Steve Himmer wonders how to keep his daughter from feeling excluded when it comes to sports.
A few hours after my daughter was born, I held her on my lap in an uncomfortable hospital chair that unfolded into an even less comfortable bed. As my wife slept beside us, Gretchen and I spent our first private hours together. She was bundled in her swaddling blanket with a knit cap covering most of her head, so only her big, dark eyes showed—her tiny nose and mouth only made them look wider. I cradled her in the crook of my arm as we watched a Red Sox game on TV. I’d only been a father a very short time, but was already living one of the daydreams I’d had about becoming one.
This was September 2007. The Red Sox would go on to win their second World Series of the decade, and Gretchen (who unfortunately inherited my ineptitude as a sleeper) watched much of that postseason in my arms as I walked circles around our living room or bounced up and down to calm her ferocious colic. Since she was born, the Celtics and now the Bruins have won a title, and the Patriots (who she calls “the guys with elbows,” because of their logo) have been a team that’s easy to root for despite some unfortunate ends to their seasons. So she’s one of those kids we keep hearing about around Boston: the ones who will grow up not knowing the pain of “the Curse,” or what it means to be devoted to a team who will most likely break your heart all over again.
But while the Red Sox are important to me, and although I like watching the Bruins, I’ve only recently begun watching football mostly because the games are an excuse to spend an afternoon relaxing without looking lazy (and because my wife bet me I couldn’t make myself take an interest in the sport). Basketball I couldn’t care less about. None of those are my game of choice. Soccer is the only sport I’ll watch no matter who’s playing, whatever the language or league. Yet Boston doesn’t even acknowledge there’s a soccer team here when we’re busy shouting “all four” of our teams have been recent champs.
Last summer, I watched almost every match of the World Cup, as I usually do. But this time Gretchen, then two, was beside me, shouting, “Goooooooaaaaalllll!” every couple of minutes. She learned to say, “vuvuzela,” and to produce a convincing impression with a paper towel tube. A year later, she calls the game “World Cup” as often as she calls it soccer. She’s also developing some pretty good ball-handling skills, for a 3-year-old.
A couple months ago, I was thrilled to see that the US women’s national team was playing a friendly versus England. I told my daughter a few days ahead, and she asked about it over and over until it was finally on. She paid more attention to that game, at least the first half, than any other we’ve watched. The next time I turned on a soccer game, a couple days later, she heard it from the other room and came running. But when she saw it was men’s teams she asked, “Aw, aren’t any girls playing soccer today?” So we checked the channel menu, and I had to tell her that while there probably were women playing somewhere that day, they weren’t on TV. So while she doesn’t have to live with the usual Boston sports heartbreak, she is unfortunately learning what it’s like not to be represented.
Recently, though, she asked, “Daddy, do we have World Cup this summer?” and I was able to tell her yes, and that it would be women playing. We’ve already watched a few matches, but to be honest she spent most of the games playing with her Lego people. I think she’s the only person who misses last summer’s vuvuzelas.
Meanwhile, I wonder if I’m doing enough. I want her to know she can play whatever sport she wants to—if she wants to play sports—and I want her to see it as no big deal if she does. I want her to take for granted that girls can play hockey, and women’s soccer is on TV. I want her challenges to come on the field, not in getting on to it, so I wonder about the best way for me to teach her that. I make an effort now to watch more women’s games, when there’s an option, but I’m not sure if it’s better to make a big deal of it—“Hold everything, kiddo: look who’s on TV!”—or just to watch women sometimes and other times men, without making a distinction between them. Though if I ever realize my dream of attending a World Cup in person, and of bringing my daughter along, we’ll wait for it to be a women’s year.
I may be overthinking all this, perhaps due to guilt over not paying particular attention to these questions before I had a daughter. But to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, “In football and fatherhood everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.” Thankfully, my daughter seems unfazed by my anxieties. Recently, after Lauren Cheney scored her goal against North Korea, Gretchen turned toward me on the couch and said, “I can’t wait until I play with them.” No question, no doubt, just the confidence she’s able and allowed to play if that’s what she wants. I won’t take credit for it, but I will do my best to remind her whenever I can.