This column first appeared on BlogHer.
At first, I didn’t even realize it had happened. My sixteen-year-old daughter was playing goalie for her premier soccer team at a college scouting tournament during Thanksgiving break this past November. As a player from the other team charged the goal, by daughter went in for the save. They both missed the ball and hit each other head-on. The other player fell down and then got up and brushed herself off. My daughter stumbled but didn’t fall. She then managed to capture the ball and save the goal. The hit was so fast, so seemingly inconsequential, I assumed it was just another mild collision between two competitive players. Little did I realize the concussion my daughter received that day would challenge us both in deep and unexpected ways.
My daughter started playing soccer in elementary school on a local AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) team. She took to the game instantly and quickly discovered a love for the position of goalie. It requires a certain strength of character to be the last gasp between win and lose. You are either the hero or the one who walks off the field to teammates who can barely make eye contact because your failure cost the team the game. But goalies know every game is a new chance to shine and so they learn to shake off the failures and try again; resilience is woven into their DNA.
Within a few years, my daughter joined a competitive club team. Three nights a week, most weekends during the school year, and for months on end during the summers, she played soccer. After seeing her play, coaches from the other side often tried to poach her. One coach said he’d never seen anything like it. “She’s like velcro,” he told me. “The ball just sticks to her!”
On the side lines, spectators often oohed and aahed at the seemingly miraculous saves my daughter consistently made. “It’s like watching a dolphin float in the air,” one parent said. Another joked in response, “No, she’s more like an octopus. Arms everywhere. Nothing can get by.”
This past fall, as she entered her junior year of high school, my daughter was made co-captain for both her club and school teams. Soon, she was getting attention from college coaches who, by NCAA rules, could finally reach out to express their interest in her. She was excited and I was thrilled.
As any self-respecting Tiger-Mama knows, if your child’s dream is to attend one of the top 100 schools in this country, having a strong G.P.A. and myriad of extra-curricular activities isn’t enough these days. They’ve got to have an edge. My daughter’s edge was going to be soccer.
Now, that’s all changed.
The day after her injury, she woke up feeling nauseous and irritable. We thought she was just tired from the late night giggle-fest her team had had to celebrate the end of the tournament. On the way back home, she insisted on borrowing my sunglasses as the daylight was bothering her eyes. Later that night, she complained she couldn’t focus on her homework and had a headache that wouldn’t go away. One of her teammates had gone home early from the tournament feeling sick with fever and a sore throat. I assumed my daughter was getting the flu.
At school the next day, it was the sports medicine specialist (aka: nurse) who first alerted us to the problem. When my daughter complained of not feeling well, this well-trained individual immediately called me. “You need to pick her up. She has a serious concussion.”
A few days later, a pediatric neurologist officially diagnosed my daughter with a “brain injury.” We’d seen this same doctor years before when another soccer hit had resulted in a mild concussion. That time the symptoms were not nearly as strong and she recovered fully within a few weeks.
Here we were three years later and this time the symptoms were much more pronounced. The pediatric neurologist said, “If it was my daughter, I would never let her play soccer again.” She sent us home with a packet full of frightening information on the long-term consequences of repeated concussive injuries and strict rules about limiting my daughter’s activities.
For the next two weeks, she stayed home from school. She couldn’t watch television, read a book, or listen to music. She became a stranger on Facebook and stopped texting and Snapchatting her friends. Anything, everything, either gave her a headache, made her nauseous, or both. Finally, she turned a corner and was able to return to school, still woozy but feeling better. She couldn’t drive because the quick decision-making was more than she could handle and the very idea of returning to any real physical activity made her head ache. She started going on hikes in the woods with our dog, doing restorative yoga, and even meditating.
Now It’s been two months and she still hasn’t returned to the sport she loves because too much exertion causes her to get a headache. The school soccer season is in full swing and the team is floundering. Two other star players are also out with injuries. The coach has been more than supportive, but he is frustrated and so is my daughter. The team needs her. It’s hard to understand why she can’t just shake it off.
Her friends and teammates have tried to be sympathetic. They’ve brought flowers, made cakes, and sent her cards. But at sixteen, they live in the now and the now doesn’t include my daughter. She’s feeling isolated and alone.
Meanwhile, everyone has an opinion on the “right” course of action. Well-intentioned teachers and advisors have told my daughter she would be crazy to risk her long-term health by playing soccer again. Concerned relatives and friends have told me I am crazy to not stop her if she does try to play. One lectured me by saying, “You’re the adult. You have to make the decision for her. She’s too young to understand.” Another reasoned, “At least get a second opinion.”
So we did. This time we met with the go-to-guy at Stanford Hospital, an expert considered one of the best in the nation. He works with Stanford’s football team, with professional athletes, as well as with the truly critical cases. He told us her symptoms may be scary, but really are only reflective of a “Level One” concussion. He didn’t use the term “traumatic brain injury” as the first doctor did. He explained that the research on concussions is inconclusive and each person responds in their own unique way to a measured hit. He also said he believes many of us had multiple level one concussions as children but were likely not diagnosed unless we lost consciousness. Most of us turned out okay.
The good news is, he expects my daughter to recover fully. The doctor cautioned us to be patient and said she shouldn’t return to play until she was symptom free. But in his opinion, eventually she could play soccer, if she wants to.
As it stands, my daughter is not sure if soccer is in her future. Some days she has absolute clarity she wants to be on the field, back to her glory, and in the place right in front of the goal that once was her home. Other days, she wonders if the risk of re-injury is worth it. She’s scared and uncertain. She also wonders who else she might she be if she isn’t the girl who saves the goal.
I try to assure my daughter her ruminations are perfectly normal. This is the age to wonder who we are and who we will be. This is the time to keep all options open, to take the path less traveled, to make mistakes, recover, and to make them again. Nothing is prescribed.
But in my heart of hearts, it’s hard to let go of my inner Tiger-Mama. Are her chances of going to a top college dashed if she doesn’t become one of the recruited athletes who are assured admission? I find myself questioning the motivations that have driven my parenting choices for so long; they just don’t seem relevant anymore. A part of me is embarrassed I even had these motivations in the first place. I would be lying to say I didn’t.
As my daughter is recalibrating, so am I. Where I used to be a Tiger-Mama, now I am becoming a Mama-Bear. I care so much more about her physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being than the brand name school sticker I might have once hoped to place on the back window of my car.
To paraphrase Robert Burns in his poem, “To A Mouse,” despite all the best laid schemes, we truly do not know what the future holds. I do know one thing though: once my daughter commits to her course of action, she will place herself fully in the path of whatever looms before her. And whether she succeeds or fails, she will forge ahead. I know this because whether or not she ever plays soccer again, my daughter is a goalie and that’s what goalies do.
May you never need this information:
Read here for myths and facts about concussions;
If you think your child has sustained a blow to the head, this concussion management model may be useful.