Stuck in the Bleachers With You

How do you make friends with sports moms? And will those friendships last?

Parents on the bleachers under umbrellas as hearts rain down.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.

If you’re a parent of one of the nearly 8 million students participating in high school athletics, the year-end sports event may be on your calendar this month. For my son’s swim team, the end-of-season “banquet” was a pasta and salad buffet in a gym decorated with team regalia. As my son joined his friends at the food table, I felt an undertow.

I’d expected the ceremony to be bittersweet, as my son was one of the graduating seniors on the team. That all of them would be swimming in college was a testament not only to their years of hard work (and some good genes) but to a significant investment of parent time. Daily rides to practice, endless snacks, weekends eaten up by swim meets: The moms and dads assembled in that dingy gym were coming to the end of something, too. And while students spend the last banquet reliving their athletic accomplishments and team experiences, sports parents have their own highlight reel—starring not only their children, but all the team parents they’ve sat with in the bleachers.

It must have been the gym locale that set me off, but I was soon having the emotional reaction of a teenager myself. I cycled through past hurts and missteps, landing on the memory of a travel meet to Princeton, New Jersey, way back in middle school, when my son had first joined the team. Most of the other kids had been in lessons together since they were toddlers, so the relationships among the kids and the parents were already established. By accident we ended up at the same college-town gastropub where the team was holding a group dinner, to which we, the newcomers, and one outcast family had not been invited. We were seated in a small room with a fireplace near a window through which we could see the season’s first snow fall outside. As we ate pot pies and salad, the outcast dad, a music business executive with little interest in swimming and even less patience for team parent shenanigans, remarked how much more civilized our dinner was than the rowdy group pasta load. I agreed, but inside I wanted to be seated at the big table. I wanted to belong.

There definitely was room in my middle-age life for more friends. I’d lost quite a few through the years: single-women friends who couldn’t or didn’t hitch along on my family journey; many who fled to the suburbs for more space and better schools; one friend lost to an overdose, another to 9/11. I was determined to break in, rushing from work to watch team practices whenever I could. I tried to decode the pecking order of the team parents, struggling to make sense of the pack’s rotating set of alpha dogs. One mom, alpha because of her kid’s skill, was ever short of snacks, gum, Advil, and manners—she’d save seats around her in case one of her many relatives showed up to practice, relegating me to a seat away from the group. There was a temper-prone dad who watched his stocks and his son with the same eye toward return on investment. Despite racing suits costing hundreds of dollars, his son always had the latest and freshest suit. Another alpha mom was always in search of the best, be it a carrot muffin or dermatologist; her perpetual hunt imbued her with the self-appointed role of chief judge of all people.

One of those people was me, I’d find out the next year at Junior Olympics, when one mom got confessional drunk at the hotel bar. We had an artificial closeness, as our kids were secretly dating—the team was too new to have a specific rule about that, but the kids were wise enough to be circumspect. After telling me how much she liked my son, she told me she didn’t believe the (untrue) story the judgy alpha mom had circulated about him being kicked off his previous team. I confessed that I had wanted to fit in but just couldn’t seem to find a way. She shook her head, her voice loud from the wine. “Oh, that won’t happen. You should hear what they say about you,” she said, telling me that they found my parenting lax: My son often took the subway alone to and from practice.

My son did well at that meet. He had become good friends with his teammates and was getting faster and stronger under a coach who expected him to be at every practice. He was committed to swimming with this team, which meant I was committed to time spent with the other swim parents. From workplace experience I knew the intrinsic value of the informal information network. Like most parents, I would do virtually anything for my child, and certainly, I thought, I had it in me to pull up my big-girl pants and find my place among the swim parents. If my son didn’t succeed at swimming, I thought, it wouldn’t be because I couldn’t break through and make friends with some other moms. Thankfully, a new group of swimmers had aged up that spring and the presence of some new parents in the bleachers diluted the sting of the alpha clique.

Sometimes I’d bring a book or my computer to meets and find a spot in the hallway, ducking in only to watch my son’s races. I did try, and mostly failed, to connect with the other parents. I was working on a novel then and attempted to talk about best-sellers to one affable dad who proudly told me he hadn’t read a book since college. I’m sure I came off as a snob; from working at a newspaper for so many years, the small talk I was used to making was not quite so small.
And if I tried talking about work, the stay-at-home moms would interrupt to recount the glory days of their pre-mommy jobs. Their laser focus on their children scared me; I was a submarine to their helicopter, popping up only when necessary. Accustomed as I was to an identity from my professional achievements, I was inherently uncomfortable with a pecking order based on our kids’ swimming times.

My zucchini bread was my breakthrough. A team tradition was to bring a snack for the team after Saturday practice. The kids liked my baking so much that a few of the moms asked for recipes, which led to conversations about nutrition and healthy cooking—enough to get me out of the pariah zone on the bench and into the general conversation.

Soon the warp and weft of our lives spun tighter as we cheered on our ever more successful team. Familiarity bred acceptance. The loud-voiced alpha dad who once ticked me off was now just an enthusiastic parent cheering for our team, not just his son. When one of the new swimmers qualified for a regional meet, I made sure his mom could join us for dinner. By the time our swimmers were being recruited by colleges, we were wound up in one another’s lives—several years of New Year’s resolutions made in a hotel lobby during the team training trip, birthdays celebrated, jobs lost, and family illness had tied us together over the years.

As I waited in line for food at the banquet, one of the mothers hip-checked me—a physical joke referencing a workout we once managed to sneak in between morning and afternoon sessions. A group of us happened upon a line-dancing class at a Y in Jacksonville, Florida. We all struggled with the rapid-fire instructions, and I learned that while I could wiggle my hips, I’d as often move to the left when the sequence called for us to move to the right, starting a series of hip bumps with the other parents that infuriated the instructor and had us laughing harder than I thought possible.

When the meal wound down and the coach started recapping the season, I could feel the threads that connected us unraveling. One by one he called the graduating seniors up to the podium to talk about their achievements and the colleges they’d attend. We took pictures. Some people cried. The highlight reel played, and when it stopped on a picture of the kids posed around the lifeguard station at Ditch Plains in Montauk, I was teary-eyed, too, remembering one magic night during the early-season training trip. On weekend nights that beach is speckled with extended families gathered around bonfires, something my small family had always envied. That year, we and two other families coordinated a team bonfire on the beach—and everyone was invited. As marshmallows melted for the s’mores, so too did the differences between us. The kids soon went inside; as the sea went out and the wine kicked in, we opened up. One mom spoke about the challenges of dealing with her father’s dementia, another shared trepidation about re-entering the workforce. I offered to help with her résumé. It was a misty night, with the rawness that comes in the September wind. As we moved closer to the fire, the orange flames illuminated our faces, and I felt that for the first time we were seeing each other as ourselves rather than an extension of our kids.

As the trophies and gift bags were tucked away into backpacks for the ride home from the banquet, we faced each other awkwardly; the connections had already begun to unravel. There was small talk about college, and one mom threw out tentative dates for an adults-only party, making a point to check my upcoming travel plans. I’d earned my place at the table but still felt like I didn’t quite belong. These relationships had gone long, but they hadn’t gone deep. Without the shared interest of our kids, there was little left to bind us. And while I knew I would greet the other parents warmly when our kids competed in college, for me at least, the friendships made on the bleachers would stay on the bleachers.