I was standing on the side of the field, my hands sweating, my heart hammering in my chest as I willed my child to tackle three boys and get the ball. As one child viciously knocked into mine to secure the ball and sped off, I found myself looking at the other parents and apologizing …
Because my child is a girl.
It all began when my strong willed 6-year-old decided she wanted to follow in her big brother’s footsteps and play soccer. To say that Riley is a tomboy is an understatement. She refuses to wear dresses, hates the color pink, and is often the only girl invited to the boys’ birthday parties. Ever since nursery school, my daughter has only ever wanted to play with the boys. So, when she asked to join the team, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
In a team of seven kids, she is the only girl. I am wildly proud of her, and of course I want her to have fun — but I’m ashamed to admit, that standing on the field in the chilly autumn air, I felt this overwhelming pressure that she had to be even BETTER than the boys to earn her place. I’m angry at myself for thinking: “I don’t want her to be reason the team loses.”
This is something I have never once felt with my son. He’d just get out there and play — I honestly didn’t even think about whether or not he played well. But because Riley is sticking out like a sore thumb with her long blonde hair, being shoved and tackled and knocked over, I felt like she had to stand up and be just as tough, if not tougher, than all the boys.
I also felt judgment from the team manager, as if he was watching her specifically, to make sure she came up to scratch. It was as if her very gender made her a hindrance rather than a help to the team.
Why do we feel, even now in 2017, that we have to not only prove we are worth as much as the guys — but that to deserve our place, we have to be even better? I also wondered how her teammates were feeling about having a girl on their team — would they feel in any way compromised by her gender?
I’m aware that parents need to be careful about the gender message they send to their children; yet I can’t escape the fact that where we live, soccer is seen predominantly as a boys’ sport. From early on in life, boys are assumed to play the aggressive role and the girls the passive one; so when Riley beats every boy in her class in all the running races on sports day, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride at her fearlessness. I am determined that she will see herself as just as good as any male — so why then did I open my mouth and feel the need to apologize if she made a mistake?
Maybe because girls playing soccer is seen as a relatively new idea. The sponsors of the Women’s FA CUP in the UK commissioned a survey to highlight some of the challenges that exist in football for young girls.
Considering soccer is our national game in the UK, it is surprising to find out that nearly a third of UK fathers surveyed said they felt there is still a stigma around girls pursuing certain sports or hobbies, like soccer. The survey also discovered that dads believed that their daughters are eight times more likely to pick a career in dance, theatre, or hairdressing over football. If, as parents, we don’t attempt to challenge these stereotypes, then nothing will ever change for our daughters.
In another survey by the FA (Football Association) only one in five dads wanted their daughters to play soccer. The sports fathers would encourage their girls to take part in were swimming (59%), athletics (44%) and gymnastics (41%).
I want my little warrior to learn to deal with disappointments and frustrations in a healthy way; to understand how to lose with grace and win with humility. I never ever want her to feel that her gender holds her back in any way.
It is up to me to change the gender script for Riley, to ensure that the face of acceptable femininity also includes a sweaty, muddy girl in a soccer uniform. I want her to know her looks and appearance do not matter on a soccer field – but her skill, talent, drive, and determination do.
The last thing I want is for my daughter to believe that her self-worth is based on how she looks. More than ever, I want her to realize that being aggressive and assertive does not diminish her femininity in any way.
But the person that needs to remember all this isn’t my daughter – it’s me. So this Sunday, when I’m standing on the sideline, I will cheer her on and make no apologies for her gender.
It’s time that I was as brave as she is.