The idea came before the words. The premise of the topic I wanted to explore exploded in my mind in an “aha” moment I rarely experience. Usually, I find my words first, and through them, I muddle out my idea. Usually, I write first and then attempt to figure out what I’m saying.
But not this time. This time, I had my idea: raising a boy as a single mom—and a young widow—after growing up in a single mother household. My idea was to write about the challenges that arise in raising a boy as a single mom who never had that in-house male influence in her life. My plan, my way to shape and distill a vague and intangible concept into something specific and concrete, was to focus the article around raising a boy to be a sports fan—something that was important to my husband, something that has never been important to me whether due to nature or nurture or some blend of the two.
But as I sat, day after day, staring at the blank screen and the blinking cursor, the words refused to come. The idea was there, but the words, the way to write about something I know only enough about to know that it is missing, didn’t find their way onto the open and waiting document.
Because the truth is, I wanted to write about the challenges of raising a boy to be a sports fan, but I wasn’t sure there were challenges. My son wasn’t into sports the way his father had been, but he wasn’t showing an interest despite my (admittedly weak) attempts at exposing him to games on TV. He didn’t spend hours on the couch parked beside his dad watching the playoffs in football or basketball, but he seemed happy sitting with his older sister watching her shows. There were moments and memories he was missing by not having his dad—who organized fantasy sports leagues and could pull obscure sports facts from the dredges of his memory—but those missing moments didn’t feel like challenges. They felt like choices, and he was entitled to choose his preferences without the pressure I was inadvertently imposing that he must love sports because his father did.
I was almost ready to scrap the idea, or at least, to find a new focus.
And then I drove a carpool with my eight-year-old son and his friend. The friend chattered on about a hockey game he planned to watch later and the jersey he would wear for sports jersey day at school. My son, without missing a beat, engaged in the conversation—asking questions and showing an enthusiasm for teams and players I’d never heard him mention before. The friend went on to ask which team my son was rooting for in the Super Bowl. My son fell quiet, and I understood the silence. He didn’t know who was playing, because he hadn’t watched alongside his father, and because the sports talk shows that once played endlessly in the background of our lives had stopped the day his father had died, and because while some mothers do know sports, do pay attention to games and stats, I didn’t because the world of sports was foreign to me, relegated to that hazy space of things that vanished the day my father left.
After dropping off the friend, once we arrived home, my son walked straight to the television and asked for the hockey game. I tried to find it for him, but I’d recently cut cable in an effort to save money—something I wouldn’t have done if anyone in the family watched sports. We tried to find other ways to watch, but we couldn’t. That night, we rummaged through his closet to look for a jersey to wear. They were all too small—purchased from a time before, when his father was there to guide his knowledge and appreciation in the world of sports.
Here were our challenges, ill-defined and unexpected and truly only tangentially related to sports.
He fell apart. Standing in his room, he raged, his anger directed at me, at the world, at all the ways life simply wasn’t easy now that his father had been stolen from us by a vicious disease that had claimed his mind before his body.
I wanted to tell my son he was right to be angry, at me and the world and all the ways life simply wasn’t easy. I was doing my best to fill a role I’d never seen filled, and my best might not be enough—clearly it wasn’t that night.
As I calmed my son down, showed him how to give voice to his grief, which in that moment looked so much like fury, I thought back to my brother. I remembered when he started watching sports at home. I remembered resenting the way he suddenly took over the television with games I believed he didn’t even care about. I remembered thinking, whether true or not, that he was just starting to watch because his friends were watching, that he’d never watched sports before, and the sudden, pointed interest was fake to impress the other kids.
But, in looking back, I see that I was wrong. What I was seeing was the effort my brother was putting into something that would have been effortless if his father had been there. I was seeing the effort it took for him to remember to turn on a sports channel and watch by himself and study the players and learn the games so that he didn’t feel left out—once again—when all the boys whose dads hadn’t walked away without looking back talked sports. What I was witnessing was the work required to carve out a space for himself in a world that maybe made him feel normal when normal was no longer a given.
And suddenly I understood why I’d been unable to find the words to give shape and life to my idea. My focus was too narrow. The challenge I faced wasn’t to encourage him to love sports because boys “should” love sports or to be interested in sports because his friends were or even because it would make his father happy and proud.
The challenge was that something that should be effortless—a love of sports, an in-depth knowledge of players and stats, or anything that would have come naturally if his dad were still alive—required effort I didn’t know to anticipate until it was too late. The challenge was in accepting that I am a single mother, raised in a single mother’s home without a male influence, and I cannot fill a role I’ve never seen filled. The challenge was that in this life post loss, things that should be easy rarely are, and that’s not a truth that can be shaped and distilled.
But also, I am a single mother, raised in a single mother’s home without a male influence and I know the challenges are not insurmountable. I’ve seen the way a young boy, with a little effort, a little perseverance and determination, can carve out a space for himself that fits. And I’ve learned through example and experience that maybe the best thing I can do is stand beside him when he’s frustrated, recognize that his rage is grief in disguise, and hold him a little tighter when the feelings are too big for him to carry alone.
And maybe, at the very least, pay attention to which teams are playing in the Super Bowl.
Which is maybe enough. Maybe sometimes simply having the idea, knowing where you want your story to go, is enough, and the words and outlines and details will come when the time is right.