The Hardest Decisions Mothers Make

On sons and soccer, growing up and leaving home

A photo of a child playing soccer
Carlos Barria / Reuters / Redux

I count the weeks. Before, it was months. Soon it will be days.

I’m counting the time left before my oldest child leaves home. The time left that the four of us will live together, under this roof, intact as a family.

This child, whose name is James, loves soccer. Always has. There’s a photo of him, age 1—1!—tiny soccer ball at his feet and huge grin on his face. Barely able to walk and already learning to dribble. Now fast-forward 16 years. He’s a starting striker on his high-school varsity team. He lives for these games.

This is a boy so catastrophically, irredeemably messy that even his younger brother, also a teenager, gets grossed out by the chaos. This same boy clears a space in the debris to carefully lay out his uniform the night before a game. Cleats, shin guards, cherished jersey—No. 7—all washed and arranged at right angles at the foot of his bed. Game time arrives and the whistle blows and James plays his heart out.

At least, for a long time, this was what I had been told. Varsity games tend to happen on weekdays, around 4 p.m. Want to know what else happens on weekdays at 4 p.m.? NPR’s All Things Considered goes on air.

The cover of Mary Louise Kelly's book It. Goes. So. Fast.
This article is adapted from Kelly’s forthcoming book.

Technology makes possible many once-impossible things, but our broadcast engineers have yet to figure out how I might anchor a daily national news program from the bleachers. And so for years I missed his games. Nearly every one of them.

James was, actually, mostly okay with this. His dad attended every game he could; the other parents cheered James on; he came home and gave me the play-by-play at dinner. I was … not so okay with this, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that there would always be another game. That next time, I’d figure out a way to be there, deadlines be damned, screaming myself hoarse on the sidelines.

Except that the years slip by. Ninth grade slides into 10th slides into 11th. Suddenly, James was a senior. I was out of next times. There were no more do-overs.

I swear there are a million well-meaning books about the juggle, and work-life balance, and leaning in and leaning out, and how you can have it all just maybe not all at once. Start reading, though, and you’ll find they’re nearly all aimed at young parents at the beginning of the whole enterprise. Tome after tome offers encouragement and advice for new moms drowning in hormones and guilt in their office cubicles, because their phones have lit up with a picture from day care or the nanny, of their kid happily eating his first banana. And they’re missing it, and it’s only a damn banana, but they’ll never get that moment back. Sister, I’ve been there.

But here is the thing I did not know: The tug is just as strong when your baby is 17 as when he is seven weeks or seven months. For me, it is in fact stronger. You blink and the finish line is in sight. Young parents, listen to me: It. Goes. So. Fast.

Most of the working mothers I know have made a pact with themselves. When the job and the kids collide, the kids come first. I have pushed back from the anchor chair in Studio 31, NPR’s main studio, in the middle of a live broadcast and announced to my co-host and to the startled director, “I’ve got to go.” One cannot get away with this often. But when a text rolls in from the babysitter and it begins, “We’re in the emergency room …,” you stand up and you run.

Another moment: Iraq, 2009. I’m in Baghdad, part of the Pentagon press pool covering a visit by the U.S. secretary of defense. We’re all suited up in body armor and helmets, and we’re being herded toward Black Hawk helicopters that will fly us to the next press conference when my cellphone rings. It’s the school nurse back in Washington. She wants to tell me that my son—the other one, Alexander, then 4 years old—is sick. Really sick. How fast can I get there? “The day after tomorrow” would have been the accurate response, but the line mercifully went dead before I had to deliver it. I cried myself to sleep that night in Baghdad. Not long after, I quit my job.

I would not have believed it at the time, but these are the easy calls. Your phone delivers a panicked summons; your heart thrums with love for your child; you stand up and you run. It has taken me a long time to understand that the hard calls, the ones that may come back to haunt you, are the ones that accumulate in the gray space between the drama of a nurse tracking you down in Iraq and the routine Thursday-afternoon unfolding of a high-school-soccer game. I don’t stand up and sprint from the studio for the latter because there are so many of them. Were so many of them.

I’m aware that I’m lucky to have a choice in how I spend my time. And I don’t presume to judge others who’ve chosen differently, or who seem at peace with their choices. Hats off. (Only could you please write the next book and clue the rest of us in on how it’s done?) I also know that not everyone reading this is a mother. Not everyone reading this is a parent. This is my story.

Yours will be different. What we have in common is the knowledge that there will never be enough hours in the day or enough years on this Earth to do everything we came here to do.

Last year I realized my firstborn was guaranteed to live under the same roof as me for just one more school year. I also lost my dad and turned 50, and we all began to emerge from a pandemic that had rendered our lives unrecognizable. If all of that’s not a ripe opportunity for reflection, I don’t know what is.

After reflecting on the deals I’ve cut with myself, I made a decision: I wanted to show up for my sons’ soccer games this past fall. Soccer matters a great deal to my sons. My sons matter a great deal to me. And this was not exclusively about James’s senior year. This was also the only season that the boys were likely to suit up in the same uniform on the same field at the same time. Both are strong players, but because of their two-year-and-two-month age gap, they’d never played on the same roster. For years, our family weekends had been an exercise in dividing and conquering, my husband driving one kid to all his travel games and tournaments and me driving the other, often dozens or hundreds of miles in the opposite direction. This was it: my chance to show up for both of them. Two birds, one stone.

I thought about the trade-offs involved in ceding the anchor chair for a long spell. They were not insignificant, but they were mine to make. So I asked to take six weeks away from the newsroom. The leave was officially so I could write a book, but I asked for the dates to overlap with peak high-school-soccer season. The plan was that I would write my butt off every day until 3:30 in the afternoon, then hit “Save,” close my laptop, and race to the stadium to scream my head off at games.

It would be perfect.

And it was, some days.

My very first day of book leave was glorious. Early fall, crystalline blue skies, a hint of chill in the air but the sun still warm on your face. The words had flowed that morning. On the field, James took a few minutes to settle but when he did, he scored, and then he scored again. The second goal was courtesy of a cheeky flick off the back of his heel.

“Jeez, he made that look easy,” whooped the dad of one of the younger boys, spinning around in the bleachers to give me a high five. It is surprising he could reach me, as I was levitating several feet off the ground with pride and love.

There were even better days. On his 16th birthday, Alexander scored in the last seconds of the game. His very first goal as a varsity player. Even the seniors stormed the field to congratulate him. You have never seen a boy with eyes so bright or a grin so wide. On the drive home, I teased him, “You know this is as good as life gets, right? A sweet goal, on your sweet 16th, in front of the whole school? You do know it’s all downhill from here?”

The best day of all was an ordinary one, in a not particularly important game, early in the season. James and Alexander play the same position. This meant the downside of their being on the same team was that Alexander rarely got off the bench. As a senior, James started every game and finished most of them too; Alexander and many of the other younger players subbed in only if the score grew so lopsided in our favor that we were almost certain to win. When one player subs for another, they’re supposed to do it fast, to minimize disruption. One player runs off, the other runs on, no drama, no breaking stride. When Alexander trotted onto the field to spell his brother that day, he held out his hand for a flying fist bump and kept moving. But for a sliver of a second, James stopped. He reached for Alexander’s shoulder and squeezed it. A look passed from older brother to younger: You got this.

It was the smallest thing. No one else would have noticed. But I watched it and, like the Grinch’s, my heart grew three sizes that day.

Not every day was great. There were days the boys played with everything they had and lost anyway. Days they came home bruised and discouraged. There were leg cramps and rain delays and a dislocated shoulder. There were days they limped off the field in tears.

I was there for all of it.

And yet, as the days slipped by, my own chapters kept not getting written. I was staring down a deadline. I knew how many words needed to get cranked out by the end of my book leave for me to have even a prayer of a chance of turning in the manuscript on time. I was not close. Somehow I found myself back in the gray space of a decision that might come back to haunt me. With reluctance, I concluded that I would need to miss some games after all.

James scored the goal of his high-school career in one of those games: a header, in overtime, to clinch the league trophy. I felt joy (for him) and fury (at myself). Why is life so good at presenting situations where you need to be in two places at once? Sometimes the only thing that gives me solace is the knowledge that we’re all trying, and failing, and then getting up and trying again, to be true both to ourselves and to the people we love.

This article has been adapted from Mary Louise Kelly’s forthcoming book, It. Goes. So. Fast.

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