A house full of boys

June 11th, 2013

I didn’t have friends over to my house when I was a kid. We lived on a block with a fair number of children in a pretty close age range – on any given evening we could muster up to a dozen kids for kick the can or bloody murder. Summer afternoons my brother might play running bases with the boys from up the street, and I would play on the swing set in the neighbor’s back yard – and for a few years kids would come to the slide in our back yard, until the Blizzard of ’79 when our garage collapsed sideways from the weight of the snow and crumpled the slide. (My brother and I were getting older by then, and our parents didn’t replace it.) In the winter we went to the sledding hill or the ice rink. I often think of myself as having been a solitary child, but the more I think about it, the more I see it’s not so much that I didn’t have people to play with, it’s that I never brought friends over to my house.

It might be the first thing a child of alcoholics learns: having people over is a risky proposition. Bringing people home spontaneously especially so. This was never articulated or discussed; my parents did not forbid house guests nor did my brother and I agree to some pact in which we didn’t have friends over. There were not outward signs of chaos that we might have been ashamed of – my parents didn’t argue or shout more than the average harried parent might, the house was always clean, the yard always well-kept, the kitchen well stocked, our parents appropriately dressed, my brother and I had bedrooms that were nicely decorated and perfectly normal kids’ rooms, it all seemed pretty standard. But we knew, the way kids know such things, that it probably was not such a good idea to have friends over to play. Adult children of alcoholics reading this might understand that internal alarm bell, the sixth sense that picks up the invisible wrongness underneath the seemingly regular suburban home. Whatever it was, I had it.

The boys have friends over a lot, especially Small Boy. He’s finishing up his second grade year and has the type of long-standing friendships with kids now that Boychen, as a first year Kindergartener, only just is beginning to forge. Small Boy and his friends are also more independent – they can get to each other’s houses on their own and only have to ask for permission but do not need to be accompanied back and forth the way the 5 year olds do. So they arrange their own plays among themselves and then, at the last minute, remember to ask a parent if it’s okay. (Usually. Small Boy has been known to come home from the playground with an unannounced friend in tow. Saying they’re really hot and need popsicles.)

SB had two friends over yesterday afternoon (Mondays SB has afternoons free from school but Boychen has Kindergarten in the afternoon), and as the rain kept coming and going they ended up playing inside most of the time. They were loud and crazy and running from SB’s room to Boychen’s room shooting Nerf darts at each other. When the boys left (after shaking my hand and saying goodbye to me, because they’re good Swiss boys), I told SB that I like his friends. I do, actually. And I like that they come over here to play, and I like that the boys feel comfortable having their friends over. I like the wild rumpus of boys everywhere. As my parents’ daughter, as the adult who grew out of that kid with the sixth sense, it means a lot to me to see that my kids know their friends are welcome here.

It means that I am my parents’ daughter, but I am not my parents.

It means that my boys aren’t me.

It means that I need to stock up on popsicles.


Practice and play: the things we love and finding the line

December 3rd, 2012

SB has been invited to attend goalie training in addition to his regular hockey practices. I can’t say I didn’t see this coming: I’ve been keeping track of the number of times SB has been put in the goal on game day and I certainly haven’t failed to notice how very good at it he is for a kid who’s essentially untrained. When I watch SB skate as a field player, I see all the ways he’s improved, I notice the things he’s gotten good at, and I know just how much hard work has gone into that. He’s a good little player, and he comes by it honestly. It’s work, not native talent, that’s gotten him this far.

When I watch SB play as a goalie, I see all the ways he needs to improve, all the training he doesn’t have, all the specific goalie tricks and traits he needs to be taught – but I also see something that I don’t see when he plays forward or defense. I see that thing that can’t be described. I see what TrainerMan must have seen, that potential that made him put SB in the net in the first place. Now and then I see him do something that he should not yet know how to do. I see promise, the kind you never know if a kid will live up to it or not, but the kind that they either have or they don’t.

SB went to his first real goalie training last Monday, in the rain, on the far back rink where I couldn’t see him properly, and he had his first drill where players ring the goalie from four angles and take shots at him and he was good. Oh, he gave up his fair share of goals, believe me – I’m not saying he’s some amazing puck-blocking machine. But – there was something. Something about the way he stood, about the way he reset his body position so quickly, about the way he came forward, maybe about the way he wasn’t afraid, I don’t know exactly what it was. Something.

If you had asked me a year ago, when SB first started going in the net, what position I wanted SB to play, I would have said I wanted him to be a defenseman. He’s good at defense, he knows where to be and when to be there and I love watching him play. I would not have said goalie. In fact, I would have said I actively hope he doesn’t end up as a goalie. Now, though. Now I’d say something different.

Now I watch him play on the field and I watch him play in the net and I see this: I see goalie as the choice that carries the greater risk, but the potential for much greater reward. I think SB will always be a fine skater, he’ll do just fine, for quite a few years still, on the field. He’ll never be the best kid on the team, and he’ll never bring down the house. But he’ll be fine. He’ll have to work for every minute of ice time, but he’ll be okay. He likes to work at hockey. As goalie though. It might not work out, but it’s also the one position where I could see him end up being something truly special. I’d like that for him. It’s not that I want him to be a goalie, per se, it’s that I want him him to have faith in that something inside of him to follow where it leads.

It’s a great deal to ask of a seven year old, and I’m certainly not asking it of him right now. I’m keeping all this to myself and simply driving him to goalie practice and to regular practice and telling him time and again that he’s got two and a half seasons before he needs to really decide anything. To just get the goalie training and see how it goes. I don’t want to push too hard, I don’t want to scare him off, and I don’t want to turn hockey into a chore.

And yet. If it’s true, if he’s really got that something and this isn’t just a mother’s self-delusion – and I try very hard to be clear-eyed about my children and I’m fairly certain I’m not being delusional – then I want him to go for it, and going for it means turning the thing he loves – hockey – into a lot of hard work at a very young age. It’s a fine calibration, how much pressure is enough, how much is too much and most of all how much is too little. How hard to push, when to back off, when to listen to TrainerMan and when to listen to my child and when to listen to my heart.

It’s not that I want him to be great; I’m not hoping he’ll “make it.” It’s that I want him to believe he could be great, I want him to believe he could be the kid who “makes it.” It’s not that I want to raise a goalie, it’s that I want to raise a kid who chases his dream. I mean really chases it, with all the hard work and bruised shins and rainy day practices that entails. I’m keeping all this to myself right now, because I know SB and he’s a complicated kid who needs a light hand and because he’s seven and this is all too much for a seven year old.

But he might have something. And if he does, in my secret mom heart I want him to walk the harder road. I’m starting to believe it’s the right road for him. The risky road. How do I help him be brave enough to choose it?

This is why

September 10th, 2012

It’s dark when I wake on Sunday morning, dark when I slip into the shower, keeping it short before the sound of the water wakes Boychen. It’s dark when SB stage-whispers “Hello, Mama” to let me know that he is awake even before I need to wake him. It’s dark when I make coffee in the kitchen behind the closed door and tip-toe around the stove scrambling eggs for the Small Boy, hoping we don’t wake anybody. It’s just turning light as I pour black tea into my thermos, hand SB a piece of bread for the car ride, grab my to-go cup of coffee. It’s 6:35 on Sunday morning when we get in the car, the Small Boy and I, shutting our doors softly.

Sonnenaufgang, sunrise.

Hockey today, eight 21-minute games starting at 7:45. The players need to be in the locker room by seven. We’re lucky this time, the tournament is in a neighboring town. We can sleep in a bit, take the time to scramble eggs and eat at the table rather than eating peanut-butter roll-ups in the car.

I do this, bleary eyed, joke-complaining with the other parents in the stadium restaurant at 7:05, because when Small Boy gets on the ice he is ten feet tall. He’s not the best player on the team, he’s not one of those stand-out kids who you can’t help but watch, shaking your head in a kind of wonder (although he’s turning into a mighty impressive goalie). He’s right where he needs to be, safely slotted in the upper-middle, better at some things than at others. But this boy, when he plays hockey, this boy of mine makes me shake my head in a kind of wonder. I can’t get over it, I love to watch him play, watch him discover himself.

This boy of mine, at sunrise.

The seven year itch

April 30th, 2012

No, not that one. But the Small Boy isn’t so small anymore, he’s seven and a half, and at four and a half the Boychen could drop the diminutive -chen any day now, and I’ve been a stay at home mom for all that time. I’ll be honest, there are days when it itches. Not a little I’m-tired-of-having-to-tell-you-three-times-to-put-on-your-shoes itch – though there is that; the repeating myself, it gets old – but a big I’ve-got-this-really-exciting-thing-I-want-to-do-and-not-enough-time-to-do-it itch. The kind of itch that makes me impatient with my children and not always the best mother. The balance, after seven and a half years, has tilted pretty far off in one direction; there’s always a boy at home because remember the Swiss school hours? Oh, the Swiss school hours.

I’m hoping that it goes without saying that I love my boys. But at this point, I could use a little breathing room. In fairness, R has proposed getting a nanny or au pair – we would have the space – but my whole problem is that the way my personality is constructed I need time alone, oh just alone in my house, and the thought of having another person in the house – well, I suspect it would introduce as much stress as it would relieve. (I’m keeping the idea in my back pocket, though…) Mostly, I’m holding out on any decisions like that until the fall, after the Boychen has been in Kindergarten for a while and I can see how much having those four mornings all to myself help. My thinking is, they will help a lot. Four mornings a week, that’s an embarrassment of riches around here, people.

Here’s the other thing that’s made the past month or so seem hard, made the past month seem like the boys are always on top of me: there’s no hockey. In spite of my complaining about the schedule, in spite of having to set an alarm for 5:35 on a Sunday morning to make it to a tournament, turns out I really miss the hockey. I miss the way it gave me a few hours to be something other than Mama, I miss the way it forced me to make friends with the other parents, I miss the way watching the Small Boy perfect his imitation of David Jobin’s defensive moves makes me smile (the boy has a good head for defense, I tell you). Crazy and all-consuming as it can be in the peak of the winter, I miss it.

It all comes down to balance, doesn’t it? Feeding all the different parts of you. Constantly checking in on your own life to see what is there and what is missing and what is hungry and what is flabby. Assessing, calibrating. I’m out of balance right now, but August is just around the corner.

Sometimes, the hockey rink is like a time machine

January 13th, 2012

So one thing that’s interesting about spending all this time around hockey rinks is that in the coming and going with Small Boy and Boychen we cross paths with most of the other age groups. SB plays Bambini hockey – officially Bambinis have 2004 and 2003 birth dates though SB is one of seven kids one his team who are younger than that. After this season, he can legally play another two seasons of Bambini hockey before he ages into the next group, the Piccolos. Then he’ll get two seasons in that age group before he ages up to the Moskitos. The “Mosi’s” practice right after SB on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we see them running drills as we’re leaving. It’s hard to believe they’re twelve and thirteen; a handful of them are just one helping of steak and potatoes away from being as tall as their coach. I suppose right about twelve and thirteen is when the testosterone starts kicking in and they start shooting up and filling out, getting real muscles and broad shoulders; but before practice I can see  them screwing around, throwing snowballs at each other and stealing each other’s hats and they’re still very much boys. Just bigger.

Thursday nights the hockey school practices in the arena where the pro team plays, and hockey school overlaps with practice for the Junior Elites – the last step before a kid tries to make it in professional hockey. They’re 17, 18, 19 year old boys – men – and while I’m on the ice with the little kids the Elites are running their warm ups in the stadium. They run the stairs, playing a game of follow the leader where the first boy in line sets the drill: sometimes they run up as fast as they can touching every step with the balls of their feet, sometimes they jump up two steps then back down one then up two again, sometimes they run up on every other stair, sometimes they hop up on one leg. However they do it, it’s full gas to the top, then they jog over to the next aisle and down to get back in line to run the stairs again. These boys aren’t kids anymore, even if they are seventeen – if a kid is still in the SCB program by the time he ages into the Junior Elite level, he’s hands-down one of the best youth hockey players in the country. Those boys aren’t kidding around anymore, they’re looking to play professional hockey. Period.

I see these guys around the rinks, various versions of the future Small Boy – SB at twelve, SB at fifteen, SB at eighteen – and it’s disconcerting and exciting and mildly terrifying to imagine SB morphing into a big boy and then a man. It’s not the hockey I’m talking about here, I’m not imagining SB playing Junior Elite hockey, it’s just the vision of him tall and broad and muscular that’s hard to reconcile with my long stretched out boy of tendon and bone and high child’s voice. Somehow seeing these hockey players on a regular basis, and seeing them in their stair-step age groups, makes them more real to me than the fifth graders I see around town or the teenagers who take the train to school and work in the city. I know exactly how old those hockey boys are – the kids who take the ice Tuesday after SB have 1999 – 2002 birth dates – and I know exactly how far away SB is from looking like those boys. If I squint my eyes and tilt my head when the Mosis drill, it’s like seeing a vision of the future.

It’s like this, the now and the then in the same frame, and the staircase between them suddenly so unbearably short:


December 13th, 2011

So, here’s an SMS you never want to get from your husband who you know has taken your son to the ER after a really hard (illegal, unnecessary, infuriating) hit in a hockey game: “SB’s pupils are normally the same size aren’t they?”

“As far as I know. Never noticed otherwise.” you message back. “Why? Are they not the same size now????”

“Nope.” comes the reply “one is larger – the left one – but could just be the light.”

At which point the only thing you can manage to type back is “What the FUCK?”

* * *

One of the small blessings of living right next door to R’s parents is that when this series of messages flew two weekends ago, my mother-in-law was able to walk across the driveway to take over putting The Boychen to bed and I packed a bag with some stuff for R and some stuff for SB – who was clearly going to be held overnight for observation – and drove to the hospital.

* * *

I’ll cut to the chase and say now that SB is okay. It was “just” a concussion; in spite of the most thorough opthalmological exam I’ve ever witnessed and a head MRI, no reason was ever found for SB’s unequal pupils. Here’s another thing you don’t really want, by the way: to watch over the technician’s shoulders as picture after picture of your son’s brain comes up on the screen. Pictures that you can’t read, and so you watch the tech’s body language instead, waiting for the widened eye, the sudden tilt of the head. It doesn’t come, but that doesn’t really make you feel any better until your kid is pulled out of the machine.

* * *

I’ve tried to write this a few times, it’s always a mess, brief paragraphs are the best I can do. Not even seven, a concussion, and though I know hockey players who have played for years and never gotten concussions, I find myself thinking “his first concussion” as if I expect more.

* * *

These recent articles in The New York Times about Derek Boogaard have not made me feel any better.

* * *

Trying to enforce a Sport-Verbot on a nearly seven year old physical boy used to playing hockey three times a week is not easy my friends. Not easy at all. SB has hated missing practice, hated being kept out of gym class at school, hates that I won’t let him play hockey in the driveway. The idea of being calm, and quiet and restful – it sort of makes him break out in hives I think and as a result his behavior at home has been … challenging.

This past Sunday was the Christmas party for SB’s team: a kids v. parents hockey tournament and then an early dinner. It was two weeks after the concussion, the earliest the doctors said he could start back with sports, and we thought it would be a good time to see how he feels – the tournament would be friendly and I would be right there on the ice to keep an eye on him. He played all three games and said he felt okay, but at bedtime he had a headache. He’s back on Injured Reserve and skipping training this week.

I played on the moms’ team and had the best time. I’ve been skating these past couple of years, but not playing hockey and this was hockey, with the full equipment, and even though it was a friendly match against the kids don’t be fooled: seven and eight year old boys play for keeps. They ran us hard. I still skate well, and I’ve got some game sense, but no puck handling skills at all; but I had so much fun that if I could somehow manufacture an additional twelve hours a week (stop laughing) I would run right out and join an adults’ recreational league because I had that much fun.

* * *

This is my new favoritest picture ever of me and the Small Boy. Look at that smile, do you think he was happy to be on the ice again? For all that hockey is a hard, physical, capricious and sometimes violent sport, anything that makes my boy smile like that has a place in this family. At least for now.


September 17th, 2011

Both boys wake earlier than they do on a weekday. The Small Boy sneaks to the bathroom, I can feel him trying to be quiet, but Boychen knows he is up and calls to his brother. He always wants his brother to be the one to open the door to his room, help him get out of bed. Small Boy goes to get him and they stay in the Boychen’s room, with the door closed, playing – horses, I think, from the sound effects; later, cars. This, then, the sweetness.

* * *

I am making pancakes when they start squabbling with each other in the living room; I let it go, giving them the space and time to figure out how to deescalate things themselves, but it goes in the other direction. Boychen hits the Small Boy, and I give him a two-minute penalty for unnecessary roughness, and Boychen tells me he doesn’t like me. I don’t like you, Mama! I’m sorry to hear that, I say, I still like you. But it stings.

* * *

Five minutes later they are happily putting together a puzzle of the United States. They finish it themselves, then come eat pancakes. Small Boy eats four. My mother used to joke that my brother, the hockey player, had a hollow leg. Yes, it would seem so. Boychen, the child who survives somehow on air and goldfish crackers, eats a respectable two. They drink their milk, ask if they are allowed to watch TV. The yelling, the hit, the penalty: forgotten

* * *

What will they remember from these teeter-totter childhood days? The horses and the puzzle, or the squabble?


September 16th, 2011

Not, mind you, that it’s all sweetness and light around here. The same boy who can so impress me on the ice can drive me to distraction around the house. Don’t think, for example, that he doesn’t ignore his brother and pretend to be asleep when the Boychen comes to wake him up for school, ignoring him and ignoring him even as the Boychen’s distress grows, ignoring him as Boychen cries and grows ever more hysterical until it takes us twenty minutes to calm Boychen down enough to be able to eat breakfast. For example. That casual disregard for Boychen’s feelings – I don’t know how to talk about it (nor do I like to, here) and I don’t know what to do about it. It’s jealousy and sibling rivalry and some days I’m at my wits’ end. It is Boychen-specific and inconsistent. They can be adorable brothers together, and especially when we are out in the world, in museums or on playgrounds, Small Boy can be quite protective of his little brother. At home he can play perfectly well with his little brother or he can suddenly be… unkind.

And yes, I’ve read Siblings Without Rivalry although I suppose it’s time to read it again. In all my spare time. Actually I can read it next week, in the evenings, when I have nothing to do because R will be away on a business trip to the States.

And can somebody please tell me how it came to be the middle of September? And am I the only one wondering what has happened to the year?

Diving and driving

July 27th, 2011

I finally enrolled Small Boy in swim classes last week. We’ve always gone “swimming” – when he was a toddler he splashed around in the baby pool and when the Boychen was old enough to go into the baby pool the Small Boy was happy enough to stay in the little kids’ pool with his brother. Small Boy tolerates water, but I wouldn’t say he takes to it (the Boychen, now, he takes to it – I think swimming will be his thing the way hockey is the Small Boy’s thing), but he’s six and a half now and has already been to his first swimming pool party (the infamous party he left early in order to make hockey training on time) and couldn’t keep up with the other kids, who were jumping off the diving board and going into the pool without water wings. Strictly speaking, Small Boy doesn’t know how to swim – because I never put him in lessons.

Until last Monday, when I enrolled him in a vacation swim course for total beginners (and am very very grateful that there was another boy his age in the group so that he wasn’t the only almost first-grader in a class full of four year olds). He had classes every day for a week and at the end of the week he earned his first level badge, which basically means he jumps off the side of the pool into the water and puts his head under water – he’s still far from swimming. But he did it, and slowly came to enjoy it, and today he was retrieving objects from the bottom of the pool. Okay, it’s only one meter down but this is a pretty big step for a boy who tries to keep his head dry in the shower.

Unfortunately I signed him up for the summer vacation lessons so late that the next level classes are full for the rest of vacation; I’ll have to find something that meets once a week after school. Part of the reason I haven’t gotten him into lessons before now is that I try not to over-schedule him; he’s got hockey twice a week and I think that’s already rather a lot for a six year old boy. There is school, and there are playdates, and there is kid-time: I think there is a great deal to be learned from the throwing of rocks, the burying of mice, and the observing of frog eggs, to say nothing of the pure enjoyment factor, and I don’t want him to spend his days getting shuttled from one lesson to another. (Nor, to be honest, do I want to do that much shuttling.) But there are things besides hockey that he needs to learn, like swimming (he doesn’t need to be great at it but he needs to be competent enough that I can send him to a swim party without worrying) and things that he wants to learn, like tennis (I’m not sure where that came from, but he’s suddenly very interested in tennis), and these things are going to have to fit into the schedule somewhere. All while letting him take an hour to walk home from school, picking up every rock, feather, and flower that captures his imagination.

And the Boychen will have his own interests – he already enjoys the water more than Small Boy and is more comfortable in it, and I want to keep going with that while the enthusiasm is there. He wants to ride a proper bicycle. He likes music and would probably enjoy a music class. He also likes riding in the tractor with Grossvati, and walking in the woods with his Grossmutti, and puttering in the garden – he is a wonderful putterer – and doing anything with the Small Boy and I genuinely believe in not over-scheduling them because yesterday we walked in the woods and we spied a bird’s nest and when I held my camera-phone at just the right angle and took a picture we discovered that there was an egg in there and now there is the daily visiting of the nest to listen for the sound of a hatchling.

And I would hate to not have time for that in our day.

Why cycling is a metaphor for parenting

July 19th, 2011

You teach them a few fundamentals and let go. They head off down the road without you.