My seven-year-old son looks earnestly into my face, making sure I’m paying attention. We’re in the kitchen after his first Little League practice, and I’m trying to be completely focused on both his demonstration and the nutritious dinner I’m attempting to whip up in thirty minutes or less.
“Okay. Mom. First you grip.” He presses the baseball into his mitt, an old one of his father’s that he now bears proudly, even though it’s a bit too big. His movements are considered and slow, just right for a teaching moment. “Then you split—” He reaches his right hand back as if to throw, grasping the ball firmly, “—and then you switch.” His right knee comes up, just like the professional pitchers he sees on TV, and he mimes throwing the ball, arm straight toward the kitchen window, his body thrusting forward in a smooth arc. If we were outside, the ball would be across the yard. Once again I marvel at how graceful he is, knobby knees, puppy feet and all. Kinetic and lean, he’s aware of his body and in charge of it.
“Grip, split, switch, Mom.”
“Looks good, honey.”
The lesson over, he walks away, mouthing his new mantra to himself. I watch him pause next to the table and repeat the performance for his own benefit, and in a flash I see the next ten years of my life spread before me, a whirl of practices, games, and repeated, failed attempts to remove grass stains from white polyester baseball pants.
Of my two boys, this one tends to serial passions: In his short life he’s “studied” fire trucks, dinosaurs, and insects. Now it’s all baseball, all the time. He can list his favorite players and their positions on command and spends the free hours he’s not actually outside with ball and bat drawing baseball diamonds and his favorite team logos.
My husband and I, as well as various grandparents, aunts, and uncles, have been pitching to this child for more than two years now, whetting his appetite for the real deal. On an afternoon that he and I are playing catch, he likes to warm up by windmilling his right arm so hard that I’m often afraid he’ll dislocate his shoulder. He tries to be gracious when I’m pitching—my skills aren’t as consistent as Dad’s—because after all, Mom on the pitcher’s mound is better than nothing.
I’m excited for him, and proud he wants to give something new a try. But if parenting is a lifelong exercise called Pretending To Know What You’re Doing, my boy’s latest interest may do me in, and he hasn’t even reached double digits yet. I battle the nagging feeling that he’s going somewhere I can’t follow, and with it, the anxiety that our relationship won’t be able to accommodate this new phase.
I’ve felt this way before—you should have seen me when he started school. But this time, he’s beginning a new adventure that I haven’t had myself. As a kid, I was the one doing cartwheels at the far end of the field during P.E. My motto was You can make me suit up, but you sure can’t make me play. So not only do I lack experience with the joys of baseball in particular, but I also lack understanding of what often seems to me to be the male world of competitive sports in general. (Even now, I pride myself on not being able to comprehend a football game.)
Alternating between jealousy and relief, I watch my husband take on our boy’s new pursuit with enthusiasm. Even though my husband didn’t play team sports growing up either, he seems to have gained by some kind of osmosis not only sports skills, but also an impressive array of sports facts that he uses to regularly wow our son with his knowledge. Meanwhile, every time I read another cryptic email from the coach, written in baseballspeak that my husband has to translate for me, my stomach clenches. In my head I know that the fact that my boy is playing baseball doesn’t mean that he’s leaving the sweet confines of our mother-son bond forever for the brighter, bolder world of men. But my gut can’t figure it out.
The day before his first game we visit the local sports equipment superstore in quest for a cup, shuffling dumbfounded past racks of bats, helmets, hats in every color, gloves, socks, and mitts before we find the section we want.
“What does it do, Mom?” He eyes the package warily.
“It protects you, honey.”
“From stray balls, or something.” I say, distracted, as I scan for one in his size. Do I have to tell him he’s a Pee Wee? And do I really need to fork over $30 for this? I decide that my potential future as a grandmother could hang (ha!) in the balance. I fork over.
Back at home, I wrestle the thing out of its tightly sealed, adult-proof plastic wrapping and we stare at it together as if it’s an artifact from a futuristic, alien society.
“How do I wear it?” He wrinkles his nose.
“I guess the plastic part goes into these bike short thingys.” I hold up the shorts against his flat belly.
He tries the whole setup on, then grins wide. I can tell he feels like a big kid—a kid big enough, in fact, for his own cup. Then he does a silly dance all over the living room, reminding me that he’s still little, too.
As I’m putting him to bed that night, I ask him what he thinks the game will be like. He’s a little nervous about playing with people watching, he confides, his eyes sleepy, and suddenly I’m reassured, again, that I don’t have to worry. Even though my son’s starting an exciting new adventure, he still needs his mom. He snuggles further down under his covers and as I stroke the part of his fuzzy head still showing I get it. Grip. Split. Switch. Ah, yes. Words to live by, not only for kids who want to refine their ball skills, but also for mothers who are trying to help them grow up. Hold tight, let go. Grip. Switch. Then repeat, as often as necessary.