Whose Life Is This Anyway?

I wonder, does God ever have these sorts of problems in loving His children? Five years ago more or less to the day, my son and I had our first fencing lesson together. For months, he had been begging me to fight him with the wooden toy swords we had acquired at various Renaissance Faires and I was tired of having my knuckles whacked whenever he went to parry. A student of mine had mentioned that there was a fencing club downtown and I thought, "This is it! We'll both learn to fence, and that way I won't get my knuckles rapped any more. Plus, if we like it, we will have something that both of us enjoy doing together." I had never fenced before; I'm not even sure I had ever seen anything other than staged swordfights in movies. And somehow I had even missed Madonna's fencing debut the year before in Die Another Day (2002), so I really had no idea what it would be like. [1]

And yet, more or less after that first lesson, I was hooked--and so, it seemed, was my son. At the very least, he seemed to enjoy coming to practice, even though at first he was somewhat nervous, being so young (age 7) and so much smaller than the other fencers. Within the first month, I bought us both our own equipment so that we could fence electric with the other fencers in the club; we started taking private lessons and coming to practice two or three times a week. And so it went, winter and summer, for more than four years. Never once did my son complain about having to go to practice (or if he did, it was so rarely I don't remember). Cheerfully, he would walk with me to the train station or, if it were a Saturday, to the bus stop, and we would hop on board for our evening or (on Saturdays) afternoon adventure going downtown together to fence. In the evenings, my husband would come to pick us up in the car and my son and I would wait for him together out on the darkened sidewalk, watching the face fountain across the street in Millennium Park or kicking at the snow. On Saturdays, we would go after practice for lunch, sometimes for doughnuts and bagels at Dunkin' Donuts, later for salads and pizza at one of the nearby cafes. We would go to local tournaments together and I would be so proud that I was not one of the parents simply sitting on the sidelines watching their children fence, but one of the fencers myself--"Fencing Mom," as the T-shirt I had said, both mother of a fencer and a mother who fenced as well. And then, in the summers, we would get on an airplane together for the biggest adventure yet, Summer Nationals. For a week or more, we would be together on vacation, fencing and sight-seeing, eating out and (last year in Miami, at least) going to the beach. This, I told myself and my son over and over, is such a precious time that we have together. "Mommy and Tertius's Big Adventure": I could not believe how lucky I was to be sharing this time and this intense activity with him.

And then, last January, after taking 2nd out of 15 fencers in the Y12 Mixed Foil Regional Youth Circuit (and national qualifier), he quit. It didn't help that I was not able to be with him at the tournament that day and that he came home saying that he preferred his father's strip coaching to mine. The worst of it was, however, that he simply didn't want to do this anymore with me, ever, whether I was strip coaching him or not. To be fair, it took him all day to screw up the courage to tell me and he did so only at 11pm that night, with much hesitation and sidelong glances to see how I would respond. Which wasn't well, I am sorry to say. Had all the years that we spent together, doing footwork and drills, bouting and going to tournaments, meant nothing to him? Was it that he didn't like the new location for our club, now no longer just a bus- or train-ride away, but further north, accessible realistically only by car? Did he mind if I threw away all the medals he had won over the years (many more than I have, by the by; for the last several years, he had consistently placed in the top 3 in every local youth tournament he fenced and frequently higher than I did in the opens)? Did he not realize how special it was to have something like this that one did with one's parent? Certainly, I had never had such an activity with either of mine, at least not for any length of time, but the few times that I did (square dancing with my mother, skiing with my father) were some of the most vivid in my memory, the thing that gave me some sense of who they really were, something we shared. How could he just throw this all away? And so forth. I could barely speak to him the next day, I was so upset--and so afraid at what else I might say. (I dug the medals out of the trash and he laughed when I asked him whether he knew that I would. See, we know each other really well, at our best, and at our worst, thanks to all those practices and tournaments.) Suddenly, the activity that had drawn us together for so many years and been the occasion for so much of our being together had become the wedge that might drive us apart.

Where had I gone wrong? Because, of course, it must be my fault--mustn't it? All my dreams of seeing him fencing as a young man, with the strength of his full growth and the skill developed out of a decade's practice, were now dashed. Had I pushed him too hard at practices, not letting him, as our coach said I did, simply be a kid? But he had always seemed so happy at practice, throwing tape rolls down the length of the room, drawing monsters on the board where we kept score of our bouts (see image above), playing the glove game, diligently doing the twenty-minutes of footwork that I encouraged--okay, insisted--he do with me to warm up, putting his equipment on in order to bout. And he was always so clever on the strip, making mischievous feints to try to draw his opponent in, never letting his opponent control the tempo of the footwork (I know, I tried; he'd dig his heels and and resist), suddenly making lightening-like beat attacks, disengaging perfectly so that he had hit before you even realized he was on the attack. He would fence adults, children, women, men, all with the same intensity and pride (in a good way) in his bladework and form (in the picture, my son is the one with his sock falling down and gesturing with his hands, explaining his strategy). I can only remember one time he ever really cried after a tournament, and that at his first-ever Nationals, when he was only 8 and simply overwhelmed. Thereafter, he only continued to grow in ability and, insofar as I could tell, confidence, until, last summer, when one of the coaches at the camp we were attending asked us to write down what went through our minds when we were getting ready for a tournament, he said simply, "The night before the tournament, I'm a bit nervous, but once the day comes, and I get to the strip, I'm just there." Nothing more--and nothing less. Meanwhile, I was doing my best not to push him but just be there, happy for him that he was doing so well, happy for us that we had this time together.

Although, of course, there was more to it than this, wasn't there?--or else I wouldn't be writing now. There was my own frustration at finding fencing so difficult to learn, which I tried to contain but which inevitably tended to come out after a bad (a.k.a. discouraging) practice or tournament result. There was the pressure I was putting on myself to practice harder and well. There was the usual parental concern to make sure that one's child was behaving in complicated social circumstances, e.g. not throwing tape rolls when others were wanting to fence. But when I asked my son why he no longer wanted to fence, he named none of these things, just insisted that he didn't like fencing any more. What was I to think? I felt rejected, as if all the years we had practiced together no longer meant anything to him; I was angry, because I had never said anything about what I expected of him other than we continue to be able to be together, doing this one activity we shared; I felt abandoned, knowing that I would now have to go to practice alone if I wanted to continue to fence, while he would stay at home with his father, playing computer games or doing his homework. But, most of all, I felt cheated. Here, I had offered to him some of the most precious gifts I could--time with him growing up, practice in a challenging skill, the opportunity to become really strong at an activity by starting young--and he didn't want them anymore. Now, to be fair, he is even now only 12 and I am not sure that at 12 I could have articulated any better than he has been able for me what had changed, so it would seem that as the grown-up and, moreover, the parent in this relationship, it's my problem to figure out what's going on here, not his. Right? But why can't he say something more than just, "I don't like it anymore"? I asked him again last night, telling him I was writing about our experience in my blog and he just grinned and said, "Fame!" But he wouldn't talk any more about what he is thinking.

So, I'm on my own. Except for the fact that I really suppose I'm not, for aren't all you parents out there nodding your heads with that "Been there" look on your face? (Mom, I bet you are.) I refuse to believe that what I wanted for the both of us (my son and I; but I'm sure this goes the other way, for when have I not wanted things for my parents as well?) was so terribly wrong. How else does one act as a parent, if not in looking for opportunities to help one's child explore and excel? I could name all sorts of activities that my son was initially reluctant to try which, in retrospect he was very grateful to me for introducing him to: making peanut butter noodles (his staple now; I've gone off it--are you catching the pattern here?), reading Harry Potter (ditto, although he's moved on to Richard Feynman), going to school (which he started even younger than fencing, with much greater protest, but which he now loves, thank goodness), riding a bike (we still do this together every day, at least). Is the only criterion for deciding whether to encourage a child at something that he or she picked it initially him- or herself? And what, nevertheless, if he does (choose, that is)--like playing the clarinet, one of my son's current practices, wholly his choice from the instruments offered through the music program at his school--and yet still needs encouragement, sometimes daily, to do his drills? When do we push and insist, and when do we acknowledge all the times that we were forced to do something that we didn't like and resisted, even if we knew the practice would be good for us? Or even the times that we really wanted to do something but resisted anyway because someone else was telling us to do it and it needed to be our choice? (Stop it, Mom; you're laughing now, aren't you?) And, then, what do we do with the regrets that we ourselves have, looking back, wishing someone had stopped us from making the decision to quit just when we were getting really good at something but no longer had the initial enthusiasm to carry us over the trough?

You will see in these questions all of my questions for myself, the terrible "what ifs?" What if I had kept practicing the piano even after we moved and I had to change teachers? Would I perhaps be able to play the Beethoven sonata that I am listening to now? Like my son with fencing, I started lessons when I was 7 and went every week for the next eight years. I even eventually learned to like practicing, but, and here you will recognize one of my persistent anxieties, I never really felt that I was any good. I think when I quit my mother was somewhat relieved; at least then she wouldn't have to deal with all the frustration and screaming. I returned to the piano for a year in college but by then, it seemed, I had really lost my chance. I learned one piece that year of which I was very proud (Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, no. 5), but after that I never really sustained my practice; it vanished completely in graduate school. When I play (very occasionally) now, my son is impressed, but how can I tell him what I have lost? He has never heard me play the Prelude because I can't now, only phrases of the opening march, and not at all the wonderful Poco meno mosso with its complicated triplets for the left hand. I remember reading somewhere recently, possibly in one of my psychology textbooks, about how we tend to regret more the things that we did not do in life than the things we actually did, even if they were mistakes in retrospect. And yet, of course, I can also make a list of the many things at which I practiced for years and have since given up that I do not regret (much): mathematics (a real handicap now, as my son starts reading books about geometry and calculus), knitting (okay, I do regret this one and wish I would finish that cardigan I was working on when my son was born), gardening (all the plants in the pots died every winter in Chicago; it was too depressing), swimming. Now, here's an interesting one: I am always very proud of myself for having been a competitive swimmer in high school, not for my results (never very good), but for the discipline itself, but it takes considerable urging (by my son) to get me even near a pool now, even if only for paddling around. Although I do tend to enjoy the water once I get in, what if it were my son insisting that I come to practice with him not on the strip, but in the pool? Because, indeed, he loves swimming, at least of the sort that involves making elaborate structures out of floats and then staging sea battles around them. Would I be able to do this again in order to be with him?

Well, what do you think? Would I? Before you answer, remember who he--who no longer wants to fence and cannot be persuaded otherwise--is related to. Yes, I appreciate the irony. So, the titular question for the day: whose life is this anyway? On the one hand, I want only the best for him, which includes not only the opportunities for him to develop the interests that he knows he has, but also the chance of being introduced to things that he otherwise might not have found for himself. It likewise means teaching him how to practice, what it takes to develop real expertise in an activity, and encouraging him to continue even when it does not seem like the practice is having results. But, on the other, it clearly does not mean forcing him to practice an activity he hates simply in order to maintain the practice. But, and this is the real question, how can he know? Right now, when he is 12, there are things that he enjoys more than fencing, but is it really helping him to allow him to quit just because the practice has gotten a bit dull? You recall, I'm guessing here, because he hasn't really given me much to go on about why he no longer wants to fence. What I do know is that he has not yet had the experience I have, of having been good (in the sense of practiced) at something and then losing it. But, then, how could he? He's only 12. And so, we come to the heart of the problem: I cannot, and do not want to, live his life for him, but nor has my life been lived simply in order to provide examples for him. He must make his own mistakes, if indeed he is making a mistake and not just a decision. However much I may think it will be good for him to continue his practice, and however much I might dream of his excelling at something at which he is already one of the best for his age, it is my dream to see him striding up to the strip at 18, not his. It's funny. I had always told myself that I would not try to impose any expectations on my child but simply be happy at watching him find his own interests and talents. Biology (the skull on his desk)? Architecture (numerous Lego and Kapla structures all over the apartment)? Physics (constant questions about Feynman's Q.E.D.)? Comic book art (see above for his monsters; his comic strips are even better)? Absolutely; he could grow up to be anything he wants. And yet, I acted like every parent from every coming-of-age story ever written upon suddenly finding that my (all-too-precocious) child has a mind--and will--of his own and does not want to do what I imagined for him.

During our time together as fencers, it became a joke between my son and me that I could find an analogy for fencing for almost everything; likewise, everything I did seemed to be influenced by or interpretable through fencing. Painful as it is, I realize that this is yet another of its lessons, and, indeed, perhaps this is the real reason, at least for my sake, that God made us walk together through that door five years ago: so that I would now have to learn that part of the practice is letting go of my child so that he may live his own life, not mine. I don't know if God feels like this watching His children go their willful way and wishing they would return to Him, but at least now I know to be grateful, not angry, that He does. And yet, even as I write this and know that it is good, I weep.

[1] Okay, so Madonna doesn't even fence in the scene with Pierce Brosnan and the fencing that does happen rapidly moves off the strip. But the fencers in the background of the scene were real London fencers and all the equipment came from Leon Paul, so it was slightly realistic, if you ignored Madonna's "coaching", um, jacket. Oh, yeah, and nobody ever leans on their weapons like that, not even epeeists. It's bad for the tips.


  1. I have been following your blog for several weeks now (and I quoted you in my last blog post), and I recognize such a kindred spirit in you that I can't read this without empathizing. While I know absolutely nothing about being a parent (I'm fifteen), I have no idea what could possess a child to want to do something so rash as to quit fencing, of all things (as someone who quite literally lives to fence, my opinion may be slightly biased) but I just wanted to tell you that I'm sure your son will turn out just fine, especially with someone like you taking care of him and fretting over him. Thank you for creating such a lovely little corner of the internet for your fellow fencers and seekers of God's face.
    That photo is frakking adorable- with the sock thing and the hand gestures!!! Your son reminds me of a certain young fencing prodigy at my gym- or rather the older child standing, bewildered, as your son explains what just happened to him, reminds me of myself and my interactions with said young fencing prodigy. Once again, Your son is going to be just fine- no matter what he decides to do (but he should want to fence! why wouldn't he?) :)

  2. You are most welcome! I am so happy that you have enjoyed reading my posts! And thank you for the encouragement, too. I am still sorry that my son is not fencing anymore, but the years that we had together as fencers gave us experiences and an understanding of each other that we could not have gained any other way. And, yes, he is pretty adorable--although by now he is, in fact, your age (15). But he still likes explaining things!


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