Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Mother of a Jock


Who would guess I would give birth to a jock? Malachi is not just any jock, but a captain of the team, four-sports-a-year, MVP-winning jock. I was sports-phobic, and would pray during gym class that the ball would not come to me. The only gym unit I liked was square dancing. And Malachi's dad had parents so protective he wasn't allowed to play Little League. We surrounded our kids with books and open-ended, non-sexist toys. Malachi grew up with older sisters, was dressed in pastels, and wore his hair long until he started school.

At birth, he was already athletically built, over nine pounds, with shoulders so broad it took an extra push to get him out after his head emerged. Even as an infant, one friend joked that he was the plutonium baby, so heavy, dense, and strong. As soon as he could walk, he started throwing balls and carrying sticks around. He was attracted to anything kinetic, and he had an innate sense of balance and coordination, teaching himself to ride a two-wheeler when he was four-years-old.

We didn't even start him in organized sports until he was ten, unlike many of his friends who began in preschool. We figured he was busy enough with school, cello lessons, and all-important play time.

Play, play, play, defined childhood in our home. We tried hard not to over program our kids. By the time they came home from our long commute from the Waldorf school, they just wanted to decompress, hang out, read, and play. But I could only keep Malachi at home for so long. One by one, his after-school friends defected to soccer practice. So we eventually relented and Malachi joined the local team. Then came baseball and basketball.

Meanwhile, seemingly overnight, he stretched from a round-cheeked, round-bellied boy to a tall, lanky, stringbean of a teenager. Within a few years, he was over six feet tall, and with great effort, filled out to 185 pounds. For high school football -- every mother's nightmare. I did not want to see him battered and bruised, yet I could not hold him back any longer. Since 8th grade it was clear he would be an asset to the team, and his friends were recruiting him hard.

When Malachi was a nursling, I was determined to hold off with solid foods for as long as possible. His sister had food sensitivities and allergies and I wanted to strengthen his constitution with exclusive breast-feeding for a prolonged period. But one day at the playground when he was six months old, he scooted over a picnic blanket to grab another child's peanut butter sandwich. He gripped it with both hands eagerly pulling it to his open mouth, and it took two mothers to pry it out of his hands while he screamed.

"Looks like he's ready for solid foods, mom," said my friend, the La Leche League leader.

Looks like he's ready for football, my inner voice told me, as I watched my baby bulk up with vigor and vitality. After weeks of insisting he play soccer instead, and answering his insistent "WHY?" over and over again, I broke down, and let him join the football team, already in session. Sure enough, he's a natural, playing like he's always belonged there.

There's something about football in the American culture. Even though Malachi's sisters are accomplished young women, you can't imagine the congratulations we receive as football parents. Crowds practically part before us. The high school principal comes over and shakes my hand after each game. It's nothing short of bizarre, this football idolatry. Our principal never personally congratulated me on my daughters' numerous accomplishments.

Of course, it helps that Malachi plays for Shorewood High School, better known for their stellar drama productions and award-winning orchestra than for their football program. In fact our football program is rather notorious -- for record-breaking losses. But the team has been making a slow comeback. A famous coach came out of retirement to lead the team, we merged with another small school to create a joint team, and the Shorewood-Messmer team has actually won some games, and had a book written about them by a local sports journalist.

And ever since the coach asked me to lead the players in yoga sessions, I feel a personal allegiance to them as well. All summer, I met with those big sweaty boys after their running and weight training to teach them asanas to increase flexibility and build strength and endurance. Stiff-kneed and slouching, they earned my respect and affection, despite my ambivalence about their sport.

But at the last game, Malachi, who just a few minutes before had run the ball 50 yards for a touchdown, was tackled hard by two players, when a third tackler rammed into his thigh. Luckily his thigh muscles held his knee in place, but his left hamstring tore. He heard a series of pops and fell to the ground, unable to walk.

I was visiting family in Korea at the time, but the email report from my husband the next day left me unnerved. Coincidentally, I had a minor hamstring injury in my left leg as well, as if in empathy from across the planet. Mine healed in two days, but Malachi's would take two months or more. Out for the season.

To say he's disappointed is to put it mildly. The team struggles without his leadership on the field, but he's watching from the sidelines -- a pseudo assistant coach. As trying as this injury is for Malachi and his team, I have to admit I'm a bit relieved. Varsity football is no peanut butter sandwich. It's very, very large Wisconsin boys running full force into each other. The hamstring injury is severe enough to take him out for the season, but mild enough to ensure that he will make a full recovery. And there's basketball, then baseball season, just around the bend.

My chiropractor friend says every time she gets injured, she learns so much more about her body, as if she's attended a seminar. As I was unwrapping the ice from his leg one day, Malachi, shared a similar moment of determination and insight.

"I'm going to get really strong," he said. "Not, like, beastly. But this is going to make me stronger."

Indeed. May it make me stronger too, so I can be the mother a young athlete needs as he matures into a young man.

Peggy Hong was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Hawaii and New York. She is the author of a poetry collection, Three Truths and a Lie (forthcoming, Water Press and Media); the poetry chapbooks Lies and Fables and The Sister Who Swallows the Ocean (CrowLadies Press); and a fine art letterpress book, Hoofbeats (Gokiburi Press). Poetry publications include Spoon River Poetry Review, Rhino, Bamboo Ridge, and Mothering magazine, among others. A graduate of Barnard College, she received a Master of Fine Arts degree at Antioch University with a dual concentration in poetry and fiction. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her husband and three children, ages 18, 16, and 13. She teaches at Alverno College and Woodland Pattern Book Center.

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Peggy, what a great column! It sounds like you're doing things right with Malachi, but I know I, too, would be flummoxed by an athlete in the family. Good luck!
Great essay. This resonates a lot with me as I watch, with some astonishment, as my six-year-old daughter loves soccer (and plays pretty well, too!) -- the sport that was nothing but a nightmare to me.
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