Illustration by Lauren Tamaki
When my kids were young, I signed myself up for a tennis clinic as a way to force myself to spend some time with adults (and take the pacifiers out of my bra) for just one hour a week. When my childcare got messed up on the first day, my then 6-year-old daughter came with me. She wasn’t allowed to watch me unsupervised, so I swiftly put her in the tot-tennis class—the hell if I was going to miss my clinic! With a borrowed racket, my daughter waltzed onto the court in her (filthy) mermaid skirt. Later, at dinner, she announced she wanted to learn how to play tennis…and win. Frankly, I thought she meant it the way I wanted to be a ballerina when I was 6. I was wrong. You never know what fluke will happen to turn your life’s direction, and tennis was the one that changed my daughter’s. She played nationally through her childhood and teen years, and in all those hours around the court, she found who she is. But it’s a toss-up as to whose life tennis changed more, mine or hers.
Conner was 7 when she played her first USTA tournament. We arrived to a swarm of fierce and focused little kids who looked like tennis pros, with massive bags loaded with rackets, high-tech cooling towels, foot warmers…and no smiles. My daughter stood quietly holding her one racket and plastic water bottle. When her name was called, she walked up to the official, got a new can of balls—and looked over at me and grinned. I felt like throwing up, and she ended up winning that tournament and went on to win many, many others.
Tennis is a beast of a sport, with no teammates to share the loss or the win. From where I sat in the stands as she got into her high school years, it looked like total mental warfare, and it terrified me. But it didn’t terrify her: Watching Conner’s determination was mind-blowing—a reminder that kids come into the world preloaded with who they are as individuals, and our job as parents is to stand by and let them learn who they are.
When she was a teen, tennis notched up a level—at the very same time my marriage was ending. I was staring down a divorce, full custody of my three kids and the daunting duty of getting back into the workforce after years of staying home. Everything changed, and quickly, and I had no idea how I would keep up with the demands of tennis. Until, of course, I sat down with Conner. As I talked about our new reality, she listened to me like she was the CEO of a major corporation. Before I could finish, she told me she’d pick up the slack and manage it herself. And she did: She registered for tournaments, scheduled practices and, once she got her license, schlepped herself to matches. While I wanted to drown myself in guilt, Conner found her way to becoming the leader—and I learned she didn’t need me the way I’d thought. After high school, Conner went to college 3,000 miles away to become a captain of the tennis team. Not an ounce of me ever questioned whether she’d be able to manage the demands that were waiting, so far away from home.
Tennis will forever feel like the coparent that exhausted me, but it also taught me some of the greatest lessons about raising kids. Handing “choice” over to a kid is one tall order. But the payoff is a parenting triumph like no other: a kid who knows who they are out in the world when we’re no longer there beside them.