Marlayna Glynn Brown tried to play the role of both mom and dad to her son when he was in sports… but found one voice was just not enough in a dads-based culture.
While motherhood had been a clear choice of mine, raising my children alone had not been. But as an adult I had the skills to greet the unexpected and forge ahead. My children were 5, 4, 3 and 1 when I became a single mother, and already showing interest in t-ball, soccer and gymnastics.
Those first few sports seasons were rough – on me. Although they say 50% of marriages end in divorce, those stats hadn’t yet become apparent when my two oldest joined soccer teams. I was still healing from the loss of partnership, yet dedicated to ensuring my children didn’t miss out on the athletic experiences they expressed interest in. I was often the only single parent at the games in the early seasons.
I didn’t want my children to feel under-represented. My solution? Cheer loud enough for two.
And that worked well for a few years. At least there was one voice yelling accolades by name for each of my children. For them, the thrill of the sport, the camaraderie with teammates, and the after-game snack were the highlights in those days.
However just as I became more comfortable in representing a kid as a single parent at the practices and games, the environment shifted.
The skill level of the children increased, and so did the participation of the fathers – as well as the decibels of their cheering and instruction during games. Most kids had a dad at the meetings, games, parties and celebrations. These dads had opinions and knowledge and ideas on how to play. I noticed this of course, and was content to show up and let the fathers dictate the play.
The challenge began when my children started to notice.
My oldest son was a phenomenal baseball player. So when tryouts for the select team rolled around, we eagerly arrived at the baseball field. I noticed immediately that the field was covered in twosomes – dads and sons throwing back and forth, warming up for this important tryout. My son was ten years old, and I said a little fervent prayer that he wouldn’t notice. He’d been so excited to get to the tryouts, therefore I was stunned when he said quietly, “I’m not going out there.”
“Why not? You’ve been waiting for this for weeks!”
“I’m just not.”
He didn’t need to say why. I knew. However he was young enough at the time that I could cajole him out of the car. I offered to throw with him – and he took another look at the field and said no. I saw a man I vaguely knew throwing with his son. I asked him if my son could join them. Though the regretful look given to my son by both the man and his boy was fleeting – it was witnessed by all.
“Sure…sure. Come on out,” he said, and my son had no choice then but to join them.
After the tryouts, I turned to my son in our car to congratulate him on making the select team. To my horror, he collapsed into tears. Through his sobs, he cried that he was the only boy without a dad on the field and he probably only made the team out of pity. I knew in that moment we’d reached the point where it no longer mattered what I said: his experience was his own, perceived through a young male lens I could never know.
While my son’s teammates practiced diligently with their fathers, took private lessons and went to batting cages with their fathers, my son did not have this experience. Eventually he gave up the game entirely and no amount of conversation would change his mind.
My two sons and two daughters all played soccer. We were lucky when the games were held on the same day on the same complex. This meant I just ran from game to game, juggling blocks of time if the games were played simultaneously.
“You just missed your daughter’s goal!” became pretty much the last thing I wanted to hear in those days. I was sure to be asked later if I’d seen the goal, and many times I hadn’t because I was running between fields, or watching another game. Explanation of those logistics did not soothe my children’s hurt feelings.
Bless those parents who stepped in during those days. The ones who cheered for my children when I wasn’t there, or filled me in on exactly what I’d missed so I could at least contribute to the conversations later that day about their games. There were parents who helped drive, who took one of my kids home when I had to leave to drive another to another field for another game. Those days were hectic, and somehow we made them work.
But the pervasive underlying realization my kids felt was that those parents were not their parents. The priority of those parents was their own children, and my children knew it.
When my youngest son was five, his speed and skill with a soccer ball became apparent. He was an active, happy kid and when the coach told him to go after the ball and kick it into the goal – he did, again and again.
“Ballhog!” One of the fathers on our own team yelled at him.
My son didn’t know what it meant, or even that it was directed to him – but I did.
“Hey, he’s just doing what he’s told,” I said to the father as kindly as I could. I even smiled at him as I said it: perhaps there was something I could learn.
“None of the other kids can get a chance at the ball with him on the field!” The father said to me.
Those kids were four and five years old as that was a co-ed beginning league. Some of them weren’t even watching the ball: they were kicking daisies and doing pirouettes in the grass.
How I had wished for a father’s presence! I was certain this type of behavior wouldn’t happen if my son had had a dad on the field.
As the years passed, my son became a truly gifted soccer player. Our team became a family as the delineation between children and birth parents blurred. We each cheered for each child with equal fervor and it was glorious. Our little select team traveled out of state for tournaments. Sometimes we won. Sometimes we cried. But it was always in unison.
I had dreams of my son playing college soccer. I saw scholarships. I saw professional soccer.
And then he aged into a different league and everything changed. Our new coach was all business. His dedication to his own son first was more than apparent as his son was given the prized positions even though he wasn’t the best choice. The other parents were not like a family. There was a cold sense of competition that reminded me of the “BALLHOG!” days.
And so when my happy, active, fun son announced, “I’m not playing soccer anymore,” I was certain he was just upset over an occurrence. “I can’t handle the parents or the politics,” he continued.
And that was that.
No amount of conversation or cajoling would change his mind, just like my older son.
He was nine years old.
Throughout junior high and high school, the coaches tried to recruit him for soccer, basketball and track. Although he could make 99 three pointers in a row at home, he refused to join the school’s basketball team. I was exasperated. So were the coaches. His very quiet answer was always, “I don’t want to deal with the politics.”
He graduates from high school this year, never having participated on a team since he left his soccer team at nine.
I have often wondered if there was anything else I could have done, anything I could have said to my children, or to the other parents, or to the coaches that would have turned those team experiences into something more positive.
In fact, I’m still wondering.