For me, parenting is often about managing my own expectations. I get all fired up about some idealized vision I concoct, then struggle with the way the reality is inevitably messier, louder, smellier, whinier…more real. Have you ever seen the site pinterestfail.com? It showcases pictures of beautifully photographed, adorable projects side-by-side with user-submitted photos of hilariously botched attempts at recreating them in real life. I should start a site called Big Parenting Ideas Fail.
An example of how this phenomenon plays out in my parenting life is training for the Charlottesville Women’s Four Miler with my elementary school-aged daughter. A little backstory: Before I had children, I was not one for workouts. I was more of a “long walk, dabbling in yoga for my back” person than a “hill repeaters, 12-mile bike ride for fun” person. But I was an enthusiastic pregnant eater, and I found that after child No. 2, no amount of skipping dessert was going to get me back in my jeans. It appeared that actual sweat-inducing exercise was indicated.
I was having trouble getting started until a friend suggested signing up for the Charlottesville Women’s Four Miler Training Program (w4mtp.com). I hadn’t run a mile on purpose since high school, but the Pink Ladies made training fun and even easy-ish. I crossed the finish line that September ahead of my goal time and filled with a terrific sense of accomplishment. And I found I liked running so much that I have run the Four Miler every year since, along with the Charlottesville Ten Miler, and several sprint triathlons. The training program was the start of a whole new phase of my life.
So imagine my excitement when my daughter turned 8 in 2012 and was old enough to sign up for the training. I had seen little girls running with their moms at the Saturday sessions, and it looked so fun and friendly. I wanted to have that special time with her, and, bigger picture, I wanted her to learn that exercise can be as easy as throwing on some sneakers and jogging around the block for half an hour. I wanted for her the sense of empowerment I felt knowing I was strong enough to run four whole miles. This was going to be great!
Except it turns out she, uh, doesn’t like running very much. During the training, she got shin splints. She struggled with the GI issues common to beginning runners, and consequently we know the location of every public restroom within a two-mile radius of home. She got whiny and frustrated, and more than once we finished out a practice run in stony silence after an argument. She didn’t look forward to the jogs with me—she dreaded them, and tried everything she could think of to bargain her way out of them. I got us lost one time running on vacation in Acadia National Park in Maine, and we ended up running four and a half miles instead of the two we had planned. Instead of marveling at the scenery and finishing the run ecstatic she could cover the distance, she broadcast the story of my incompetence far and wide, and has never let me forget it. Another time I got turned around running in the fog in San Francisco and ran us halfway up a mountain before she refused (at top volume) to go further and marched us back down. In short, the training together didn’t go exactly as envisioned.
But we got through it, and even though the memories aren’t all sweaty hugs and cutesy in-jokes, we did spend a lot of quality time together. To distract herself from the agony of running, she’d pick a subject and just start talking. With nothing to distract me from listening, I got to know her better than ever, and that little head is full of the strangest, funniest thoughts. And she was well trained. Come race day, she’d run four miles three times already—twice on purpose!
On the morning of the race, we made the early drive to the course chattering nervously. She found the huge crowd of women overwhelming, so she held tightly to my hand as we ran over the starting line and jockeyed for position. She ran every step of the course, and, her form of self-encouragement being smack talk, she kept up a continuous commentary: “They call this a hill? We’ve run up a mountain. This is nothing! …This doesn’t feel like four miles, it’s so cinchy! …I feel fantastic!” When we came to the final stretch and could see the finish line, she shook her hand free of mine and said, “Let’s kick it!” and took off. We crossed in her best time ever, and I turned to her with tears in my eyes.
“That was so amazing!” I said. “Aren’t you proud of yourself?”
And she replied, “If by proud, you mean happy I never have to do that again!”
Ah, well. I should add that she did run the race again in 2013. When I brought up training together that May, she said, “How about you pay me $20,000 dollars to do it?” We agreed on $20. And here it is, time to train for the 2014 race. I’m not sure I can afford to coerce her into another summer of running together. And, honestly, she’s tried it twice, and she doesn’t like racing as much as I do, so maybe that should be that. But even if we don’t end up running together this year, I hope she’ll grow up secure in the knowledge that she can, if called upon to do so, run at least four miles, even if someone isn’t paying her. At the very least, I hope never to find this story on parentfail.com.—Miller Murray Susen