I grew up in Minnesota in the 1960s and ’70s, before the passage of Title IX—the education amendment that provides for gender equity in athletics.
Had I grown up in my daughter’s world, in California over the last 20 years, I might have recognized that I was an athlete. Instead, the experience of raising my daughter in the more open, post-Title IX world of organized sports has helped me understand that I really was a jock all along—and prone to sports zealotry.
I fulfilled my high school P.E. requirement with badminton and bowling. Outside school, I ran, biked, rode horses and worked at a stable. I learned to vault on and off a galloping horse, ride backward or standing upright on the saddle, and leap from one horse to another at a full run.
But I didn’t play team sports, since little was offered for girls outside school. And I never thought of myself as an athlete.
In the early 1990s, I moved to L.A. and had my first child. When Zoe was about 7, she asked if she could play soccer. I was unaware that a whole industry of youth sports had sprung up: American Youth Soccer Association (AYSO), Little League, YMCA basketball.
A year later, I signed Zoe up for AYSO soccer. She took to it like a little Mia Hamm to a World Cup penalty kick. She went straight to the All-Stars Under 10 team. I went more or less straight to becoming a fanatical fan.
On the morning of Zoe’s first all-star tournament, we planned to leave at 5:30 a.m. to arrive at the field by 7 a.m. When I opened my eyes at 6:05 a.m., I lay still for a moment, processing my disbelief. Late. Then the adrenaline kicked in, and I flew.
I leapt from bed, sprinted down the hall, and shook my daughter from sleep before darting to the kitchen to fling things into the cooler. Then I saw my husband’s lumbering down the dark corridor. “What are you doing?” he asked. “It’s 1 a.m.!”
I’d read the digital clock wrong.
Zoe climbed back under the covers, fully dressed in her uniform, shin guards and all, and went back to sleep.
We made it to that game on time, of course. But I’d officially earned the title of Psychotic Soccer Mom.
Of course, there are good and bad psycho soccer moms. The good ones cheer on their kids, though often to excess. The bad ones do, too, but they also jeer at players and yell at the referees. Both can be loud and OCD, with noisemakers and spreadsheets of game times. And both live vicariously through their kids, the good soccer moms with wonder and hopeful expectation, the bad ones with jealousy and dogged determination.
I hope I’ve been one of the good ones. I’ve given years of my life to being a soccer mom, and in the process have deepened my relationship with my daughter, who is now 21, in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.
The truth is, my daughter’s engagement with sports has rocked my world. Her experience has been so rich with lessons in self-discipline, teamwork, courage and grit. I’ve seen her give her all to the game in driving sleet and hail, and in scorching desert sun. She has embraced what it means to be strong, fierce and unwilling to accept defeat.
There are other ways to learn these lessons, but not so many or often for girls as for boys. We expect our boys, in the course of their daily lives, to be rough and tumble, to get the wind knocked out of them and get up again. But for girls, organized sports have provided the best arena to test their mettle.
I have a son, too, and have spent countless, amped-up hours at his games. But I feel more like a visitor than an inhabitant in his world. Mostly, I think, because I am startled by a recognition of my daughter’s experience as one I, too, might have had 40 years earlier.
I think I have gleaned some of the same lessons over the years, of endurance, strength and tenacity. But I have done so by other means, and over a longer arc of time. I would have loved learning them, like my daughter, on the soccer field.
Now that it’s August, AYSO soccer season is starting up again. I’ll wander up to the park and enjoy the little-girl mayhem of the Red Hot Tinkerbells team, 6 year olds charging down the field toward the wrong goal. And I’ll wait, impatiently, until next summer, when the Women’s World Cup gets underway in Canada. I’ll be there. And though she’s abandoned her Mia Hamm aspirations to pursue a career in science, maybe Zoe will, too.
Claire Peeps is the director of the Durfee Foundation and a longtime resident of Los Angeles. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.