Raising my son as an athlete is a no brainer. The kid jumped out of the jogging stroller one day when he was 4 years old and ran two miles alongside me. No, I’m not kidding. The child has the endurance of an ultrarunner and the iron will of an Olympic swimmer. He will do great things in his life as an athletic male. Hell, he already has.
My girls though. Where do I begin? My eldest spent 8 of her 9 years refusing to sweat. She tried dance, gymnastics, swim, and all the sports that she hoped wouldn’t bring the dreaded droplets to the surface of her skin. None of them stuck. Then at 9 years old, she tried out a LaCrosse clinic and has devoted her life to the sport ever since. I’ve seen her world change in amazing and significant ways since she picked up that stick.
Then I have my Mowgli child. The 7 year old who has been climbing people and walls since before she could walk and scaling playgrounds and trees before she could talk. A natural gymnast, her body contours into shapes that most actual gymnasts would dream of. She tried taking the class, but it proved too restraining for her. Too much sitting in line, standing in line. Too many lines. My Mowgli is not a linear person. She swims, she runs and does everything in between. Her handstands are not thrown in a gym, but in the living room, bed room, and in the middle of Publix. In a strange twist she has also discovered a love of ballet this year. I don’t understand it, but I love it because I see it channeling her inner female. Bringing an awareness to the femininity of the machine that hosts her incredible personality.
My youngest, now 5, started swimming just a few weeks shy of her third birthday. Not a lesson in her life. She was the youngest to date to pass the 25 meter swim test at our Lifetime gym and also the youngest of her siblings to master the bicycle just before she turned 4. Her body doesn’t scream athlete like my 7 year old’s does, but the littlest has a willpower that won’t quit. If she sets her mind to it, she will accomplish it. She knows no boundaries because being the youngest of 4, she’s never known that she should.
Growing up near the coast in Florida, I spent the younger part of my childhood swimming through lakes and oceans and chasing butterflies in the breeze. The carefree aspect of being a kid did not escape me. All the drama associated with being a girl was released through my escapades of searching through the muck of lakes for arrowheads and riding my bike up and down the dirt road of my neighborhood like I owned it. When I think back to those days I can remember the intoxicating feeling that I could do or be anything I wanted. Seasons changed however, and as I grew into adolescence, I traded the outdoors for time in front of the tv or time spent giggling indoors with friends. I joined band as early as 4th grade and my instrument took the place of my physical activity.
By middle school I was so out of shape that I would fake asthma attacks just to get out of running the mile. I hated the feeling of physical exertion because my body was no longer efficient at it. Add on the fact that my metabolism couldn’t keep up with those of my girlfriends’ and my self esteem as a pre-teenage girl plummeted. I always appeared confident and full of life on the outside, but at the tender age of 11 or 12 years old, I developed what would be a life long battle with food and body image. It was devastatingly painful and sadly, all these years later, still is.
And now I have these 4 little extensions of myself. The exhales to my inhales. And three of them are girls. I see how at even younger ages these days, little girls are aware of body sizes and shapes, how their own bodies move and grow, how clothes fit and how food makes them feel. I not only see it, I monitor it. I think about, read about, and pray about how to deal with it because it scares me to think of any of them growing up with the interior pain and abuse on themselves that I’ve spent several decades torturing myself with.
I want my girls to own their bodies. I want for them to know and understand how every movement takes place and why. I want for them to experience the thrill of sprinting past a handful of runners at the end of a race, even though just moments before they were ready to quit. I want them to make the connection early on that hard work, effort, and physical exertion strengthens not just their body, but their mind as well. I want for them to learn to work together as a team – to console each other after a loss and embrace one another after each victory. I want for them to swim, run, bike, and cartwheel themselves through early childhood into adolescence carrying with them the feeling that anything is possible if they work hard enough for it.
When they are growing up a few sizes in their pants, I want them to embrace the hips that will one day serve them well when they are laboring for 19 hours with their first child. If their chest doesn’t swell large enough to overflow a C or even B cup, I want them to rejoice in only having to wear one sports bra at a time instead of seeing themselves as less of a woman because they don’t have copious amounts of cleavage. When they are mad and hurt and angry and upset because their best friend metaphorically stabbed them in the back, I want for them to come home, lace up their shoes, and spill their woes onto the well worn path of the trail next door, instead of balling up alone in their room or turning to a substance for relief. When they are offered their first underage drink, joint, or worse at a party, I want their immediate response to be no because they would never want to purposely hurt the temple of their body which they have worked so hard to take care of. In all of life’s hard decisions I want for them to realize that their physical strength is a gateway to that of the mental.
When they eat all their veggies and forego the second piece of cake, I don’t want them to do it so they can be skinny, but because they want to nourish the machine that their body is. I want them to enjoy the taste, flavor and joy of food knowing that it is fuel to help their bodies run efficiently. I want to replace the words, “diet, skinny, and fat” with “healthy, strong, and efficient”.
I’m raising my daughters to be athletes because I want them to be strong and self confident, but also humble and kind. To teach them that strength clothes them in beauty in ways that make-up and Justice never will. To give them outlets for anxiety, worries, fears and a way to talk about them with their running buddies because if you’re a runner, you know that some of life’s best conversations are covered over the miles. Whether they choose swimming or LaCrosse, Cross Country or Soccer, I want for them to always feel comfortable asking me or their father out for a run to discuss life’s pressures or just to know that we are by their side while navigating this complicated, yet incredible life together. May they never look at themselves as too fat or too thin or too tall or too short, too smart or too dumb or too loud or too quiet, but as just right, because each of them is exactly as they should be.