If you had told me when I was a sophomore in college that in a couple of years I would be called “Mama” by a goofy, lanky, full of sass 14-year-old boy, I might have laughed at you. Mostly because at that point I wasn’t dating my coach, had completely different career aspirations, and never thought I was going to follow in the footsteps of my parents.
But today, I’m the second mama to the sweetest, hardest working, full of life 17-year-old, and he makes me so proud of him every day. But as much fun as we’ve had on recruiting and camp trips, it hasn’t always been an easy trip.
His freshman year his father died at the end of football season.
Sophomore year, his step-father died during Christmas break.
And his junior year the grandmother who helped raise him passed.
If you want to talk about tests of faith, these were big ones. My coach is his football and basketball coach and we were in the middle of Christmas practices when it happened. When I got the call that he had passed, my heart broke in ways that it never had before. Somehow, in two years this silly giant had wormed his way so deep into my heart that it made me sick to see him hurting.
Those two weeks taught me more lessons on love than at any other point in my life. The most important one was to love a person where they are, in the way they need.
That Christmas, I learned that love language is not “universal” in the ways we think, especially with children. They don’t need us to shower them in material things. They need us to shower them with attention and affection and not always in the ways we expect. Mostly what my coach and I did that break was picked him up and take him home from every practice so his mom didn’t have to worry about it.
And we played ball. I sat in that gym while my husband played basketball with my favorite teenager for hours after practice. No talking, no crying, just turning all his emotions into jump shots and the world’s biggest hug when we took him home. That’s all he needed.
It was hard for me, a lot harder than I thought it would be. I wanted to talk about it. But I had to learn to sit back and love him the way he needed me to, in his language.
It’s the simple things, like the back of my game day shirt having his last name, that has been the most impactful moments of being his “mama”; because when that boy saw that I meant it when I said I would put his name there, he cried.
Those weeks taught me a lot about teenagers and how to love them anyways.
My husband has a lot of players that have called me mama, even if they don’t have a bedroom at my house like my “firstborn.” Players who are sometimes hard to like, not exactly ones I would “choose” to call me mama.
However, those are the ones who need me and my love the most. Attitude problems, acting out, skipping school and practice, bringing the effects of their terrible home lives into my classroom, everything. The kids that absolutely make me want to pull every last hair out of my head, are the ones begging for me to care about them the most.
I’ve also learned that when you give that love without strings, the behaviors usually go away, at least in my classroom and outside interactions with them. I show up to the games anyways (hello coach’s wife life) but when they ask me if I’m going, I always make it about them.
At the end of this year, a signed jersey will be up on our wall. It’ll be the only one up there, at least for a long time, because this one is special. But every senior picture I’m given ends up on my file cabinet collection with a scribbled, “Stopped by your office but you weren’t here, love ya mama!” And the note gets put on my bulletin board for everyone to see that they’re special. They mean something to someone, even when their world tells them no one cares.
Because just like you don’t get to pick your actual kids, sometimes you don’t get to pick your “adopted” kids either. It’s worth it though, as the ones who pick you, love you harder than any of the others.