My son Eli and I were playing catch. Eli had just joined a baseball team, and he was intent on practicing. He'd been throwing and catching with my husband, Paul, for weeks—on the weekend, after dinner, in the park, on the street. Now, I insisted, it was my turn. I didn't want to be the lame mother who bowed out of her children's athletic endeavors. As we started tossing the ball, I was feeling pleased with myself. I'd borrowed Paul's baseball glove, and I'd caught most of the balls that had come my way.
But after several dozen throws back and forth, Eli stopped. "Why are you catching with your hand?" he asked. He pointed to my right hand, the one without the baseball glove on it. It was true: When the ball headed to my right, I'd been catching it with my bare hand. I'd been priding myself on not dropping it, even though Eli was trying to zing the ball. But he was far more exacting. "You catch it like this," he said, crossing his body with his left hand and snapping his glove shut down low and on the right.
Was there a name for this move? I couldn't remember. I'd seen baseball players do it, for sure. But I'd never learned how to do it myself. "OK, OK," I told my frowning and scowling son. He threw a ball low and to my right. I caught it with my bare hand.
"Not like that, Mom!" Eli was now really exasperated. "Catch it with your glove!"
"OK, OK," I said again. I sounded like I was whining. Also cowering. Cowering? Because of my 9-year-old son? I straightened my shoulders. Eli threw another pitch to my right, and I caught this one, across my body, with the glove. It clapped shut over the ball with a satisfyingly loud snap. I remembered the word I was looking for. "Backhanding!" I told Eli. "That's what this is called. Backhanding."
"Yeah, I know that," he said, deadpan.
"I did it!" I called back.
"Yeah, I know," he said again. I tried to stop grinning foolishly. "Now can you throw the ball back?"
How are you supposed to feel as a parent when your child surpasses you? I know the answer: You are not supposed to feel outdone at all. That's even the wrong way to frame it. You're supposed to feel pride and joy. You are supposed to brag and boast, maybe not too obnoxiously. You are not supposed to think for one moment about how you are being left behind. Because what matters is your child's great progress. He is becoming a whiz at something he's working hard to master. You cheer him along.
And yet I have moments, as my children grow a little older, when I feel something else entirely: competitiveness tinged with envy. Surely, this is unnecessary and unworthy. Who cares whether I can catch a baseball backhanded? But part of me does. Maybe because the natural order of things is being upended: Mothers are supposed to teach; children are supposed to learn. Except now suddenly Eli is the master and I am the novice. That reversal of roles is beautiful and discomfiting at the same time.
And I'll confess that sometimes I just don't like to be bested. Even by my own kid, embarrassing as that is. I've had to face up to this with Scrabble, which Eli now beats me at. He's patient about waiting for the right place to put down his high-scoring letters—Zen on a double word score—and he's better than I am about adding letters to make new words out of the ones on the board.