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What My Kids Have Taught Me About Competition

My son was born six weeks early. I watched his little red, wrinkled body inside the incubator in the NICU. He was beautiful and really, really floppy.  They — the doctors, nurses, friends with preemies, and random strangers — all said it could take about two years for him to “catch up” to the milestones of other kids.  He was born half baked, and as the months went on, he was content to nap on my chest. I thought he’d never hold his head up on his own, but finally, in his own time, he raised his heavy melon for a moment and then let it flop exhausted back on my shoulder.

Other moms would talk of milestones and benchmarks.  “My child started walking when she was….”  My son could crawl at….”  I listened.  I felt pressure to try to help him learn to walk as the days and weeks and months passed by, but I just enjoyed his stationary time and knew he’d rise up when he was ready.  In his time.  And he did.

He’s seven now and as I sit here at swim team practice watching him learn how to do the breaststroke, I’m struck with how those preemie years have shaped my mother’s heart.

I don’t care as much about competition.  Sure, I want my kids to do their best, work hard, try and fail and try harder and learn.  But my beginning as a mom has broken me of the desire to rule, to win.

You know that thing some moms do when one says, “My kid learned to read,” and then another says her kid learned to read, too, except earlier and better and more words fewer pictures and Mensa has tapped them for early membership and you’re left feeling like what just happened?

It’s competitive out there.

Have you seen Meet the Fockers?  Remember the Wall of Mediocrity, where Gaylord’s last place ribbons were proudly displayed in his childhood room?

That’s us.  We’re the Fockers.

Ana and Elliott are both on the swim team for the first time, and at their first meet, I cheered myself hoarse.  Ana signed up to swim butterfly because it sounded pretty and she likes pretending to be a dolphin in the pool.  People, she had no idea what it was.  Before the meet, I explained to her that she couldn’t push off from the bottom of the pool like a mermaid and showed her how to do the arms.  During the meet we wooed and hooed as she swam fly for the first time, coming in dead last, but excited to try it.

Look at that game face.  Part concentration, part sheer panic.  Bless it.

When she swam backstroke, I screamed her name and pumped my fists in the air and as she passed me, I saw her grinning through the splashing water.  Afterward, I asked her why she was smiling and she said, “Because everyone was cheering for me!”

Elliott is so used to following his big sister around that when she finished her turn at the relay, he jumped in and started swimming and got halfway across the pool before the coach was able to stop him and explain that the relay was over and he wasn’t in it.

The teenage daughter of the coach is my new hero, because as my son pulled himself out of the pool all embarrassed and shame-faced, she leaned over to him and said, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that.  Everybody does it.  Don’t even worry about it.”

“Mom, seriously stop taking my picture.”  Is there anything cuter than little boys in jammers?  No there is not.  No.  There.  Is.  Not.

We squealed over 12th place ribbons and I gushed over trying new things.  I had proud spraying out my mouth and leaking out my pores.

We are a team’s worst nightmare.  From my preemie’s floppy start to my nine-year-old’s change of culture and country, we have our own pace and we celebrate a totally different list of accomplishments.

I like a little competition as much as the next person. And someday in some way maybe my kids will excel in something besides being their awesome selves.  But let me tell you what my kids have taught me about competition.  Each child of ours has a unique set of gifts, challenges, and circumstances.  And our milestones might look different than someone else’s milestones.

To the kid still crawling when all the other toddlers are on their feet, you’ll get there.  Don’t even worry about it.

To the kid still wetting the bed long past his friends, you’re fine, and we won’t tell.  Breathe easy.

To the kid struggling with reading, keep working, we see you, and we think you’re awesomesauce.

To the kids trying to ride a bike, trying to remember which soccer goal is theirs, trying to connect with that darn teeball, we are wooing and hooing our mama heads off for you.  I root for the underdogs, for the last place finishers, and when the front-runners are in and the crowd has died down and you’re still finishing your race, I am still there.  As long as you’re racing, I am cheering.  I am with you till the finish line, buddy.

I will keep clapping for the Wall of Mediocrity.  Because to me, it isn’t mediocre at all.  It’s extraordinary.