The kids got out of school three weeks ago. Since then we’ve taken them to one grandmother, I spent a long weekend in Pittsburgh with my friends, and we are now preparing to take them to visit more grandparents. Put all this in combination with the reduced amount of time available to write and I haven’t been able to get anything together for a while now.
Of course that doesn’t mean things haven’t been happening that are worth talking about. We’ve been to museums. We’ve played on the playground with school friends and hashed over the dynamics of who got in to the accelerated program and who didn’t. We’ve been to hipster festivals and faced the contradictions of being old and being cool. We’ve had dinner with friends and come home wondering when we’ll ever let our children go to someone else’s house without one of us coming along. We’ve changed our naptime to rest time and have reaped the benefits of a happier afternoon Polly. Each of these was worth more than one sentence and maybe in a quieter time I’ll come back to them.
Today, however, I wanted to write about the challenges that having kids constantly presents to what we know about ourselves. As a person, I have a well-established sense of what I believe about the world and what values should - in general - guide my choices. Until I had children I didn’t have to think about these things too much because I moved within worlds that only challenged my values sporadically. Now, however, I feel as if Pip and Polly bring such challenges to me almost every day, from deciding how much candy I’m willing to let them have to what clothes they should wear to how much roughhousing is too much. In the process I’m constantly surprised about which choices I actually make and the unrealized assumptions that underlie them.
In the last three weeks I have stumbled into two moments in particular where this dynamic between what I thought I knew about myself and what I actually do has been brought into contrast.
The first came during a hike the kids and I took two weekends ago. We went out to a gorge about an hour outside of town that has a wonderful array of sandstone arches, rock shelters, and little creeks and spent a full morning going working our way across a ridgeline, down to a creek, along the gorge floor, and then back up past a huge arch. The whole loop was about three and half miles long and to keep the kids interested I gave them a pretty free rein to run up ahead and explore. When the path made it down to the little rocky creek it did so in this beautiful spot where the creek curved in a large arc and the space between was filled with large old-growth trees and soft beds of pine needles. The kids wanted to play in the creek, hopping along its banks and pulling up rocks to throw into the deeper pools, but I hesitated. When out in the woods we try to practice Leave No Trace hiking. We stay on established trails. We pack out our trash. We don’t bring rocks home with us. By doing this we hope to preserve the wild spaces we travel through for others to enjoy as we did.
Certainly, tearing up rocks from a creek bed qualifies as leaving a trace. Not only that, if every group that came through that spot tore up rocks and splashed them in the pools it would distinctly change, if not ultimately destroy, the very thing about that spot that made it wonderful. At the same time, I want Polly and Pip to enjoy being out in the woods. I want them to see it as a living place where they can explore and learn about the world and themselves. If we treat the woods as a pristine place where things cannot be touched and moved around, where we can only walk and look then they become as sterile and distant as a museum. Loving the woods is as much about getting dirty, feeling the wind in one’s hair, experiencing the rain on your skin, hearing the crunch of things around you, feeling mud between your fingers. To not fear the woods you have to touch it.
So I let them play and splash and run and laugh. They wound up with wet shoes and mud stained clothes and very large smiles. I’m not sure it was the right decision in the grand scheme of public preservation, but I know it was the right decision for our family’s further interest in going out into the woods.
The second moment of political difficulty involves playing soccer. Polly enjoyed playing soccer this spring and is interested in continuing to play this fall. The league in which she would play has a co-ed division and an all-girls division posing an interesting gender dilemma. Ava is inclined towards the former arguing that she (and the boys) would benefit from having her in there working and battling side-by-side. She would conceivably have to fight more for her place in this environment, but Ava felt like this was an important aspect of the world for her to learn to handle. By the end of the spring season I was leaning the other way. In joining an all girls league I felt as if Polly will get more time to handle the ball during games and will probably find more immediate success. I felt as if this would lead to her enjoying the game more in general and might incline her to continue playing longer. Throughout the season I felt as if the girls on the team deferred to the boys or waited for them to do something on the field before following along.
While we haven’t yet made a final decision (Polly has raised the possibility of doing gymnastics but hasn’t yet indicated which shed select), I have come to the realization that Ava is right. Polly should be in the co-ed league. More importantly, I am finding that my observations about the girls’ experiences on our team may have been more colored by certain mistaken assumptions than I understood. The two older girls on the team were a year younger than the oldest boys. When I think back over the season and compare those girls to the boys who were their same age instead of too all the boys, the picture that emerges looks different that I originally thought. The younger players, boys and girls, were always having to claw the ball away from the older ones. Age was the great divider, not gender. The seven year old girls were doing all the same things as the seven year old boys. Their skill levels and strength levels were equivalent. Their successes and failures were all very similar. Even their relations to the kids who were older and younger were largely the same. I was just seeing the girls’ frustrations with the older players through the wrong lens.
Raising children is eternally humbling. It is forever revealing things about me that I never fully understood. Some of these things are wonderful and some of these things are roundly disappointing. Either way, it’s quite an education in itself.