By C. A. Schmidt
Issue 143 - July/August 2007
"Mom," said Gabriel, wielding a plastic sword, "can I have a crown?" My son is four years old and fancies himself a knight.
It was a Monday in late spring, a rare weekday morning at home together. Squelching my first instinct, which had been to nip over to Party City for something cheap and plastic, I offered to make the crown myself.
Gabriel looked at me dubiously. Even he knows that crafts are not my forte. But I'm a single mom who's developed a few tricks. I can manage stuck gates and stopped-up toilets—why not a crown?
"Go get your St. George book," I told him. "I need a model." He raced up the stairs with a whoop of glee.
The book's lavish illustrations of St. George and the Dragon lit my maternal fires. I would make my son a crown, and a shield as well. A St. George's shield.
The two of us set to work. Gabriel helped cut the poster board. "Up..." he murmured, his scissors following my penciled outline of a crown. "Down . . ."
I covered the cutout in aluminum foil while he snipped red and green construction paper. Together we glued rubies and emeralds onto the crown, then turned to the shield: white poster board pasted to a piece of cardboard. Gabriel helped me color the large red cross. I taped on two straps, found a scarf to serve as a cloak, and gave him an old belt to hold his sheath. Finally, we were done. There on the linoleum, in fire-engine-red pajamas, stood a shield-bearing knight of old.
"I'm St. George!" Gabriel shrieked with delight. "The Red Cross Knight!" Then, all of a sudden, he turned serious. "I love you, Mommy."
Throughout that long, quiet day at home, that's what he told me. Looking up from crayon scribbles and fantastic Lego contraptions, he'd murmur, "I love you, Mom." He couldn't seem to stop saying it. "I love you." Yet all we were doing was staying home. We made a crown, ate lunch together, curled up with a pile of storybooks.
It was only May, but already it was time to register for fall soccer. Everyone I know was doing it. And summer was almost here, bringing T-ball (whatever that is), swimming, and vacation Bible school. Here in Richmond, Virginia's suburban West End, where Starbucks and SUVs reign supreme, we keep our preschoolers' dance cards full. They may have sore feet, but our children will never be wallflowers.
Sometimes I have to wonder: When did life speed up so much? My brothers didn't play Little League until they were eight or nine. I didn't join the softball team until I was ten. My dad, who grew up in the soccer-mad Netherlands, laughed when I asked him about soccer for Gabriel. "Let him kick the ball around in the backyard," he said. "Just let him play. That's what we did, until we got long pants."
Maybe my dad's on to something. Doctors say sports injuries are on the rise among children. Soccer leagues around the country have declared "Silent Saturdays," to shut up parents and coaches who pressure young athletes too much, forcing them to let kids play their own games and listen to their own voices. A New York Times headline of October 10, 2004, wondered, "You Think Cutthroat Soccer Is Too Much for a Third Grader?"
The more I think about it, the more a subversive idea has begun to grip me. Maybe soccer can wait. Maybe Gabriel and I can have more days like that gray Monday at home with St. George—days when he doesn't have to buckle into his car seat and rocket like a tiny astronaut from one activity to another. That day, why had he kept telling me he loved me? All I'd done was dress him up to fight a dragon.
"My nine-year-old says he's sick of Little League," said a friend at work. "But when I have him at home, he's not there ten minutes before he's telling me he's bored. He doesn't know what to do with himself." She looked out the window and sighed.
She's got three boys. That's a lot of ball games. A lot of Saturdays waking early and rushing out, after a long week of waking early and rushing out.
"I'm not signing Gabriel up for soccer," I blurted. I paused, surprised at what I'd just said. I hadn't realized I'd made that decision. "I'm waiting till he's six or seven."
I'm sure this isn't as revolutionary as it feels. I'm sure plenty of moms don't sign their preschoolers up for soccer. Moms who don't have cars. Moms who work two jobs. But that's the point: Not signing your kids up for soccer happens if you have no choice.
But if that's the case, why do so many of us who do have cars and time and 100 bucks for registration feel as if we're the ones who have no choice? Here in the West End, the term soccer mom is a redundancy. If you're a mom, your kids play soccer. It's as simple as that. To do otherwise seems... well, not quite subversive, but certainly a dereliction of duty.
Saturday morning has come, bringing a leafy quiet to the West End. Across the street, a wood thrush sings in a young oak. Gabriel is still asleep. When he comes down, he's likely to bring his St. George book. Sleepy-eyed and tousled, he'll climb into my lap and I'll read to him. It's our morning ritual. He needs a few moments of quiet as he moves from his nighttime world of dreams into his daytime world of Legos and dragons.
Mostly, I guess, he needs time. Time to play games for which he makes the rules. Time to talk to himself—in voices kindly, bossy, and occasionally even cruel. Time to steal the dog's Flexi leash and string the playroom like a giant spider web. He's four years old. What he needs isn't soccer. What he needs is time.
C. A. Schmidt's novel for young adults, Useful Fools (Dutton Children's Books), will be published in August. She and her son, Gabriel, live, work, and play in Richmond, Virginia.