Thanks for the Lesson, Polonius!
To Thine Own Self Be True. I remember the first time I heard that statement, I wondered what it really meant and where it came from. How can someone be true to themselves when in all reality, our existence revolves around others, making life such a complex journey. I’ve learned that this statement, first said by Polonius in Hamlet, is rooted in irony because Polonius was the complete opposite of what he claimed to be. Although he counseled his son Laertes, To Thine Own Self Be True, he did not follow his own advice, nor did anyone else in the play. Is that because it’s not really possible in such a complex world? I think not. And so Polonius, I thank you for the sentiment, but I have chosen to utilize this concept in a completely opposite manner than you did.
My kids are my everything. I’ve always been cognizant that they watch my every move. It’s one thing to tell them not to do something, but if we are doing it – it will likely fall on deaf ears. Think drinking, texting and driving, swearing…the list goes on and on of things we tell our children not to do, but can often do ourselves, with justification. And then there is the other side of the coin – telling our kids to be decent human beings by being kind to others, taking care of ourselves (physically and mentally), and most importantly, loving ourselves and others. I’m not perfect at this by any means but let’s just say that I’m incredibly aware and do everything I can to not be a hypocrite to my children, even if it goes against social norms.
My daughter has always loved the spotlight. We have video of her at 2 years old, singing Katy Perry songs with more fervor than one might think humanly possible for a toddler. Charlee Bria is a firework. Every morning she wakes up to see these words stenciled over her bed, “Cause Baby You’re a Firework, Come On Show Them What You’re Worth!”Like most Moms, I believe my daughter is destined for great things.
I have an older son and I feel the same about him. They are two different human beings. He is full of natural wisdom, depth and grit. When the boy has interest in something, there is no stopping him from pursuing it to the fullest extent. But that fire in his belly is reserved for things that highly interest him. Aside from that, he is a gentle and kind soul.
Charlee – well, she is full of fire and passion, about all things. Quick witted, intelligent and curious, she is a force to be reckoned with as her relentless determination will most certainly lead to greatness.
I’m all for gender equality. In in our home, man and woman are equal and we cross those traditional parenting lines every day. My husband is very involved with the kids, we share responsibilities of drop off, pick up, homework, grocery shopping, etc. We are a 21st century family and I’m so grateful that my kids are witness to how far women have come. They have a career mom – a mom who works hard but is still extremely involved in their lives. A mom who pursued higher education and utilizes her MBA every day in running her own business. They have a mom who not only believes that a woman can do and be anything she wants, but also lives it out entirely. They have an Alpha mom who tends to take the reigns on most things (some call it a control freak, but I will stick with Alpha mom).
For my son, I have high hopes that he will respect women and never treat them as less than equal. He has always treated me with utmost respect and so I’m 100% confident that he will treat other women with the same respect, so long as they deserve it. He and I both believe that a woman (or anyone for that matter) who expects equality should not simultaneously expect to be treated like a gentle little flower. Asking to sit at the executive table with equal pay and expecting that man you are sitting with to hold the door for you, is a bit hypocritical.
As for Charlee, my greatest hope is that she respects herself first and foremost. I hope that she recognizes and utilizes all the amazing gifts she possesses to do great things. And those great things? Well, they certainly don’t need to be what I consider great or what I have chosen to do, but they need to be great to her. I want Charlee Bria to seize every opportunity she can to garnish self-respect and achieve true happiness.
Ok, so you have some background now on how I think, who I am and how I view parenting.
Let’s talk about our experience with All Star Cheer.
I was a cheerleader for 13 years. I started in 4th grade. The year was 1984 – let me save you the math, I am 46 today. I remember actually wanting to play basketball, but I wasn’t great at it (or any other sports for that matter) so, I decided to try out for cheer. It wasn’t a likely choice for an extremely shy, introverted, unpopular book geek – but it felt like the only choice in front of me. In 1984 very few girls crossed over to sports like basketball, except for the exceptional Mikki Padilla – thanks for leading the may Mikki!
And so it went. I tried out for cheerleading in 4th grade and made the team. I had fun and was coming out of my shell, so I kept trying out and kept making the team. Like my son, I have a lot of grit. I’m an extremely hard worker (to a fault) and so once I found that sport that I could be half decent at, I worked hard at it and eventually became captain and was chosen as the single All Star in the state of NM in 1992 (my senior year). This gave me the opportunity to cheer at the Aloha Bowl in Hawaii and try out for the USA (United Spirit Association) staff. Here I was, the shy little girl from NM, going up against many beautiful, gregarious, well trained cheerleaders from across the country for 1 of 12 spots on the USA staff. I will admit, I thought my chances were slim, but I gave it my all anyway.
I made it. I was selected out of hundreds for one of the coveted spots. This brush with victory not only fed my need for significance, but also guaranteed me a summer job all through college (teaching cheer camps across the country). The next year I tried out at UNM and made that team too. Although my time on that team was short lived, I garnished some great memories.
Teaching for USA was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Back in the early-mid 90’s, cheer was teaching girls to be strong, confident, athletic and outgoing, all great lessons for shy girls like me.
I would not trade my experience for the world. The grown up me loves public speaking, doesn’t have a shy bone in her body, is completely confident and knows the value of a smile. I owe so much of this to cheer.
There were, however, some sides of cheer that were ugly. There are the stereotypical things like, cheer girls are mean (some are, some are not), cheer girls are superficial, (some are, some are not) or cheer girls sleep around (I never knew this to be true). I definitely found some meanness across the cheer teams in high school and college, but that existed outside of cheer too. Teenage girls can be mean. Teenage boys can be mean. People can be mean. That’s life.
It was mainly my experience cheering at UNM that put a real sour taste in my mouth about the future of the sport. Our coach was a medical resident and was simply mean, at least to me. He too worked for USA and as the only other fellow New Mexican, he seemed to have different expectations of me since we overlapped the USA/UNM worlds of cheer. I always felt like he was embarrassed of me. Like he had others on the UNM team that he would have preferred to be on USA with him, and in all fairness, there were some far more talented than me on the team. He treated me like an ant that he wanted to squash and although I wasn’t the confident woman then that I am today, I was growing into that person and learning to respect myself so his actions towards me made me extremely uncomfortable.
He had weight requirements for us. My weight requirement was 93 lbs. I’m a pretty small person, but I will tell you right now that I probably have not weighed 93 lbs. since I was a child.
He would constantly threaten me that I couldn’t cheer if I didn’t make weight. I used to think to myself, “what is this, wrestling?” We shouldn’t have to make weight to cheer. Ridiculous. One Friday, I got on the scale and it tipped over 100 lbs. He said, “I don’t care what you have to do, but you need to drop that weight. Just go throw up with the rest of them.” We had a girl on the team who was bulemic. I, and the rest of the team worried about her constantly and you would think, as a medical resident, he would have too. But that single statement showed me that he didn’t care one bit about anything other than control. I quit the next day.
I had never been a quitter, but it was more important to me to walk away from a toxic environment that it was to not be a quitter. I never regretted the decision and I never looked back. I walked away from cheer forever. Or so I thought…
Since that pivotal moment where I found freedom in removing myself from an environment that does not serve my greater good, I’ve gained more practice in having courage to do what’s best to keep myself protected from potentially harmful situations. I’ve walked away from relationships, friendships, jobs and even a marriage – all in the name of fostering a healthy world for myself. It hasn’t been easy. I’m sure damage has been done along the way and I remain eternally sorry for any that have been hurt as a biproduct of me taking care of me. But here’s the deal, if I cannot muster the strength to remove myself from environments, thoughts, activities or people that have the potential to bring me down, how on earth can I love others? Because if I stay in a place that hurts me, I’m not loving myself. And if I want to show others how to love themselves (mainly my children), I have to SHOW them how to do it. If you really want to know somebody, don’t listen to what they say, but WATCH what they do. Yeah, I’m talking to you Polonius! We as parents need to set the example, always.
Charlee Bria started expressing an interest in cheer about 5 years ago. She knew I had done it and she thought the girls in their sparkly outfits, big bows and bright red lips were oh so glamorous. Unlike me, Charlee didn’t need cheer to help her come out of her shell. Quite frankly, the last thing I wanted to do to my 5-year old was put make up on her and parade her on a stage, so, I steered her towards gymnastics instead. I know how important tumbling is for cheer so I figured we could get her feet wet with gymnastics and if she still wanted to try cheer when she was older, then at least she’d have some tumbling skills under her belt. She exceled in gymnastics and loved it. I saw her confidence rise and a sense of discipline started to emerge. As far as I could tell, it was a healthy sport. Practice times were reasonable, competitions were friendly, attire and presentation were age appropriate.
A couple years in, she started to ask about cheer again. I still felt she was too young to parade around in tight little outfits all made up like an adult, but she was adamant about wanting to experience it so I signed her up for an All-Star Cheer team.
Now let me preface by saying that I have no ill will towards the gym she went to or anyone involved. They do what they love and believe in. For that I commend them.
From day one, something didn’t feel right. I was doing things that went against my motherly instincts. Charlee was 10 and I was spending loads of money to doll her up and parade her on stage every weekend. Practices were 3+ hours, 2 nights a week with a night of mandatory tumbling. Girls were required to attend practice even if they were sick and competitions were every weekend, sometimes both days (all day), sometimes out of town (at a casino in Las Vegas, nonetheless). I’m not sure what brilliant mind thought it was a good idea to hold a youth cheer competition at a smoky, ridiculously inappropriate casino in Vegas. And on what planet do we pay money and sacrifice our lives to take girls 10 and under across another state to watch them compete on stage for 2 minutes in a CASINO? I get that this makes sense to some people (as the place was packed with cheerleaders from all across the country) but for me, this felt like I was part of some alternate universe. The energy was intense. Moms on the edge of their seats hoping for a bid to Florida, the girls loading up on Gatorade, donuts and all kinds of junk for their 2-MINUTE performance (a banana and water would have been plenty) and young girls crying whether they got first place or 6th place, because to them, these competitions mean everything. You would have thought we were at the Olympics based on the intensity in the room.
No matter how hard I tried, I could not grasp this cheer world. I couldn’t connect with the other moms and I most certainly was not seeing any valuable lessons for Charlee. In fact, it was the opposite. I was cringing at all she was being exposed to. Girls finding their value through make-up, skimpy outfits and fake smiles – all before the age of 10. It felt like we were taking 100 steps backwards as females.
But, Charlee was co-captain of her team, and I wanted her to understand that it is important to not let your team down so we decided to stick out the season. She was miserable. She cried weekly about going to practice and even faked being injured just so she could miss. We kept on, become more and more miserable as time went on.
As we were preparing for the second competition in Vegas, she had a complete melt-down. She hated the way she looked in the uniform and sobbed, “Mom I can’t do this. I can’t do it anymore.” Practically in tears myself, I hugged her and told her, “Then you won’t. It’s time to walk away.” She was devastated at the thought of letting her team down. “But Mom, I’m Co-Captain. I can’t do that to them. I can’t let them down.” As I hugged her tighter I said, “I love that you care so much, Charlee. You know the value of working as a team and understand that we don’t just quit without reason. Your father and I have kept you in cheer this whole time because we wanted you to learn the important lesson of seeing something through, and not quitting. But I can see you’ve learned that lesson, and so it’s time for you to learn another, even more important one. When you are in a toxic environment or situation, you walk away.”
She looked at me with the first glimmer of hope I had seen in awhile and said, “So, I can walk away if this is toxic for me?”
We both smiled through the tears as I said, “Absolutely, baby, absolutely.”
She went on to finish the competition that day and had a new bounce in her step. Although she was sad about leaving her team, she felt a sense of freedom and maybe even more importantly, support from her parents to take care of her own needs.
We started driving back to Phoenix that night but I realized how exhausted we both were, so decided to stay another night. We found a hotel, checked in, and retired to the room. On our way to the room, we encountered a few drunk gamblers and what looked like a drug shakedown. We got in the room, quickly locked the door, looked at the beds and realized we were in a real shady place. I wasn’t sure what to do. It was almost 9p, I had already paid for the room and quite frankly, I wasn’t sure where to go. Charlee turned to me and said, “Mom, I don’t feel safe here.” I said, “I understand. I’m not sure I do either, but we will keep the door locked, just sleep and leave first thing in the morning.” She said, “But if we are in a toxic environment, we should walk away, right?” Touche!
We marched back to the check in desk, asked for a refund and found another hotel.
The cheer school was amazingly understanding about her resignation. Charlee is back to being her free, fun-loving self and I am back to feeling like I’m doing things in favor of my motherly instinct, rather than against it.
I will forever remember our cheer experience because it was the one that came with the greatest lesson for my girl and reminded me that just because Polonius didn’t do as he said, I still can. And so I continue to strive to set the example in teaching my children; To Thine Own Self Be True.