Her appearance meant she had climbed out of her crib and opened two closed doors by herself.
Soon after she turned 1, she was running, jumping off stairs, climbing on kitchen counters and on top of the refrigerator -- and once we caught her hanging by one hand from the chandelier over the dining room table.
She was not only fearless but agile, quickly defeating any childproofing barriers we installed. A friend suggested that a gymnastics class might release some of her energy and teach her to climb safely. I found a toddler tumbling class and signed her up.
I expected she would learn to jump, flip and roll, I just didn't expect her to be so good at it. The toddler class morphed into the 3-year-old class and by age 4, she was invited to pre-team gymnastics for kids chosen to be on a fast track to competition.
She was dying to join, but I had reservations. I was concerned about the hours required to excel at the sport and the expense for our one-income family. I was also worried about the judgment she would endure in competition. Now that Simone Biles has dropped out team and individual competitions at the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health
, more people see what the pressure can do to even Olympic gold medalists.
Additionally, gymnastics demands perfection in both skills and body shape, resulting in pressure to conform to a certain body type. It is one of the "aesthetic" sports, which value leanness and judge athletes on both appearance and performance. And eating disorders have been found to be more prevalent in high performance gymnastics
than in the general population.
Society already puts enough pressure on girls. I didn't want a sport to add to the cacophony of voices telling my daughter that she wasn't good enough.
I also spent years in dance class as a teen, which probably contributed to my own body dysmorphia. I wanted to protect my daughter from hating her own body. That wouldn't necessarily happen at age 4, but I worried about her future if she started down that path.
Her unwavering passion and talent for gymnastics convinced us to continue, and by age 8 she was competing. I didn't realize at the time that getting into competitive gymnastics is like the story about the frog in the pot of water. When the water is warmed up slowly, before the frog knows it, he's boiling.
"It's fair to say that it is common for athletes to feel stressed by their sport," said sports psychologist and certified mental performance consultant Elizabeth Boyer, who works with athletes at Northwest Performance Psychology in Seattle. "There has been a professionalization of sports at the youth level that I think has played into the increased pressure."
At my daughter's gym, the kids worked out two hours a week and as she advanced, the coaches added on a day, then an hour got added to practice time, and so on. Every year, my husband and I reevaluated the cost; in dollars, family time, stress on her little body and on her psyche, but she loved the sport and seemed happy. And she was eating enough and growing. By age 10, she was working out 17 hours per week and winning lots of medals.
But four years later, she gave it up for track, church youth group and other interests. Now 17, she works part-time as a barista, takes college classes and runs on her high school track team. Most importantly, she can just be a kid, and that's what I wanted for her as a parent.
A surprising revelation
Recently, though, while talking about her gymnastics experience, she said something that caught me off-guard.
"I remember feeling sad that you weren't a gymnastics mom," she told me, revealing that she felt left out in those early years because of what I didn't do. "I mean, I knew you cared, but you just weren't as involved and really didn't understand the sport."
While it is true that I didn't know a Yurchenko
from a Salto, I still cheered just as loudly as other moms at every meet. I hated that I was just learning she'd felt that way, so I shared my reasons for taking a more low-key approach.
Many gymnastic moms stayed at the gym and watched the whole four-hour practice, even recording their gymnast's routines to review later; I had two other children to care for. They bought mats, balance beams and uneven bars for extra home practices, something we couldn't afford to do. Some parents homeschooled their daughters so they could log more hours at the gym. And one even paid her daughter for each medal she earned.
My daughter told me that many on her team felt parental pressure to make high scores because of the financial costs of their sport. And some parents told their children that they were expecting them to earn full college scholarships.
"Because of the professionalization of youth sports, participation is expensive, which also increases pressure," Boyer said. "Kids know this, whether their parents communicate that directly or not, and it can increase the pressure they feel to have to be successful in order for it to be "worth it" for themselves and their parents."
I didn't want to put any pressure on my gymnast or make it seem like gymnastics was so important that she needed to be homeschooled. As a perfectionist, she applied the pressure herself. I also never wanted her to think her value to our family had anything to do with her physical abilities or the number of medals she won. I thought I was taking a healthy approach by not making gymnastics the center of our lives.
In middle school, she got involved in a church youth group. She really enjoyed the activities but had to miss a lot because of gymnastics. She also wanted to play soccer, but that was difficult because of the ever-increasing hours at the gym. These two things, as well as new friendships outside of her sport, helped her to see the possibility of a world without gymnastics, and an identity other than that as a gymnast.
When she started high school, she made a big decision: She wanted to quit.
As I tried to explain my position in being more hands-off with gymnastics, she stopped me mid-apology.
"No, Mom, I was sad then, but now I'm glad that you weren't that way."
Wait, what? "Why?" I asked.
"Because if you had been a gymnastics mom, I don't think I could've ever quit," she replied. "I don't regret those years, but I'm glad I walked away when it was time."
That simple statement was what I needed to hear.
Parenting is a long game. We seldom get to see the effects of our parenting decisions on our kids in real time. I'm so grateful my daughter made the choice for that was right for her.