We are driving to my son’s soccer game, and my husband eyes him in the rearview mirror. “How many goals are you going to score today?” he asks. He is doing what has become a bit of a pre-game motivating ritual. Usually the answer is bursting from Wally Ben’s lips before the question is done being asked. “2!” he might say. Or on an especially exciting day, maybe when breakfast has included some syrup, “10!!”

So we are both surprised when he says meekly, “None.” I look back and register the flat look on his face and that he—who usually finds 10 ways to bug his sister every minute when we’re in the car—has been unusually quiet the whole ride.

“What’s wrong?” I ask. At the same time I remember why this game is different. We are returning to the town where we used to live, so a number of his old friends will be on the other team. While he starts listing all the people on the opposing team who he considers better than him, I turn to study him. Shoulders slumped, tired eyes, dreary tone. He is a boy defeated, before we’ve even pulled into the parking lot.

I never played soccer.

I take that back—I did play soccer when I was Wally’s age. But I grew up in a small town, so in order to complete a team it had to be co-ed and with kids that were two years older than me. My only memories involve having the wind knocked out of me by soccer balls blasted at my gut. That, and that one time I actually had the ball and was kicking it down the field and the crowd was roaring. It was such a thrill! Until I discovered they were yelling, “You’re going the wrong way!”

Because of these experiences, I never enjoyed soccer. I now realize, though, that I just didn’t understand it. Now, after seeing how the game is played and all the mind games and intricacies and skill involved, I am hooked. It is an amazing, exciting game that gets better and better each year Wally advances through it.

Because I have no past connection, I am amazed when I watch Wally Ben play. It is a pride that I am unashamed to have—I believe this is because I can take absolutely no credit for his skill. My pride is totally unassociated with my own sense of self. It is a pride that helps me to understand the human experience of wonder and awe. The kid is a kid that is mine, but these skills had nothing to do with me. He is 9, and he is way better than I will ever be. As I watch him, I think, how does it feel to be him, to move that fast, to assess the other team while you are also trying to control the ball and make split second decisions about what’s next?

Let’s take this back a few paces—he is not the next David Beckham. He is a pretty good player for his age. We know tons of kids who are far better than him. He is naturally fast—he passed me up in speed when he was around 2. To be clear, this isn’t a high bar to compare speed with, but still, a 2-year-old! And my husband (who played in college and can take all the credit for what we are seeing out there) has taught him some skills—proper form when shooting, good positioning, how to use his body to keep the ball from other players. At the same time, if he wasn’t yours, you may not notice him playing in some games. He is not inspiring awe in everyone. My awe is certainly based in my motherly bias.

Knowing this, though, doesn’t invalidate my experience of the awe. When he does something that amazes me, I understand the phrase “swell with pride.” I watch him play, and joy pushes at my heart and my shoulders and my head from inside. He’s mine! I want to scream when he does something good. He belongs to me!

Back to the car ride to the game, to the boy who has already lost himself to nerves before the opening buzzer. I know him, I think. I love his brain, which is so incredibly literal. He has been known to get down about losing and give up. But sometimes, when he has made a major change in his mood in the past and righted that bad, unsportsmanlike attitude, he has self-described it by saying, “I flipped the switch.” I can help him flip this one.

IMG_7034While I never truly played soccer, I do know what it feels like to get nervous. I launched into a litany about nerves. Meanwhile, my husband starts doing the same, drawing from his own experiences and approaches to big games.

“What did you think I felt before I went on stage and the curtain was about to open, Wally? Nerves!” I say.

“Do you think I ever was the best player out there? No. I just knew I could outdo them with effort,” my husband says.

“I could have taken those nerves and gotten scared and abandoned everything, right? But I didn’t!” I add.

“You know you can run fast, use your strength, and play the hardest of anyone out there,” my husband adds.

“I channeled that nervous energy! I turned it into something better!” I continue.

“Do you like playing, Wally? Just go out there and think of how fun it is to take the challenge!” my husband concludes.

We finish by saying what we say every game. We don’t care if he wins, or if he makes mistakes. We just want him to try his hardest, and to have a good attitude whether winning or losing.

I look back, expecting a signature Wally smile. Expecting some righting, some strengthening of this very sad creature we were about to send onto a field where he would certainly be stomped. But no—our time is up, we are pulling into the parking lot, and he looks as crumpled as an origami crane that was just handed to a two-year-old. We park, walk into the building, and it feels like I am tossing that crane on the field while saying Fly little bird, fly!

Since we were unable to get through, I feel powerless. I obviously cannot step onto the field and play for him. And as well as I know him, apparently I can’t even help him to flip the switch. What good am I?

The game starts, and I sit by some of my old friends. “Arg, couldn’t Wally have been sick today?” an old neighbor and parent from the opposing team says. He practically is, I think.

But then I see him on the field, going after the ball. This was no crumpled crane! Here he is! He plays with full energy, controlling the ball and making himself a factor in the momentum of the game. He hadn’t scored at all this season, but 15 minutes into the game, he has a prime opportunity. He misses, but it seemed to motivate him to come back even harder. At one point, he is taking the ball across the middle of the field and a huge player from the other team is in front of him. The other player falls off balance slightly, and Wally takes the opportunity to do what his dad had taught him and use his body. His shoulder knocks the other player back like a pine tree during logging season. A bad call by the ref makes it a foul on Wally. I’ve never been prouder.

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Later in the game, he has a strong breakaway. He lines up his shot, and blasts it. I remember the ball hitting the net and his teammates cheering, but what I remember most is the moments just after. He circles around to return to his side of the field and happens to turn toward me. His smile is so big, so bright, such a contrast to his melancholy face in the car, such a manifestation of the upwelling of joy I feel that tears fill my eyes.

I’ll remember that smile forever.

Now, days later, I replay the scene of him knocking that kid on his tail and take an overmeasure of happiness from it. And I see and see again that smile.

But I also see us in the car, trying so hard to get through. I see it anew, though, and realize we had fallen into a classic parenting mistake—something I’ve tried all of my kids’ lives to get over. Something I believe is one of the hardest parenting tendencies to grow out of. Something I’ll probably continue to struggle with, but that I hope I can eventually learn. Because in learning it, I’ll find so much freedom. The mistake is this: I was seeing Wally and his feelings as mine to fix. I saw them as my problem, as connected to my body. I was tangled up in his emotions, in times I’ve felt the same way, in how I could hold him as he struggled with those nerves and tether myself to him, really, and pull him through the struggle by using my experience and wisdom and memories. I wanted to struggle for him, so he wouldn’t have to.

But all of my kids lives I’ve noticed something: feelings cannot be erased, and they are not better when experienced together. They get all tangled up, knotted, harder to work through when you try to take them away from someone by stepping in and feeling for them. Erasing a feeling for someone is not empathy. And it cannot be done.

Instead, I need to have actual empathy—which would be to acknowledge his humanity, and say that what he is feeling is normal. Our messaging probably sounded a lot like “Don’t be nervous,” when it should have said, “I bet you are nervous to play against your old friends.”

To do this, I need to learn to see him and his feelings as separate from me. He is his own human being. (If his soccer skills don’t prove that, I’m not sure what does.) It sounds obvious to say it—he is a human—but it is hard to remember it when I want to do the hard stuff for him. But whenever I can see him like that, I can stop feeling entangled by his nerves, his fears, his sadness—and instead, we both get such incredible freedom. He gets the chance to be human, and to overcome what needs overcoming. And to feel his way through what needs feeling.

And I get to be in awe as I watch him find his way. I get to be in awe as I watch him struggle with humanity. I get to be in awe as I watch him grow up.

This is something he understands much better than me. I asked him after the game how he did it. “What did it feel like,” I asked, “when you stepped out onto the field? What were you thinking?”

“I just decided to forget everything you guys were telling me,” he said. “And then I played.”