On a hot summer morning, I walk stealthily from my car to the covered pavilion in between two rows of tennis courts at the front of the park.
I make sure to approach from a particular direction, keeping the small trees and bushes between me and the courts so I remain unnoticed. I sit on a weathered green bench attached to a picnic table. I disrupt a squirrel’s meal and, startled, it scampers away to safety.
I’ve given up some things to be a stay-at-home parent — career, money, a large swath of my sanity — but moments like this make the sacrifice worth it. Quiet moments of secretive observation like this are why I am most grateful for my life choices and the privilege that allows me to make those choices.
This is when I stop thinking about all things I could be doing and appreciate what I am doing. I’m experiencing my children’s childhood and that matters.
My two sons, ages 5 and 7, go to tennis camp during the summer at the county park just around the corner from our house. Tennis has been an important part of my life since I started playing when I was 7. My interest and commitment have ebbed and flowed over the years, but it remains a part of who I am. As sports go, it was unique enough that I took it on as part of my personality when I was growing up. Plenty of kids played baseball or basketball, but I played tennis! And as I grew into an adult, as my life changed and took me in different directions, tennis remained my touchstone. A link to my past and something I could rely on to be there in my future.
However, while tennis is an important part of my life, my children are my world. I love watching them do anything. Well, almost anything. I don’t particularly enjoy watching them watch people playing Minecraft on YouTube, even though they wish I did. I love watching them on the playground or playing soccer. I love seeing them test their limits and exist in a world that’s not controlled by me.
As parents, we can cast a long shadow on our children’s lives. That’s why I love observing my children when I’m not in charge. When I’m not expected to play along. When they don’t even know I’m there. Like today.
My 7-year-old appears to be carrying on a continuous running commentary as he and the three other children on his court retrieve orange-and-yellow tennis balls from the cart, drop them, and then hit erratic forehands that fly in all directions. I can’t help but chuckle because he is so different from me in some ways and I love it. I worry about my children inheriting my anxieties and shyness, so I’m always pleased when they show signs of having more outgoing personalities.
Two courts over, my 5-year-old is playing a slightly unusual game with the three other children in his group. He is holding a circular white laundry basket while his partner, a blonde-haired boy with knee-high socks, drops and hits oversized red-and-yellow tennis balls for him to catch. As the balls fly wildly through the air or bump along the ground, he scampers in every direction with his laundry basket in tow. He is determined, energetic, eager and, perhaps most importantly, very ready to take on some light laundry duties at home.
I, like many other moms and dads, often get lost in the weeds when parenting. We spend our days struggling to keep our children fed and cleaned and mentally stimulated (but not overstimulated!) and physically active and happy and on and on. Meanwhile, we often forget to step back to get a broader view.
I often wonder, “How are my children really doing?” Sure, we get the report cards and messages from teachers, the odd tidbit from an acquaintance or friend. That helps us ascertain some of what goes on when we’re not around. But what’s the real story of their everyday lives?
So I’m lucky when I get to spend a few minutes each week, silently and covertly, watching my children play the sport I love. It might not seem like much, but it’s just what I need to keep me focused on what really matters. I spend a lot of time worrying about what I’m not doing, like making money or policing my kids’ screen-time effectively or making my kids eat enough vegetables. I’m not doing so many things, but all it takes is a few minutes of quiet observation for me to remember that I must be doing some things right.
My children have unique personalities that are constantly evolving. They are happy and loved. And by the looks of things, at least one of them is going to be helping out with the laundry very soon. But best of all, I get a front-row seat to watch it all happen. Even if that seat is sometimes hidden behind tree branches.