The Primal Nature of Women As Evidenced in Youth Football

My son, Eli, was a reluctant football player. He loved the camaraderie, and disliked the level of exertion and toughness of the actual “play”. He was one of those big, athletically gifted kids whom the coaches salivated over, then spent the rest of the season trying to instill the “killer instinct” in a kid who was better suited to be the team chaplain.

Whatever Eli lacked along the competitive lines was made up for by an awakening of some latent, primal fierceness in his mother. You have to be a little tough to even sign up for football in Minnesota: us moms, Halloween just around the corner, standing in the slush, bundled in blankets and stuffed in snowmobile suits, with blaze orange knit caps or whatever is in the back of the truck (I once donned a horse blanket), watching our 5th graders battling bravely. I guess you could say it builds character, or something.

One thing it does build, for sure, is the capacity of an introvert to arrive at the game field, set up her folding chair, make sure her toddler is installed on a blanket with some toys, exchange pleasantries with the other Rebels moms, and then undergo a Hulk-like transformation from mild-mannered-mom to bloodthirsty Valkyrie.

That a classical musician, charm school alumna, public servant and veritable church lady could morph into an aggressive, shouting sideline nutcase who would run the length of the field as though carrying the ball herself, really mystified me. Who was this person, anyway? Was it a link back to ancient queens who, like Olympias, the quintessential scheming, over-involved mother of Alexander the Great, would stop at nothing to ruthlessly promote her son’s rise to glory ahead of his rivals’? Is it the nature of mothers to promote our offspring as though the fate of the Empire depended on it?

I always knew I’d do anything to protect my children. I didn’t think that same primal instinct would also extend to promoting them. There was clearly something in me that caused me to act outside my comfort zone without even thinking about it. And to my horror, the behavior didn’t just stop at energetic enthusiasm. I found myself sneering at the opposing moms. I uttered a couple of low-volume vituperatives when the umpire or referee, whichever one does football, made a bad call. I almost made an unladylike gesture, but caught myself before the finger flew. I had the potential to be one of those parents!

This awakening dismayed me as much as it intrigued me. My personal code of conduct had no room for un-sportsman-like behavior, and I pitied, somewhat contemptuously, the aggressive stage mother model. Well, as Walt Kelly, the Pogo comic strip creator so aptly put it, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us!” Intellectually I knew that behaving badly, even bad behavior born of the best intentions and motherly love, wasn’t going to benefit Eli one bit. I liked the thrill of cheering on the team, but didn’t like the confrontational behavior I saw developing in myself. I had to find a way to reconcile the Amazonian warrior queen with Lady Astor.

Learning to appreciate the primal origin of the behavior was Part One. I was still a wonderful person. A wonderful person who loves her boy like crazy, but doesn’t have to GO crazy doing it! The primal instinct of a mother allows us to hear the water boiling in the next room, to know how not to push the swing too high, to respond to the newborn cries that start the milk flowing. This is a wonderful thing. Cherish it and be thankful for it.

The competitive nature of motherhood, properly channeled, is also a good thing. We care if our kids aren’t doing as well as they could and we push them for their own good. We try to position them in places that will benefit them. We look out for unfairness and call it when we see it. The same spark that makes us want to stop the baby crying allows us to advocate for her later. My own mother stepped in when I wasn’t chosen for the concert choir in high school, because she knew I had a great voice and was already taking private voice lessons. She thought the director had not been aware of that. Into the concert choir I went, and majored in vocal performance in college. We do have to choose our battles wisely, though. Sparks can start fires.

So, I learned to love my internal Olympias, without resorting to treason, murder and mayhem as she did. I respect motherhood in a way I never had before, realizing the powerful drive we have to promote our offspring and the responsibility we have to “keep it clean.” My son’s class in pre-school made paper-plate angels one Christmas. The angels were all lined up on a table when I came to pick him up, and I cooed, “Oooooh, look at all the beautiful angels!” My sweet 3-year-old corrected me: “No Mama, dey are Mudders.” This Mudder on the sidelines is determined to be more angelic. Gotta run….I thought I saw a bad call.