When I was a little girl, my father gave me the most important gift, the gift of acceptance and unconditional love.
I was in the midst of those awkward middle school years. I was trying so hard to be cool, to be like everyone else. Above all, I wanted to fit in. All my friends played softball, so of course, I signed up to be on a team, too. I hated every single moment of it. I was afraid of being hit by a ball. I couldn’t catch, pitch, throw, or hit. Yet I kept right on trying. I went to each practice. When I got home, my dad spent countless hours trying to teach me and trying to help me improve. Nothing worked. I didn’t improve no matter how hard I tried. As hard as I was working to be better, my heart wasn’t in it. I wanted to be reading a book, or playing the piano, or spending time with my pets. The only things I liked about playing softball was sitting on the bench, visiting with my friends, and going to the concession stand after the game.
This was a long time ago, and the world was a different place. Parents didn’t follow their kids around like an entourage of professional managers. When I had a game, I grabbed my glove, slid it over the handle bars of my bike, and headed out by myself to the ball diamond behind the school. Parents were rarely there to watch a middle school girls softball game. There were a couple of wooden benches for spectators, but they were usually filled with middle school boys. I don’t remember if my parents ever saw me play in an actual game that summer. All Dad knew was what I told him and what he saw in our own backyard.
One evening after dinner, Dad and I were out playing, or attempting to play catch, after dinner. He stopped me to ask me a question. “Pami, do you enjoy playing softball or are just doing this because all your friends are playing?” He went on to ask me if I thought he expected me to play.
I remember looking down at the grass unsure of how to answer him. I couldn’t lie to my dad. Finally, I told him that I hated it. I was playing softball, because I thought I was supposed to play softball. Lots of my friends loved playing. Their dad’s were so proud of them for being great players. I was trying to make him proud of me.
I’ll never forget that moment. While I didn’t tell him this part, I still remember thinking it. I was trying to make it up to my dad that I wasn’t a boy. My parents had lost a son before I was born, I was the consolation prize, the second child, the daughter. I had always wondered if my dad had wished I was a boy. I wondered if he was disappointed that he and mom hadn’t had any more children. He was stuck with me, a girl, and a bad athlete to boot.
My dad put his arm around me and said, “Quit playing softball. You’re not good at this, but you ARE good at so many other things. Spend your time doing the things you like to do and the things you’re good at doing. I’ll be proud of you no matter what you do!”
He never wavered from the promise he made that day. I always knew that my dad loved me no matter what, and I knew that he didn’t wish that I was anyone other than ME. Years later, I realized that my dad had given me the most wonderful gift at an uncertain time in my childhood. He taught me to trust in myself and to cultivate the things inside of me that felt best and were most interesting to me no matter what the rest of my friends were doing.
Twenty years later, I was the mother of a fourth grade son who signed up to play baseball. He had enjoyed playing for a number of years already, and he looked forward to another season of fun. This particular year brought changes. He was in a bigger boy’s league. This was more serious. The parents yelled at their kids. The coach yelled at the players. I can still remember the other mothers and their intensity. They made team meals, talked of the traveling leagues the boys could play in (if they made the cut) the following year. They were in full grooming mode for their future star players. I sat there idly reading a book and wondering what had happened to make my friends act like a bunch of crazy, competitive high-schoolers.
When Andrew’s team lost a game, the coach made them come to an extra practice on Saturdays, and Saturdays were the only day that Andrew was able to spend home all day long with his daddy and brother. Soon, the coach had them practicing every Saturday. At that time, T had only one day off on the weekends in the spring. For a few weeks, we packed Andrew into the car in the middle of Saturday afternoon, and took him to practice. I still remember the tears in his eyes as we made him stop playing to go to practice. He didn’t complain, but he quickly lost all enjoyment for the game.
Baseball wasn’t adding to his life. It certainly wasn’t making our one family day each week very happy. Finally one Saturday after Andrew came home from practice, T and I sat him down and talked to him. We asked him if he was enjoying baseball this year. No! He began to cry, and this was unusual for our son. He said that he just wanted to be home with everyone else. He wanted to be with the family on the weekends. Practice felt like being punished.
Like his non-athletic mother, Andrew wasn’t very good at baseball. He didn’t enjoy it, but he tried his best. Remembering my own experiences and my dad giving me “permission” to quit, I asked Andrew if he would like to quit playing. He hung his head. I said, “Do you think we expect you to play baseball?” and he said, “Everyone plays. I thought you would be mad if I didn’t play, too.” I repeated the words my dad had told me years ago as I smiled and put my arms around my son.
Andrew is 25 years old now, and he has never enjoyed sports. Has that made him less manly? NO! He is a wonderfully talented musician. He is clever, funny, and compassionate.
I recently asked him if he remembered the whole baseball incident, and he said, “Oh, absolutely! I hated baseball. I remember you and dad talking to me in the kitchen and asking me if I wanted to quit. I was so happy not to have to play anymore. Still, I did like the uniform, and playing in the outfield. I always looked for a big blade of grass to make into a whistle so I could pass the time until I was back on the bench.”
Spoken like a true musician. 🙂