Reviewed by Shelly Sanders
22 october 2018 archive
It seems almost too easy to review a memoir like Angie Abdou's Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom, when my own life situation mirrors that of the author's in specific ways that are integral to my response. We both have young kids. They play organized sports. We both wonder about how beneficial the latter is for the former. This common ground between writer and reader would ostensibly place us in an ongoing, timely conversation, an open dialogue that parents are having world-wide, perhaps particularly in Canada and the US, as we do our best to dance away from parenting labels like "helicopters" and "over-documenters" and toward healthy and thoughtful ideals. But rather than creating an indulgent, self-referential identification with the author, her book provided a surprising and refreshing call to action in our shared points of connection.
Because what I've found is that questions and conversations about youth sports are still silenced (particularly for moms), that mixed messages and ambivalence from outside and inside culminate in mostly whispered fears or are excused in favor of platitudes like, "But it's so fun!" (a word the author critiques beautifully in Ch. 4: Kids in the Colosseum). Abdou, a swimmer and novelist from Canada, with a family dedicated to sports, steps away from her familiar genre and sets out to ask questions about her 9-year-old son Ollie's Atom-level hockey team, the Fernie Ghostriders, when the cost of playing may sometimes be greater than the reward. I wonder about some of the same questions when I watch 5-year-old TINY-MITES tackle their counterparts in Pee-Wee Football on a 97-degree weekday afternoon with full pads, bobble-headed-helmets so heavy they can hardly run. We pay lip-service to the research on concussions in both sports, but go right ahead signing up our children season after season and writing checks because we believe them when they say they love the sport. After all, what is a parent to do in the face of love? Abdou wrestles with the complexity of this question.
As an athlete herself, Abdou is all too aware of the ways in which competitiveness, etched into our psyches at a young age, can express itself. In her memoir, she writes down what she knows to be true about youth hockey, and what she doesn't know, as she follows a year of Ollie's season. She's mindful of her feelings about being there, of being the "hockey mom" at every practice, game and tournament, and she helps the reader understand why her feelings, observations and reflections are important in our contemporary discourse. She acknowledges the ambivalence existing on almost every level, the inequalities of gender and race, not just with observations but with careful research on the politics and cost of hockey.
But sometimes it's just all too much.
"We all have our own means of looking away," Abdou acknowledges, and this gets at the heart of her impetus for reflection.
Ramifications of this are painful, both on a communal and individual level. Our society suffers when children are abused by pedophile coaches like Graham James, a monster from Abdou's hometown. Marriages suffer when parents must choose between quality time and a quality athlete. The other children sometimes fall to the background amidst the daily grind of the "assigned" parent.
It seems like there are many parents who are asking questions about the toll that the contemporary youth sports culture has on our children, our marriages and our communities. We rarely talk about the answers to those questions, however, and they continue to sort of hover in the ether, in the stands and on the sidelines. We look to each other to take responsibility, to be the one to speak up and against injustice, and often those who do muster the courage to resist find themselves unwilling mouthpieces for the rest of eternity. One mother on Abdou's son's hockey team is known as the one who will stand up to one of the coaches who walks the line of abuse. But we know from experience that even the moms who start with the energy to make a difference are often worn down and find themselves relieved when their children decide to move on. The strength of this memoir is that Abdou notices these tensions and wisely notes, "Someone else will need to do Sharon's work of making sure common sense has a voice" (208). Perhaps her memoir is this voice as well.
We in academia might find new ways of using this common ground and prior knowledge to applaud those texts that raise the level of critical inquiry about language and the lines we take in meta-discourse and in real life. Home Ice is about hockey, the way we talk about hockey, and the interplay of generational attitudes and negotiations of cultural expectations on parents as we wrestle with the disconcerting ways that we see coaches, parents and players acting in what purports to be a safe and fun environment.
"It's time to acknowledge that shaming kids, berating them, name-calling and whacking them with sticks is not acceptable" (53), Abdou writes. It's not ok to say that a kid "rung his bell" when he has a concussion, and "even knowing what we know now, some parents and coaches still talk about head injuries this way" (83). Current medical research clearly says otherwise. To know when to say "enough" in youth sports is hard, and in many ways as parents we experience the pressure to start earlier, participate more, document more, expect more. Then we remember that children receive dangerous messages, too, and that platitudes like "You can do anything!" cause real harm. At times the author's sharp eye perhaps feels a bit caustic, as when she critiques the dress of a naïve author (purveyor of the aforementioned cliché) at a book launch.
Far from being a political or social rant, however, this is a memoir told with humility, and throughout the book, Abdou lets her happy and sensitive son shine through. We see his sense of fairness and justice, his quirky stick-handling, his love for the rowdy speed and sweaty camaraderie of the sport.
In the last scene of the memoir, Abdou recalls a vacation on the beach in Mexico where her son swims in waves that make her nervous, out of reach but ultimately safe, though she will stand by, her gaze "tight" (224) and resolute. It is a fitting ending for her memoir – the acknowledgment that as mothers we can be burdened with irrational fears but at the same time we are anointed with responsibility: responsibility to protect our children. Responsibility to encourage them to move away from us. We are still sorting through our own mixed messages, but memoirs like hers feel like real community, welcoming places next to her on the bench as we cheer our young athletes on.
Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom by Angie Abdou. Toronto: ECW Press, 2018.
Copyright © 2018 by Shelly Sanders