I can easily recall the disappointment on my sweet son’s face.
We were perched, him and me, at a game table by the window at a state park in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. It was a rainy day and our plans of wandering and fishing had been shifted to play and snacks inside the visitor’s center.
Chinese Checkers was on the table. My guy had never played before. I was playing as if my life depended on it.
I jumped marbles across the metal board with bravado as he pushed his pieces one place at a time. It became clear I was going to win and win big and the look in his innocent, eight-year-old eyes was that of fear, sadness, disbelief.
In most other moments of mothering, I would have taken note of my boy’s emotional state and responded with care and kindness. But this day, I could only fill my triangle, push ahead with my strategy, win. As I snapped the final sphere in its circle, my son’s face crumpled and he burst into tears.
Only then did I remember that I was playing with a child. My child. Only then could I reach over and try to undo what I had just done.
I have this competitive streak. It has not served me well.
Over the years, my drive to come in first has caused me to treat my sisters and friends as opponents rather than allies. It’s pushed me to best colleagues and peers who could have been collaborators and teammates. I’ve distanced myself from potential mentors because seeking advice could be seen as not knowing everything already. I’m sure I’ve put off acquaintances who observed my one-upmanship with a shake of the head.
My competitive nature has made me uber-sensitive to criticism. It’s compelled me to pretend I have everything together when I don’t. It’s kept me from befriending folks with whom I might have had a strong connection.
It’s the reason I’ve made my own children cry.
But my impulse to win is so ingrained I frequently cannot even see it. It has taken decades of accruing maturity and perspective and self-awareness for me to be able to call out this destructive behavior and try to change it.
I’m here to say, though, that working to manage this drive has made my life so much better.
Once I understood that everything was not a zero-sum game (you know, like my Pilates class at the gym and that playdate with the mom I just met and how well I managed to put dinner on the table every night) and that the goal in life was not to be the absolute best at absolutely everything, there was suddenly so much more space in my head and my heart for kindness and generosity. I could feel curious as to why someone might look at the world differently than I — rather than judgement. I could embrace meandering. I could choose an activity just for the joy of it. I could start my day with an openness to what might unfold rather than a determination to conquer it.
This was a major shift that took a majorly long time to embrace (and to be honest, I am a frequent backslider). But losing the need to win has been so incredibly freeing.
All this is front and center now as my family of five works, studies, eats, sleeps and plays every minute of every day together in our home. To provide a little structure and keep us from drifting to our devices after dinner, we’ve designated a few evening activities: Saturday night is movie night. Tuesday night is game night.
I was nervous as we set this schedule. It’s not only me. My son has grown into a young man with an ability to master nearly any game. His sister is a strategically disadvantaged six years younger. Add a peacemaker girl in the middle, and you can see how we might tiptoe carefully through a closet of board games.
But necessity is the mother of deep breaths and forging ahead.
A few weeks ago, I found myself on a team with my 12-year-old, facing a Scrabble board and a row of tiles.
I’ll jump to the end. My girl and I lost. And we laughed. And we left my competitive spirit in the basement. And we had fun. And no one cried.
And I could see so clearly why anyone would play a board game. Not to win. But to be together. To make memories. To share space.
It was the best game of Scrabble I’ve ever played.