“I love to watch you play.”

I read that as a parent, it’s what you should say to your child after a game. It strikes the right balance of support without giving a false compliment; it praises the effort but not the result. It’s also a phrase that doesn’t insert you in the middle of your child’s accomplishments or lack thereof, trying to chase your own sports dreams. That one was never a problem for me. Although I have witnessed many parents trying to relive (or recast) their own glory days through their children’s athletic events, playing sports was my worst nightmare as a child — spoken as a habitual last-pick-in-gym-class kind of gal.

So when it was clear my boys were heading down the sports path — baseball for one, soccer for the other — I tried to educate myself about the sports themselves (the rules, the strategy, the skills), and how I could best support them as a parent. That’s how I ended up dutifully doing my homework to find the exact right phrase that could celebrate a victory as much as cut through the tension after a baseball game that didn’t go exactly as planned.

“I love to watch you play.”

Try as I might, even though I had the script, I wasn’t reading my line with any sort of feeling. And worse, I felt guilty because it wasn’t ringing true with some of the emotions I was feeling: sick to my stomach with nerves every time my son is at bat; frustrated watching the crazy sports parents evaluating his every move as if they’re professional scouts; enraged like a mama bear when I think my kid has been underestimated.

I didn’t love any of the above.

So when the pandemic hit and sports were shut off, along with everything else, there was a small part of me that welcomed the logistical pause from the dizzying parade of muddy uniforms, dirty water bottles and TeamSnap mobile app alerts that flashed on my phone telling me which field in Timbuktu I needed to drive to next. I also welcomed the mental pause, realizing that every time I watched my son put himself out there, I put myself on pins and needles.

But in the weeks — and then months — that followed, as the fields remained shuttered, I began to notice what really had been lost. It was not extra laundry, not butterflies in my stomach, not innings or outs. It was the small moments that I hadn’t really noticed while they were actually happening. The ritual of double-knotting his shoes and then double-tapping his foot as my unspoken way to say “good luck” before a game. Letting him pick which songs he wanted to listen to in the car on the way to a doubleheader and singing along. The feeling of pride with the crack of the bat — pride not in seeing the ball whiz through the air, but in knowing all the work he put in to make it so. And I realized that those moments are something you appreciate only after watching your child live through the lows, too.

This weekend, after a very long pause, I’ll watch my son play baseball again. Yes, there will be masks and temperature checks and new protocols, but there will be base stealing, catches in the outfield and hits, too. My feelings of nerves — for now — have been replaced by feelings of anticipation and excitement for him to be able to return to doing something he loves.

And it occurs to me, with the passage of time, that eventually the pause in sports in our household will be permanent. At some point, his time playing baseball will come to an end, and I’ll never return to a field to see him play. So I want to use this pause to reconcile what my real script should be.

Heath, I do love watching you play — but it’s so much bigger, and more complex, than that. Baseball has provided a backdrop to watch you continue to grow, learn and change. So I realize now that it’s not possible to love every moment of watching you play, because as a parent, sometimes it’s hard to see your child navigate difficult life lessons in real time. Maybe my nervous stomach wasn’t so off-base after all — just a way of showing my solidarity and empathy.

What I do know is that I love to watch your hard work pay off. I love to watch you pick yourself up after failing. I love to watch you roll your eyes when teammates call you by a nickname you say you hate but secretly love. I love to watch you surprise your opponents and coaches when your calm exterior masks a focus and determination that they didn’t see coming. And I love to watch you swing for the fences.

But most of all I love to watch you out there in the world, living, all while on a dirt diamond, under a perfectly pink summer sky.

When she is not watching her two sons play travel sports in Arlington, Va., Katie Butler works for a trade association that represents the floral industry.

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