I awkwardly pulled the mesh helmet over my head in my first fencing class. It was hot. My glasses fell down my nose and my hair was in my face. My heart beat as rapidly as if I were standing in line for a roller coaster.
True confession: I never wanted to be a fencer.
When I was pregnant, I dreamed of Mom-n-Me ballet classes. I couldn’t wait for my kids to be old enough for the adult and child mixed beginner Taekwando class in the rec department’s catalog. The idea of taking a class with my kids always appealed to me. Fencing was not on my radar, but this was what my 11-year-old chose.
The class was made up of a handful of kids 12 and under, and me—age 45. Well, 45 and ¾ technically. The kids were cool—it was the wall of parents with cameras that gave me pause. We all ran laps, around the gym and luckily my kid didn’t pass me, even though they easily could’ve. I learned to parry and riposte. I hung in there until my kid quickly surpassed me in skill and we couldn’t take the same classes anymore.
Here’s why I did it:
When I was a kid, my friend Rebekah’s whole family took figure skating lessons together. I thought they were so cool. They got to spend all this time together and got to be in an ice show with sparkly costumes and everything. Years later, Rebekah explained something I never forgot (though the exact wording has been lost to time):
Kids are the least competent people in the household. They see the adults doing everything easily, and they can’t even tie their shoes properly half the time.
Seeing adults struggle to learn a new skill helps them realize that we all start out bad at stuff. Adults are good at stuff because we’ve done it for years.
Kids aren’t incompetent, only inexperienced.
Luckily for my kid, I am naturally terrible at anything athletic, so watching me struggle was pretty much guaranteed. I needed my kid to show me over and over how to hold my hand, how to move my arm. I couldn’t figure out the arm-foot coordination. And every time, my 11-year-old patiently demonstrated the basic moves over and over.
But there’s more. Before fencing, my kid did hockey. I can skate in a circle and I can skate backward even, but I can’t skate enough to play hockey, so I was the typical sports mom in the stands. It’s a very different experience.
I have a very low tolerance for parents who scream at their kids in general. I particularly abhor parents who can’t even stand up on skates who scream at their kids to, “skate harder.” It’s easy to think your child isn’t trying hard enough when you’re sitting on your bum drinking coffee. At fencing class, my kid and I were in the trenches together.
I learned that my ankle of my back foot got sore, as did my front thigh. I was reminded that holding your arm up for an extended period of time is actually painful. I was forced to remember how hard it was to get my body to follow the clear, simple instructions from the coach—something I hadn’t had to do since high school.
Watching kids do sports is supporting your children, but it’s not really spending time together. It’s spending time with other moms while facing in the general direction of the game. I loved the social aspect, and I do think it is important to go watch my kids compete. I rarely missed a game. But standing in the gym side-by-side was an entirely different kind of involvement. It wasn’t watching. It was doing.
Even though I can’t keep up with my kid in class anymore, we can still practice together at home. I know enough to be useful. And now at the tournaments, I have a deeper appreciation of how hard it is.
I know firsthand the anxiety of facing a new opponent, and the struggle to readjust to each competitor’s style. I remember how painfully awkward it felt to have a row of parents with cameras ready to record my every move. And I remember to keep mints in the car, because in the words of my 11-year-old, “You smell your own breath in those masks, and sometimes it’s pretty terrible.”