I love this week’s essay (featuring our April theme of “Life Lessons”) because the writer, Julianne Palumbo, beautifully describes a conundrum of parenting and I can’t stop thinking about her situation. What do we do when we want to tell our children to do something different from what’s considered the right thing to do? And who’s to say what the right thing is? She conveys the angst that we can feel when we get a teaching opportunity with our children – one that can be a huge life lesson. Oh, the pressure! Even after reading this essay multiple times, I still don’t know what I would have done in the same situation. I just hope that I would handle it with the same grace as the author did. – Allie
Perspectives from the Woodpile: Asking My Teen to Honor His Commitments
I am standing on our porch in front of the exhausted woodpile. The air bites my hands and face as I scavenge through chips and bark for burnable logs that I can throw into the fire to keep it warming. Although winter passed resentfully, if I close my eyes and listen, the birds sing a different story. I absorb the “berto, berto, berto” of the cardinal and pretend that spring is springing the way spring should be.
Open my eyes and I stare at the devastation that was our woodpile after five cords of wood warmed our house to a livable temperature. I squeeze my lids shut again. There’s a breeze that breathes both winter and spring into the air. It’s a game now, one I want spring to win.
So, too, tugs the debate I have been having with my teenage son. It’s about commitment, and there are two sides to the story. Mostly, I sympathize with his side, while I try to hold the line on mine. As of yet, neither one of us is winning. Two perspectives, both based in the unfairness of reality.
When my son was seven he fell in love with his sport. From that moment, it became the most important thing in his life, affecting how he spent his time, what he ate, and how much downtime he allowed himself. It was practice, practice, and more practice. My husband and I supported him, driving him over an hour to practices and traipsing around the East Coast for tournaments, because he was so dedicated and because having a goal gave him focus in everything he did.
Over the years, he played year-round. He would go to every team practice and every game, like the postman, without regard to weather, illness, or the homework brewing in his backpack. We gave up countless family events, trips, and down time to travel to games all over the East coast and sometimes beyond. Summer, too, was filled with camps and training.
As he got older, he failed to grow as quickly as other boys his age. He began to sit on the bench because of his small size, and players who never showed up to practice but who had greater physical strength but less skill would play over him. Still, he kept practicing.
Once he reached the teenage years, things went downhill. It took seasons before we realized that, despite promises and reassurances that he would be given a fair chance to perform because of his skill, his coach had another agenda that didn’t include him. He became frustrated by the unfairness. Players who never came to tryouts were still put on the team. Players who missed practices played over others who went. Rules were bent and broken, and some players, like my son, were given no opportunity to prove themselves.
After nine years dedicated to a sport that had given the actual beat to his heart, he decided to quit. The deep joy he had always felt when he touched the ball had turned to anger and frustration. He told his club coach that he did not want to play spring season. Unfortunately, my son was last in a list of boys who had expressed their desire to quit the team, and the coach needed him to stay for there to be enough players. This particular coach had been fair to him, and since he asked him respectfully to fulfill his commitment, my husband and I agreed that he should honor it. But, my son didn’t agree.
Hence my struggle. How do I argue with a seventeen-year-old who had done it all right, who had given his heart and soul to a sport only to have it stomped on and ripped out by coaches who cared nothing for earnestness or for his commitment? His hard work hadn’t paid off. Many of the adults involved had asked for an abundance of dedication on his part but had failed in their own commitments to be fair and to coach in a way that was best for the players. Now, my son was being asked to hold up his side yet another time.
I have never stood up so half-heartedly for something. He has never stood so strongly against something.
If ever I was at a loss for words to support my arguments, this was it. I couldn’t argue that commitment paid off. It hadn’t. In fact, it couldn’t have paid off less. I couldn’t argue that something good would come out of it, because there was no longer anything that he wanted from this sport. He just wanted to be free of it. That was his parting wish.
I could argue only that it was the right thing to do because a man has to live by his word. It was about the type of adult I wanted my son to grow up to be. But, as much as I believe that and have always tried to live and to teach it in all parts of life, it couldn’t have rung more hollow this time. I truly didn’t believe that he owed this sport anything. All I could think was, “commitment to what?”
To complicate matters, he recently started playing tennis on his high school tennis team. He loves it and is showing the same drive and dedication I had seen from him for so many years. Fulfilling his commitment would affect his tennis as often games overlapped.
After days of debate, we agreed to agree that he would fulfill his commitment to the extent he could without adversely affecting his grades and his position on the tennis team. This is where we have left it—someplace in the middle of—shouldn’t have to but will anyway.
While I think we are holding true to a lesson here, I’m truly not certain what that lesson might be. I keep reminding him when he reminds me how much he doesn’t want to waste the time to go to games, that something good always comes of giving of yourself. Maybe he will call on this experience some day when he’s an adult and he’s faced with something he doesn’t want to do. Maybe his being there will be a positive in someone else’s life.
But I can’t help wondering—will filling this commitment now make him more or less likely to want to fill commitments in the future? Would it even matter to his character if we let him walk away? With three almost-grown children, I feel I should know the answer to this by now.
The cool days plod on. I bang clumps of grass from his cleats. I pick tennis balls up off the lawn. The sun peeks a little.
Spring is winning.
Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories, and essays have been published in Literary Mama, Coffee+Crumbs, Kindred Magazine, Poetry East, Mamalode, Manifest Station, and others. She is the author of Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013) and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014), poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers. Her essay will be published in the upcoming HerStories Anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine for mothers by mother writers. You can find her here: http://www.juliannepalumbo.com https://www.facebook.com/JuliannePalumboAuthor https://twitter.com/JuliannePalumbo and http://www.mothersalwayswrite.com .
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