It was sixteen years ago, but the memory is still visceral. I was a college freshman, many miles from home, walking onto the soccer field of my new college team at the dreaded before-the-sun hours of preseason training. At that juncture, I had been playing soccer for fourteen years; the smell of dewy wet grass and the feel of pulling on long socks as familiar as my own reflection. Still, this—the team, the place, the coaches, the expectations—was all brand new. Even with as much preparation as I had done, can one ever really be prepared for something she’s never been through before?
Preseason opens every year with the fitness test. It feels so simple to say that now, a decade and a half removed from such terrible words; but on that early morning all those years ago, my stomach and my mind could not agree on whether or not I would even make it through. On our team, the fitness test was meant to push your body until it could be pushed no more; long runs coupled with shorter distance sprints and very little rest, all completed under the designated times. If you missed those times, you would do it again until you made it, until you proved that you could physically hang for the duration of the college season. The thirty minutes in front of us were designed to set apart those who were ready, and those who were not.
Our team ran the fitness test in two groups: one group “on the clock” running, one on the sidelines supporting. I was in the second group, which meant I had to watch half of my teammates labor through as hard and fast as they could and know that my time was coming in a few short minutes. As you might have imagined, my stomach continued to do battle with my mind, the knots and nerves and inability to eat anything reminding me that it did not want to do this, and that I might not be able to do this at all. I had trained hard, and I had run this test in practice environments a few times before - but not in front of my new coaches and my new teammates, and not with such high stakes.
As the first group finished, our coaches shook their heads in disappointment at the girls who did not make their times, and high-fived others for showing up to preseason camp physically prepared for the rigors ahead. A few girls had their hands on their knees and wet towels on their necks, others were on the ground writhing in pain knowing they could not move forward in preseason without doing the test again. I took all of this in, and against the backdrop of tears and heavy breathing from those who just finished, prepared to take my spot at the starting line.
I made the first few laps in time, but barely. We had a very brief rest before repeating the run we had just done, and shortly after the whistle blew again my body started to fail. By the time I had one lap around the field and one minute to do it in front of me, my legs refused to listen. I was slowing down quickly, ready to quit and admit I was not as prepared for college sports as I thought. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Holly, a junior and one of the fastest girls on the team who had already completed her test with relative ease, come running toward me. She kept getting closer, and in my daze of exhaustion I thought she might just be coming to cheer me on even though I knew that no words of encouragement were going to make a bit of difference at that point. But she didn’t just cheer me on.
She grabbed a fistful of the front of my sweaty shirt and started pulling.
I could hear the coaches beginning their final countdown. I still had 200 yards to go and no idea how my legs were going to carry me one more step, but Holly kept my body going forward. The ominous sound of seconds counting down came from the finish line and she ran one step in front of me yelling, “come on Katie, you’ve got to finish this.” I kept moving, she kept pulling. I almost closed my eyes at one point because some part of me knew that she wouldn’t let me stop if I did, and I was right. With my shirt in her hand, Holly pulled me the last 200 yards of that fitness test, throwing me across the finish line quite literally as time ran out. I passed. I had worked hard all summer and done the best training I could, but I only made it through that morning because of Holly.
One year ago, our family grew by two babies in the most unexpected manner: an emergency foster placement and a surprise pregnancy. Three kids to five, all under the age of six, and it is actually as chaotic as it sounds. I had welcomed a new baby three times before this year. I have read books, dozens of them, about faith and motherhood and practical tips for raising young children. I had, up until that point, faithfully done the best I could do. But can one ever really be prepared for something she’s never been through before.
First trimester sickness was one thing, but it was the last eight weeks of pregnancy with four active little ones that did me in. By the time I was 34 weeks pregnant, experiencing daily Braxton-Hicks, a messed up lower back and pulsing varicose veins from my unmentionables down to my ankle, my mind was not listening. I was slowing down quickly, ready to scream out that God picked the wrong girl for all of the good, hard work in front of me.
And then, in the moments I needed them the most, my people came running toward me, and they started pulling.
Kelly came and cleaned my kitchen from top to bottom, then had a few extra minutes so did the bathroom too. Rachel brought dinner more nights than I can remember, because she “just happened” to have extra, and it was delicious every single time. Lesley came and folded our laundry. Kendra stayed at my house when I had to leave just so she could tidy up the downstairs for me. Marissa brought me coffee when she was nearby. Annie took the oldest child to play. My mom and mother-in-law changed schedules and got out of commitments to help when unexpected doctor appointments or meetings with teachers at school came up. They pulled me, all of them, when I felt like I couldn’t do one more thing. And we made it. Our fifth and final baby joined the crew right on his time at 40 weeks and five days. I had done all the preparing, praying, reading and list-checking I could possibly do, but we only made it through that stretch because of our people.
Life has not slowed down since then. I am no longer physically as limited as a gal late in her third trimester, but five kids isn’t exactly a walk in the park either. So when I need them, people start pulling. They send me text messages of encouragement or tell me I am a good mom or say that they are praying for me. And all of these things are wonderful, but they do more. They pull. By cleaning or cooking and watching a child, they put hands and feet on the word friendship, and they remind me with their selflessness that I can do the good, hard work in front of me.
A few years ago I wanted raising children to be a “look what I can do on my own” display of strength. Today, it is undeniably a “Yes, I’d love your help, thank you” posture of humility. It’s so much better over here, letting people pull me when I need it, even though it is vulnerable and people see everything - from how much I lose patience with my children to my husband’s underwear. But the truth is, I’m a better mom when I’m not alone. If you ask me, I think that the system is rigged that way, and we all are. It’s ok to need a little pull to the finish line sometimes.
Photo by Lottie Caiella