First Person: The Reluctant Soccer Mom By Toni Martin Special to the Planet

Tuesday October 11, 2005

I never intended to be a soccer mom. I am no sports fan, so my husband Mike and I agreed that he would be the athletic director for the kids. When our first son joined a team at age 6, I attended a token game or two. The division of labor fell apart as soon as our younger boy, Chris, started playing. 

The two games were inevitably scheduled at the same time in different suburbs. As physicians, Mike and I had weekend call. Even with carpools we sometimes had to interrupt hospital rounds to run one child home or to the game. We planned Saturdays like a military campaign. 

Chris’s first game was at 7:30 am. Fog-chilled and sleepy, I stood on a windy hill, grateful that my map reading skills had allowed me to find the obscure field. The boys warmed up and the dads (mostly dads came to the earliest games) debated the teams’ prospects. Somehow they knew the relative standings of these two groups of first and second graders. 

I felt left out, as though there were a sports manual for parents that had circulated behind my back. I didn’t know the rules of the game and except for my boy, the only African-American on the team, I had a hard time distinguishing the towheaded boys milling about on the field. 

When a dad spoke to me, I mentioned that it was tough to mobilize this early. He looked at me funny, and said that he thought of it as giving back to his children what his parents had done for him. I come from a family of girls, none of whom played team sports outside of school. My mother attended school programs and dance or piano recitals, indoors. I don’t remember my father at any event, school or extracurricular. By the time I had made it through one soccer season, I had paid back any parental debt. 

That first year, I resented the obligations of soccer, especially since the boys preferred to have their dad on the sidelines. But after the tournament weekend (two games on Saturday, and at least one on Sunday, maybe two if they won) I resigned myself to my fate. Soccer was my life, love it or leave it. I stopped inviting people to dinner during the season because I was too tired. We rented videos to avoid getting in the car again Saturday night.  

More important, I started to get to know the other parents. One mom was an infectious disease specialist, one a nationally known journalist. There were authors and computer experts and teachers. Every team had several lawyer dads, who provided acid commentary on the referee’s decisions. There was a hulking guy who could not tolerate any judgment that went against his kid. When he started to swear at the referee, the other dads would close around him softly, the way a sea anemone eats. 

The mothers became my girlfriends. We slipped out to malls to shop between games. We traded gardening tips and discussed novels, before book groups became a fad. We took power walks while the kids were warming up. We faced puberty together. By high school, I knew these parents better than any others, and I was sorry when some of the kids (like our older boy) dropped out to pursue other sports. Chris went out for his high school soccer team, adding a winter season to his fall play.  

I can pinpoint the moment that I knew I was a soccer mom. Chris was a teenager, and we parents were watching an under eight game while we waited for our field to open up. Someone asked why the referee didn’t call “offsides” on the last play. A voice emerged from me and said, “They don’t call offsides in under eights.” I felt like a ventriloquist. Where did that knowledge, that voice come from? I wanted to look in the mirror, to make sure that I was still me. 

At the high school, there were games during the week, too. I can’t say that we attended every one. We had to work, after all. But it gradually dawned on me that my son was a star. Not as much of a star as the kid on his team who played for the national team. But enough to be voted all-county defender in his senior year. He received the varsity Most Inspirational and Scholar-Athlete awards at school. The coach remembered him studying AP chemistry on the bus. 

Some parents sustain themselves over the years by hoping that soccer will ease their child’s way into college, or pay for his education. When Chris applied, he listed soccer among his accomplishments, but he wouldn’t let us lobby the coach, standard operating procedure in today’s college admission frenzy. He wanted the option not to play. He was admitted to his first choice of college, so I believe now that he made a mature decision. At the time I wasn’t so sure. 

Twelve years and hundreds of games later, my days on the sidelines are over. There was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and Chris’s 15 minutes of soccer fame are past. All I can say is that it was a privilege to be there.?