I Was One Of ‘Those’ Moms You All Hate
by Jess Carew
I am nostalgic today because a picture popped up on my facebook feed from three years ago in which my oldest son is running with his youth team. But that feeling of nostalgia, quickly turns to sadness. I look at that young face and think, ‘man how I screwed that up’. You see, we’ve been on a journey together since he started running–beginning with the realization that he is good and then morphing into, “He is good, like born to run, but why isn’t he doing better? Why is he not more competitive?” And then regressing into, “I’m so mad he isn’t doing better, because he is good and not all kids are good. What is wrong with him? He has everything, why won’t he try to win?”
I was one of those parents. The ones you hate. I’m still wrapping my head around where I was mentally and soulfully at that time. I hate that self. I’m not a mean mom. I’m an empathetic mom and person. Like often overly empathetic. I love my boys tremendously. I cuddle them, hug them, laugh with them, comfort them. And yet, I became the mean mom at, but mostly after, meets. I do have some perspective, whether this matters or not…I grew up feeling that I had to fight, constantly fight for and win what I wanted. My sons, they are not growing up this way. They are boys who work their hardest and just love to run…most likely more than anything in this world. And my oldest, he doesn’t feel the need to fight and win all of the time. I cannot count how many times I made him tear-up and defend his choices on the course his second season of cross country. The boy was 10! It kills me now. Shame. Shame. Shame. This constant inner need to fight and fight and fight and win as a kid, I don’t want this for my children.
It was towards the end of my oldest’s second season that I started trying, absolutely, trying to be better. Because as far as I was concerned, I was being the worst. I reached out to parents, coaches, people I respected and had to choose to trust. And truthfully, I had some pity parties. I began doing a lot of pretending during and after races…holding back frustration and disappointment as much as possible. I couldn’t completely control my frustration and disappointment-it got out in the most unintended ways. It showed in my facial expressions and in my body language, the tremor in my voice, and in the silence. There are so many pictures in which I can see this in myself. But I was making an attempt, I’ll give myself that.
Coaches and parents kept saying, ‘Be patient, it will happen. Just be patient and don’t say anything negative.” I liken this to learning how to read. Remember the big words, with three or more syllables? Remember wanting to rip up The Giving Tree and throw it at the wall on that first big paragraph page? But, then we just keep on going, again and again. That’s how learning works.
It wasn’t until last season (by the way my oldest started running at 8 and last season he turned 13), that I finally let go of my own ego when it came to his running. It became HIS RUNNING. When he ran great, I was super proud. When he didn’t run great, I was super proud and…also…disarmingly collected. Crazy, right?! Guess what, last season was the first season my oldest got on the podium on his own. 6th in VYC Cross Country Finals! It was the first season that he trusted himself, that he trusted to know what he was doing. It was the first season that he began growing in confidence. Big time. Independence is amazing.
Last season, was a good season and I was mostly the mom I wanted to be. What a relief. No anger, no frustration, no embarrassment…just watching my kids run. Heart elated. Butterflies. I felt my boys’ disappointment with them when they had it, but not my own. And I ran quickly enough, almost every time, to be there at the shoot, as my boys came through. Because it was fun to be there. Fun!
This five year transition has been painful and I know it’s still in progress. I cannot stop dedicating myself to being good at sports parenting because there is still middle school and high school. My children will feel many wins and many losses throughout their youth. I had to look at myself for five years every Friday and Saturday before meets and prepare myself to be better, do better—half the time ending up disappointing myself by the end of the day. So, no back-tracking allowed.
In all of this, it is important to note that I have a younger son who runs…he’s pretty good too. The youngest barely knows me as a disappointed, impatient, frustrated running mom. We don’t have the negative dynamic—not one bit. Though, he is the first to praise and preemptively defend his older brother. It’s in there. In his cells. He knows. He heard it all. My oldest often quips, “Mom, I’m your Vietnam and my brother is your surrender,” after watching a clip a year or so ago of the stand-up comedian Hasan Minhaj, in which Minhaj jokes that as the eldest he “went to war” for his sister…that his parents were his Vietnam. We laugh about it now, but those earliest years of running are ingrained—wisecracking aside, we both know I can’t take it back. All I can do is keep on keepin’ on with good intention. This doesn’t mean that I won’t make mistakes. I expect I will. I also expect, though, that with every new season I will respond to my boys with more compassion and reason: more resolve.
Almost all of the kids from that Facebook picture are still running, many in high school (incredible since most drop out by the time they are 13). How do we keep kids running? Because to me, it is the greatest sport this earth has to offer. At any time in life, whoever we are, or wherever we come from, or wherever we are going…we can run. We don’t even need shoes. This is freedom.
Here are 11 lessons I learned the hard way, that will hopefully help other parents keep their kids running or playing:
- Look at your children. Your children want your unconditional love. Do you actually see them? Do you see calmness, pride, confidence, joy and resiliency, self-disappointment that dissipates as soon as they get a shaved ice? If you don’t. Reflect on yourself and get it together because you could permanently damage your children. No joke. If your kids are still kids, it’s not too late!
- Tell coaches and other parents to check you. There was a time when one of my oldest’s coaches said I had been so sarcastic with him after a race that it made her want to punch me in the arm. She was right. I was being a snarky mom. I later told her she was right. This was painful because I wanted to pretend to myself that I wasn’t being unkind, that I was just kidding around, but the embarrassing truth is that I was being a jackass. I apologized to my son.
- Say sorry. Be humble. Tell your kids that you were wrong. Deep down inside you know it when you are wrong.
- If you don’t run, give it a try because it is tough. You might never tell your kids to push it harder, go faster, again if you ran just one of their workouts or races.
- Hug your children, or high five them, give them the knowing “I love you” look. Be there for them in every race you are able to attend. Regardless of performance, be there. Running is a journey. Nobody wins or loses forever. There is always someone faster and always someone slower out there.
- Read, read, read stories, articles, books from the perspective of runners and take their words to heart. Don’t deprive your children of a childhood because sports have become more and more and more competitive, and way less fun, in the past ten years.
- Let your children take a season off if that’s what they want. Try different sports. It’s not the end of the world if that imaginary future you have created for your children involves a different sport. Ask yourself this…do I want happy kids?
- Now this is where it gets really serious, suicide is on the rise in our youth. The highest on record. They feel pressured in academics, in sports and on social media. Many have stopped loving what they used to love because they are so concerned with being the best and not being a disappointment. We live in a competitive world, but the life of our children is more important than all of the other stuff. Everything else is peripheral. There are endless choices and success is found in many, many ways. Emphasize this.
- My boys are over achievers. This scares me. How do I know that they are alright and not just pretending? I worry about this, but all I can do is pay attention and offer words of support like, “Leave nothing on the course and the result is what is. You will deal with it and we will deal with it.” Dang, racing the race is good enough.
- Do not ever deprive your children of love before or after workouts and races. Hug them, kiss them on the top of their heads, or on their cheeks, like you did when they were babies. Because they are your babies for keeps.
- Make it fun, fun, fun! Go on adventures with your children doing the sport they love. We trailrun and beach-run and we camp and run and play in Mammoth with other running families every summer for a week.
Love is how we keep kids running. It sounds sappy, but I’m not kidding. Running is freedom and kids, they love freedom.
Recommended reading for parents:
- What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles And Tragic Death Of An All-American Teenager, by Kate Fagan
[The link below is an interview with Kate Fagan.)
- Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, And The Greatest Race The World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall
- What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir, by Haruki Murakami
Jess Carew is an educator and mom who runs for fun and loves to watch her kids run.
She and her husband Pat are raising their two sons in Southern California.