his phone, 5 Live on his radio all the while providing a droning background commentary of a real football match somewhere out in the real world. I have the twenty first century parent’s anxiety about my teenager’s dependence on technology down to a fine art. We have awkward conversations where I feign an ‘easy chat’ about the risks of modern life and he feigns insouciance about the embarrassment I am subjecting him to.

But I realise that technology has given Fourteen and me a way of meaningful communication – albeit sporadically and on his terms. We text, quite regularly.   ‘Time for bed’ I try, from my bedroom upstairs to Fourteen watching TV downstairs (I have tried ‘time 4 bed’ but I can’t pull off the ‘4’ with any sense of credibility). He begs for a few minutes longer, on one occasion to finish watching a documentary about gay people in Russia, which has obviously become unexpectedly fascinating when faced with the alternative of going to bed. Texting gives me the possibility of regular inconsequential communication with him and an insight into my witty, entertaining son’s life. When engaged in a quick fire exchange, he tells me things via text that I do not think he would get round to disclosing face to face.

Fourteen can be an engaging, witty, charming companion. Whilst still prone to sudden bursts of anger – particularly directed at his younger siblings and particularly triggered by car journeys – he has calmed down a lot over the past year. He has a lively, enquiring mind and an interest in history and current affairs. He is interested in and can talk knowledgeably about the election to be held the day before his birthday. He is a safe pair of hands with whom to entrust conversation with visiting adults – he generally likes their company and they generally like his.

Fourteen still has a preference for trying to establish a definitive answer to any question and is particularly keen on pitching ideas or concepts against each other. He becomes engaged by a school history project to decide who was the greater villain out of Stalin and Hitler. I recall similar exercises in my own schooling and my tendency to find it unbearable to plump for one side or the other, preferring instead the ‘on the one hand….on the other hand’ type of argument. Fourteen, however, delights in being able to argue the case for the one over the other. I am met with bemusement if I try to point out to him subtleties of argument, unreliability of evidence or uncertainties of conviction.

His insistence on being given ‘the’ right answer is wide ranging in scope. Fourteen is soaking up his cultural heritage, exploring his place in twenty first century Britain and deciding what the ‘right’ thing for him to think is on any number of issues. Amongst other things, I have been asked over the past year to pronounce on the definitive ‘best band of 90s Britpop’, who should have won the Blur v Oasis chart battle, the ‘funniest sitcom of the 80s’, the ‘best play that Shakespeare wrote’, whether Lennon or McCartney should go down in history as the greater man, whether ‘people’ think Beethoven or Mozart was better, who the best James Bond has been and (after YouTube research) why people ever laughed at The Two Ronnies. He rolls his eyes when I refuse to be drawn on a ‘winner’ and talk to him of opinion, perception or historical context and try to tell him that the world should not be reduced to an endless series of competitions or black and white pronouncements. For the time being at least, it falls on deaf ears – he is a competitive boy, at a competitive school, being endlessly prepped for a competitive future and trying to negotiate his road to success.

Fourteen’s vulnerabilities are better hidden than when he was younger, but lie ready to be scratched just beneath the surface at all times. He has begun to relish time alone in the house without an adult (something previously unthinkable), but can be panicked suddenly by noises, smells or things glimpsed out of the corner of his eye. An innocuous household noise prompts a panicked telephone call to me, with Fourteen convinced that the living room ceiling is about to fall down. Swirling leaves in the garden become unexplained visions at the window.

A fear of flying is becoming more entrenched: the rational boy who loves and repeats statistics, facts and figures refuses to be convinced that flying is less dangerous than car travel, despite all evidence. Instead, he refuses to move beyond his assertion that most people survive car crashes, whereas no-one survives a plane crash and tortures himself with his anxiety about an upcoming holiday. He is so certain, so definite, so unwilling to be consoled.

We are in an awkward inter-regnum between requiring babysitters (generally in the humiliating form of girls not much older than him) when we go out, or letting him be the unstable, vulnerable king in charge of his younger brother and sister for the evening.  His huge capacity for empathy, his charm, his self control are not yet quite reliable enough to withstand the provocation of two younger siblings. But it won’t be long.

He is interesting, sometimes infuriating, lovely, charming, obstinate, empathetic – my beautiful boy at Fourteen.

7 Comments

Filed under individual development, young shoulders

No sport for the weak

gymGymnasts are wiry, resilient, persistent and brave.

Had the parents of the junior gymnasts forgotten these truths, they would have been forcibly reminded within ten minutes of the start of the annual club championships.

The 1&only daughter’s cohort began on the uneven bars. The first competitor missed her transition from the lower to higher bar and brought her routine to an abrupt end. By the time she had returned to the bench she was sobbing. Her upset continued. The girl sitting next to her put an arm around her. Her parents watched, but were forbidden from crossing onto the competition area to give her their succour. The coach remained in his scorer’s chair, waiting for the next competitor.

That second competitor completed her initial moves on the lower bar and struck out for the upper bar, but in a way that immediately felt unpractised, speculative. Whatever the reason, the young girl upended and fell, like a winged bird, to the mat. She wailed, as we all wanted to do. “My arm feels funny. What’s happened? I’m frightened.” Her father, seconds after the coach, did not respect the sanctity of the competition zone and went to her aid. An ambulance was called, a sling improvised and after a few minutes of comforting, the girl was lifted from beneath the apparatus.

Four girls left to perform. The coach asked them one-by-one to return to the bars and repeat the warm-up of ten minutes before. And then it was competition time again. First to perform after the interlude was the 1&onlyD.

Her routine involved six or seven maneouvres, all but one of which she had managed time and again, with increasing polish. The exception was the opening move, the upstart, which after months of practice she had finally achieved two weeks before the competition.

To complete the upstart she would need to attack the bar to create the momentum for the backward swing that could lift her body up. Logically, after seeing her classmate fall after a tentative move, attack would be the right approach. Emotionally, self-preservingly, a little caution could be understood.

The 1&onlyD pitched herself forward onto the bar, arcing first one way and then back. Up her body rose, bendy elbows struggling for an instant then snapping her atop the bar. Upstart achieved, the 1&onlyD rotated and launched for the upper bar, another swing, a shape held and then a dismount to the crash-mat. Arms up to salute the scorer. The audience clapped with relief, with admiration, and in our corner, pride.

The drama of the 1&onlyD’s bars performance may have affected her for the rest of the evening. Neither beam, nor floor routine went smoothly. But she picked up gold for the uneven bars.

The girl who had cried received a quiet word from the coach and went on to compete wholeheartedly in the remaining disciplines.

Little J, who fell, was kept in hospital overnight. Her arm was broken and dislocated. She came back to the gym the following week to see her classmates, collect get well cards and her competition participation certificate.

Wiry, resilient, persistent and brave.

 

9 Comments

Filed under winning and losing, young shoulders

Little big boy, big little boy

202As the youngest sibling of a precocious brother and sister, the age gap separating no.2 son from our other children can seem greater than that of their birth dates. Yet, his closeness to his sister and ability to compete physically with his brother can also concertina those years and months. Eight years old and capable of being the little boy and the big lad.

Shopping with Mother in the Middle at the start of the week, no.2 son saw a teddy bear as tall as he is. He played with the oversized ted in the shop and declared he wanted it for Christmas. For the next few days, no.2 son would observe that big ted could be having breakfast with him, keeping him warm at night or sharing the joke in “You’ve been framed” reruns. A little boy craving a tactile toy.

Monday night at football training, no.2 son put in his usual shift. Running, tackling, passing – with an appetite for the ball and presence on the pitch that was rewarded with ‘Man of Training’ award for the third time already this season. With that accolade came the appointment as captain, signified with an arm band, for Saturday’s cup match. Not merely a big boy, but ‘Man of training’.

Twice in the week, I was on duty with the kids in the morning and walked the younger pair to school. No.2 son required, as he always has, reminders to and beyond the point of nagging to get himself dressed and equipped for school. Once out of the door, his hand finds mine. And so we walk, clasping paws, for the three-quarters of a mile to school, inside the gate and across the playground. A little boy whose need for the security of hand-holding remains stronger than any self-conscious anxiety about how that might look to his peers.

On Wednesday evening, I drove into Manchester with the two boys. As we approached our parking spot, we saw unofficial bonfires and ad hoc fireworks lit the sky. Stepping out of the car, there was a volley of bangs. No.2 son grabbed my hand, and dragged me in a direction away from the noise. I pointed the way we had to walk to the Etihad Stadium and he gave me a fearful look. We set off, his hand clinging to mine and pulling whenever he started at the sound of an explosion.

At the stadium concourse, Manchester City, the club with money to burn, held a dramatic firework display, which was too much for no.2 son. We retreated to the club shop and then to our seats inside, where the little boy recovered with a bag of sweets and watched his team lose its Champions League fixture.

Friday night brought indoor cricket. We arrived promptly and the hall needed reorganising before we could play. I set about moving benches and handed a ball to no.2 son, asking him to play with his teammates. Having cleared the hall, my attention returned to the team. No.2 son had organised a warm-up where each player took a turn fielding and catching the ball fed to them by my big boy.

Bowling first, no.2 son was disappointed with his effort. This, he explained to me later, motivated him to bat ‘properly’. For the first time, I see him guide and coax the ball, feet moving fluently, weight transferring to give enough momentum to the bat swing. Gone are the wild swishes and unbalanced swipes. He accumulated a run or more a ball and completed his overs without being dismissed.

I am umpiring at square leg, squatting on a gym bench, chatting with the county cricket coach. No.2 son, his innings over, pushes past the county coach and levers himself onto my lap. The mature, sensible cricketer reverts to the little boy in need of parental physical contact.

The following morning, Saturday, no.2 son and I walk – holding hands, of course – to the playing field for the cup match. At the ground, I tie the laces of his football boots, give him a tap and away he dashes to join his team. He starts the match in the position he has decided is his favourite – centre midfield. Under early pressure, prompted by the coach, he instructs his teammates where to defend at a corner. The match settles into a rhythm – one that no.2 son is doing more than anyone else to syncopate. He intercepts, tackles, dribbles, covers teammates, slips balls into their path and when the ball breaks to him on the edge of the area, he side foots it into the far top corner of the net. That it stays the only goal of a tight first half, owes much to his sprawling goal line block to a shot that has beaten his keeper.

The second half continues with no.2 son and his team driving forward and being caught by the opposition breaking fast. He intercepts one of their attacks, weaves past a couple of players before passing the ball wide. Seconds later the ball is returned to him in the penalty area. A clean strike sends the ball past the keeper. With a two goal lead, no.2 son is rotated off the pitch. The opponents rally, pull a goal back and the coach sends no.2 son back on the field with instructions heard on our side of the pitch: “Protect the lead”. Tackling and running hard, he plays his part.

Captain, goalscorer, midfield rock, recipient of the touchline dads’ plaudits and Man of the Match. I ruffle his hair and we walk across the field and back home – holding hands, of course.

We end our week of teddy bear envy, firework fear, cricket maturity, football achievement in the park. We have a kickabout, (pausing as no.2 son stands frozen by the presence of dogs) enjoying taking turns lashing shots at each other in goal. As the sun gives up on the day, the big boy’s biggest fun is had in the playground, being rotated on the hamster wheel and bounced on the see-saw.

Our youngest child is growing up at his own pace, which is both thrillingly quickly and reassuringly slowly.

17 Comments

Filed under individual development, old head, young shoulders