SB Nation

Karen Shepard | May 10, 2013

The mothers

You’re a team of your own, ready to pull your weight, ready to play with pain, ready to leave it all on the field

This is fiction and fact. This is you and your mother. This is you as a 13-year-old and your mother then. This is a short story about all of that, and about sports and love. Send it to your mom today.

We are the mothers. Our names are Kim, or Linda, or Janice, or Sue. Sometimes, Kristine, or Emilie who grew up in France, but not Brittney or Ashlee with two Es. We live in small New England towns known for their picturesque beauty, named after Native American tribes or founding fathers, ending in ville or field. Our houses are raised ranches or Capes or sometimes, converted barns or former farmhouses. They’re in neighborhoods with bike-friendly roads, walking distance to the elementary school and the playground. Or they’re at the end of modest dirt driveways in an open meadow with partial views. We drive minivans or SUVs with bike racks on the back and Thules on the roof. Sometimes a pickup, but only if we’re Republican and have borrowed our husbands’ cars. (We’re mostly Democrats, but some of us are Republicans, and we avoid talking politics if we can. And religion, which most of us never had or have left behind, though some of us are still, shall we say, in the front pews.)

We love our daughters like she-wolves, but we’re the mothers
of boys.

We have camp chairs with drink holders and shade canopies in the backs of our cars. Cases of Gatorade, first-aid kits filled with smack packs. Rubbermaid cupcake holders and lasagna pans. If our husbands coach, there are also orange sports cones and milk crates filled with water bottles. There are picnic blankets and golf umbrellas. Some of us are former athletes, and some of us still compete in mini-triathlons. Some of us take pilates. Some of us walk vigorously twice a week with friends or the dog. Some of us work, some of us don’t. No matter. We are all mothers. Some of us are naturally thin, some of us are not, naturally or otherwise. All of us are competitive, and in this way, much like our sons. We’re the mothers of girls as well. But when we think: mother, we do not think: daughter. We’re not sure why this is. We love our daughters like she-wolves, but we’re the mothers of boys.

These are our boys at four and then six and then 12 and now 14. They’ve spent their lives together, in school, at home, and on the playing fields. They sleepover in basement playrooms (man-caves, we call them semi-ironically) like a puppy pile of overfed giraffes, with candy wrappers and soda cans littered around them. One of them is on the laptop, several are on their phones, two more on the Xbox. Some of them look 20, some 11. Some tower over their fathers; some are half the size. Some are shaving. (Some insist that they need to. We ignore them.) Some still kiss us goodbye at the bus stop. Some tell us nothing. Some tell us everything. Some are angry. Some are sad. Some are happy, genuinely happy, and this makes our hearts fill to spilling. When they’re sad, we think: how can we fix this?

They’re a hall of mirrors. We see ourselves, past, present and future. Secret hopes. Genetic legacies. Future possibilities. We love what we’ve always loved about them: their limbs draped over furniture. Their elephant tread above us upstairs. Their inadequate fibs. Their sudden and inexplicable questions at dinner. Their attempts at humor.

They crawled together, ate the same lint off the same floors, climbed dangerously around the same playgrounds, learned their math facts and watched the puberty video. They share clothes, eat each other’s food, see the same movies, mock the same teachers. They use the same skin products (though some need more than others), preen for the same inexplicable amounts of time in front of bathroom mirrors. They’ve played on the same teams since the dawn of time. Soccer, football, lacrosse, hockey, basketball. The fathers have coached them. They have nicknames for all the boys. The fathers tell them comic anecdotes about their own rebellious younger days. (One lit his bed on fire. One on a dare ate a mouthful of sand. One broke his arm jumping out of his neighbor’s window.) Fathers.

Years were taken off our lives during youth sports.

Years were taken off our lives during youth sports. Baseball almost killed us all, says one mother. A metaphor for life, says another: you do what you can to give them the rules of the world, and then you send them out on the field, and a high fly ball heads right toward him, your boy, and you can do nothing but watch from the sidelines. And don’t even talk to me about pitching, says another mother.

Our hearts broke watching our boys. Our hearts lifted watching our boys. We sat on our hands as coaches, usually husbands, yelled at our boys on the sidelines. (And they wonder what it is about mothers and boys. Someone has to balance the seesaw.) We’ve driven hours in silent, unhappy post-game cars. We’ve paid for hundreds of dollars’ worth of celebratory soft serve. (Thousands for cleats. And equipment. And team sweatshirts, T-shirts, hats, and warm-ups. And concession stand food. And 50-50 tickets. And those socks that all the guys are wearing.) We’ve watched their small, proud smiles as they come in after coming up with the line drive for the third out. We’ve learned what hot corner means, and a two guard, and a nickelback. We’ve learned what to cheer and how loud is too loud. Our faces have flushed when our fourth-graders have sunk the halftime buzzer-beaters to tie the game, and their grins sought us out in the stands. We’ve come home after dropped flies in the bottom of the ninth and taken our husbands into the other room, held a finger up to their faces and vehemently whispered, Do something. This is your moment. Be a dad.

We’ve dealt with sons told they won’t be in the starting lineup for the first game of the championship series, asked the coach about it. Been told it’s just about batting averages. If he hits better, he’ll move up. Explained what the coach said. Told our boys: Just do better. It’s an utterly unhelpful thing to say, but we haven’t always kept the impatience out of our voices. We’re the ones suffering the most, we’ve often thought. Why can’t our boys help out? Quit backing away from the plate? Swing through? Why don’t they just try harder? Be better?

And then there are the injuries. Slick gym floors. New sneakers. One boy slips, falling backwards, the sound of his head on the wood enough to penetrate the cacophony of gym acoustics. The ref gestures the other kids away (they all know to take a knee) and crouches near. The assistant coach, the boy’s father, joins him. The boy is not talking. His head is to the side, as if he’s listening to the floor. Something is draining from his ear. Mothers sit in the stands. We’re trained not to run out onto the floor like hysterics. We don’t talk to our boys when they’re on the bench or between innings. There are rules. The father searches the stands with his eyes. The mothers all lean forward. Come, he gestures, and the rest of us sink back, watching her make her careful way down the bleachers, thinking: Shit, and He’s not moving, and Thank God, it’s not my boy.

this is what it means to be the mothers. You’re a team of your own, ready to pull your weight, ready to play with pain, ready to leave it all on the field

Because this is what it means to be the mothers. You’re a team of your own, ready to pull your weight, ready to play with pain, ready to leave it all on the field, but you’re still looking for the end-to-end rush, gunning from three, still taking on four defenders yourself. It may be a team, but there are always standout players. One mother says she wants her son to look back and think: I had the best mother ever. The rest of us roll our eyes at her, exclaiming at her lunacy when she’s not around. But let’s not fool ourselves. If anyone’s walking away with the lifetime achievement award, we know who it will be.

Now the boys are 14 and done with youth sports. Now they’re ninth-graders. It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving, first day of basketball tryouts. There’s a new coach. There will be cuts. These are not boys who want Division I scholarships, though they’ll all tell you they’re going to Carolina. One, maybe two, might be recruited by Division III programs. One of them says he’ll play in the NBA and then be a famous writer. He asks his mother how many NBA players have gone on to be famous writers. Fewer than you’d think, she tells him, handing him his lunch.

These are boys who love high school sports. And this is basketball. They love basketball. They love the cut and chase of it, the speed, the hyperbolic myths about which of them almost dunked. The sound of the ball going through the hoop, one boy tells his mother, is such a perfect sound, the only thing that can describe it is the sound itself. And so, now, every day after the three days of basketball tryouts, we modulate our tones; we avoid eye contact as we ask what our boys want for dinner and then, as an afterthought, How’d it go?

How can we fix this, we think even later at night, after our husbands fall into sleep, exhausted with us.

We worry. We engage in hushed conversations with our husbands late at night in bed. Our boys think of themselves as athletes. They may be turning out to be less popular than they thought they’d be, less book smart. Afflicted with worse skin. Not as tall. What will happen if this, too, is taken from them? How can we fix this, we think even later at night, after our husbands fall into sleep, exhausted with us.

We carpool after tryouts and try not to let the boys know that we’re stacking them up against each other in our minds. That one plays the same position as that one. That one’s slower, but more aggressive. There are too many guards. If only he were big enough to be a small forward. We curse whatever’s been in our town’s water that has produced an abundance of boys. The girls’ team is out beating the bushes to get one set of starters together, let alone a varsity and a JV, 11 on each. But even hearing that, we’re thankful to be the mothers of boys.

Our boys reassure us. Settle down, they say. I’m working hard. I’ll be fine. (We don’t find this reassuring. We’ve seen their version of working hard.)

Our boys worry us. What if I don’t make it, they say in darkened bedrooms, their childhood nightlights glowing. I love basketball, they say. What if I don’t make it? They’re near tears. And our hearts batter against their cages while we keep our voices steady. You will. You will, we say, over and over, like a lullaby. And we rub their foreheads and their cheeks, like we used to when they were tiny, and we tuck the blankets up under their chins, and we kiss them goodnight, and tell them not to worry, that we love them for who they are, not what they do. We do what we can to help. And then we fall into our own beds for another sleepless night.

In the morning, while the boys move around upstairs, dressing for school after being called four times, we talk about it over coffee with husbands weary of the conversation, weary of us, weary of our excessive love for these boys. We trample the same ground from the same angles. We hold our cups with two hands and forget to pour one for our husbands. We lay out waffles with Nutella for our boys and call them a fifth time. We collapse our heads onto our husbands’ chests. Why can’t we just give them this? we ask. It’s a rhetorical question. Our husbands stroke our hair and rub circles on our backs. You can’t protect them from everything, they say. I know, we answer. Why not? we think. If they’re not good enough for the team, they’re not good enough, our husbands add. And whose fault is that? we think.

When we’ve been enraged with our boys, we’ve sometimes cursed at them, and they’ve turned to us, eyes wide with mock disbelief. What kind of mother, they ask, talks to their kid that way? And sometimes, if we’re really enraged, we go on: the kind of mother who got up early to make your lunch and your breakfast and to help you get your hair right and find your shirt. The kind who’s done two loads of sweaty boy laundry before you’re out the door to school. The kind who’s argued with your teachers over grades, and helped you study for quizzes, and endlessly replaced lost sweatshirts and water bottles. And paid for tutoring and extra training and coaching sessions. The kind who’s pushed and pulled and yanked you into the boy you are. And what have you contributed? What kind of boy won’t meet a mother like that halfway? What kind of boy won’t see what we’re going through? What kind has as his favorite thing to say to his mother: What’s wrong with you? Or, even worse: Get a life. What kind of boy says that in the face of all we’ve given and all we’ve suffered?

And one of us — me — explains for the millionth time to my husband that I know our boy is not going to be playing in college, except in intramural pick-up games, and I know he’s not going to be playing after college, except in driveways with his own sons. I just want to give him this. High school basketball, for chrissakes. JV. JV would be fine. The bench on JV would be fine. I know he’s not that good.

But my boy is in the doorway, and his expression is something I’m never getting rid of.

Oh honey, I say. And I reach toward him, but he ducks left and makes his way past me to the table.

My husband fills his own cup of coffee and leaves us to each other.

These are our boys, and we are the mothers, here to do what mothers do best.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Greg Jordan | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Photo: Getty Images

About the Author


Karen Shepard is a Chinese-American born and raised in New York City. She is the author of three novels, An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy’s Wife, Don’t I Know You?, and the forthcoming The Celestials. Her short fiction has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Tin House, and Ploughshares, among others. Her nonfiction has appeared in More, Self, USA Today, and the Boston Globe, among others. She teaches writing and literature at Williams College in Williamstown, MA, where she lives with her husband, novelist Jim Shepard, and their three children.

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