Teach your kids how to ski, but don’t try to make them into something they’re not
The kids are alright
Somewhere along the way, John Irving got ahold of the plot line for my life. My plan was to move to a ski town, get married, buy a car that made both left and right turns, and spend my middle age proudly molding my rough-and-tumble tomcat kids into little rippers.
Then something happened. Well, a lot happened. Instead of having the two kids, I got Cate, who deemed the neighborhood playground slide to be “not a good idea” after careful investigation. And instead of a quirky but happy marriage that I kept intact by agreeing to nonverbal communication before noon, I got single motherhood and weekly Al-anon meetings.
When it came to parenting, I felt equipped to handle many difficult scenarios—“mom, I’m a pyromaniac,” “Mom, I’m a vegetarian,” “Mom, I hate Bruce Springsteen”—but the one I was utterly unprepared for was exactly what I got: “Mom, I am not a skier.” She even went as far to say she wasn’t “outdoorsy,” a statement she stood behind even after I told her it would not excuse her from soccer practice, to which we were presently late.
Where were the muddy footprints on my freshly mopped floor? The bikes strewn across the lawn? The worms in my Tupperware? Most of all, where was the incessant begging to ditch school and go skiing? Instead, I had notebooks full of artfully drawn strep-throat germs, a closet hung with purses, and anxious questions about whether or not the poison control is a real company.
This tested my patience, but even more it tested my resolve to raise a skier. She was scared of everything—the liftie with the scanner, the sound of the chairlift bumping over the bullwheel, the feeling of sliding on snow. I lowered my expectations, envying (and secretly hating) all those parents Instagramming their 5-year-olds on the summit of Highland Bowl. But mostly, I worried. A lot.
I knew her fear was rooted in a belief that this world was not a safe place—where her father could fall through the cracks of addiction, where the ground itself was not to be trusted. I thought skiing could save her, the same way it saved me after I lost my own father to the same fate when I was 6. Like the pattern of a pine cone, the cycle was repeating, and I wanted desperately to give her the same source of confidence that has fed me throughout my life.
So, I kept pushing. And she kept pushing back. Poles thrown, hot tears fogging up goggles, legs twisted up like a pretzel. We had standoffs. Refusals to stand up, ski down, or speak in any language other than a wail. She made dramatic proclamations while sitting on the top of a mogul on her first black: “Just leave me here, Mom—leave me to die.”
And still, I pushed. At the very least, I thought, she will know how to ski. Then she can decide for herself when she gets older whether or not she likes it.
Meantime, at home, exhausted from tearful battles over learning how to do a cartwheel or catch a ball, I decided to buy a hot-glue gun—that ubiquitous magic mom-weapon—and we spent a few evenings building houses out of cardboard. I enrolled her in guitar lessons. I praised her for her self-assigned research projects about ocelots and peregrine falcons. We worked on taking small risks, like going on nighttime walks in our PJS and coloring outside the lines. I taught her about Picasso, whose art was perfectly imperfect, to show her that there is so much beauty in things that don’t look like they should.
And then something else happened. The child who refused to make eye contact with others and speak when spoken to started to find her footing. She laughed more. She talked to strangers on the chairlift. And, yes, she even ventured off the cattrack here and there. In third grade, she came home from school and informed me she was going to run for student council. We made Star Wars–themed posters, she delivered a speech to the whole school promising a longer lunch period, and she won. While the parallel turns remained unmastered, the child trapped by fear was becoming free.
I would be lying if I said I don’t still hope skiing will catch for her. I selfishly want to spend time with her doing what I love in the mountains. But I realize now that my job is really just to help her find what she needs wherever it lies—in art or writing or (hard swallow) fashion design—and just keep that glue gun handy.
Cate is 10 now. I have dragged her skiing all over the world with me, to Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Europe, and Chile. She can get down most blues and even a few blacks—mostly without tears—but she is not a skier. And I am—mostly—ok with that.
Photo: Steve Ogle