I'm a woman of lost weekends. I can't remember the last free Saturday when I could shop or cook for company. I haven't had a chance yet to see the Treasure Houses of Britain exhibit, but I'm hoping to slip in sometime late this month.

That's the short stretch between the end of the wrestling and basketball seasons and the beginning of crew and soccer. You see, I'm the mother of two adolescent jocks, and while my colleagues spend their weekends visiting museums, or fixing their roofs, or even, think of it, reading a book, I head to playing fields and gymnasiums in deepest Northern Virginia to cheer on my sons.

Most recently I spent 10 hours in a high school gym which smelled like the inside of a well-worn tennis shoe, had an ambient temperature of 98.6 and a relative humidity to match. The occasion was something called a District Wrestling Meet. My son wrestled four times. So did at least 150 other boys on three red and blue mats spread across the gym floor. After five hours it all began to look like Lipchitz sculptures animated by Looney Tunes. I took a break at a nearby McDonald's.

In my role as a parent spectator I've stanched nosebleeds, applied cold compresses and coached basketball for a quarter because the real coach, my husband, was late. I've yelled my lungs out as the T.C. Williams Freshman Eight edged toward the finish line, or as my son went for a pin on the wrestling mat, and I once nearly punched out a soccer referee who didn't call foul on the kid who had just cleated my younger boy in the stomach and sent him writhing to the ground. The first time I watched my wrestler son being turned into a pretzel, I had to grip the bleachers to keep from flying down to the mat on a rescue mission. It's hard to look when your kid's face is mashed into the mat. One thousand dollars worth of orthodontic metal is making meatloaf of the inside of his mouth and there's nothing you can do. The best rule for mothers of wrestlers is "Never watch your own kid."

I sometimes worry that being a faithful fan is just an excuse. Maybe I'm -- shudder -- "living through the children." I was always the last to be chosen for softball teams, so perhaps their athletic triumphs are my vicarious ones. Whatever the reasons for it, I'm certainly not alone. There's an army of similar parents out there. You can spot us on the sidelines and in the stands, clutching the knitting and the crossword puzzles we bring to fill the empty spaces between events.

I may sound like a hopeless romantic, like the Duke of Wellington who thought the Battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton, but it's true, sports offer a crash course in many of life's difficult realities. They offer lessons about teamwork, about grace under pressure, about risk and commitment, about defeat as well as victory. One hopes our children are getting all the messages. For those of us in the stands, there's self-knowledge to be gained of a different sort, some gut level recognition of another facet of being a parent. You may be a spectator, have paid your admission like every other fan in the stadium, but when you kid's up to bat, your heart strings stretch all the way to home plate, even if your apron strings don't.