Dr. Michele Baker is a graduate and psychoanalyst member of BPSI. Her remarks below originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2015 issue of the BPSI Bulletin, which can be read here.
When I was growing up, Jews did not play hockey—at least not in my suburb, just outside of Boston. But my husband, born a WASP, grew up playing hockey in Connecticut, and his father grew up playing hockey in upstate New York, spitting distance from the Canadian border. Now my husband, a convert to Judaism, is a rabbi, and I’m a hockey player: not a professional player, but a sincere one. Over the last two years, hockey has become my passion, and it has been thrilling to discover a previously unknown passion in middle age—a stage of adulthood when nothing new happening is usually the good news.
Like a lot of women, I came to hockey by piggybacking on my children, whose interest in the game inspired my passion. That passion has now grown into its own self, just as my children, born of me, are not me. Here’s how it started: After our two boys had mastered walking, our family hit the ice, where my husband must have appeared to be floating and gliding around three spindly-legged, just-born colts. But because the boys were young, and not afraid of head injuries, paralysis, or humiliation, they learned how to skate. Then, because of my efforts, and because hockey seemed cool in a non-Jewish sort of way, they learned to play.
For years we kept track of their dozens of pieces of equipment; woke them up before daylight on winter mornings for 6am games (including during daylight saving time, when 6am felt like 5am, and to be there at 4:30am, I had to wake up my nine-year-old at a 3:30am that felt like 2:30am); drove them around the state for their travel teams; and sat or stood, or paced, watching them play. Clearly, I had idealized the idea of a team—I wanted them to fit in, to be tough and athletic.
One night early in 2013 my town held a “moms’ hockey night,” and because my then-11-year-old son was big enough for me to borrow his equipment, I suited up and gave it a whirl. Most everyone, especially me, was absolutely terrible—I had actually never put on hockey skates. I moved around the ice slowly, trying not to pitch forward, missing the toe picks that distinguish figure-skating blades from those used in hockey. But it was fun. I was 44 years old, and I was playing a game! I wasn’t working, I wasn’t cleaning, or organizing or scheduling, or nagging. Sliding across the ice was a bit like flying, albeit in the manner of an ungainly pheasant, crashing from tree to tree. I felt a rush of exhilaration I had last felt at age 8 when I first tried downhill skiing. Gravity had shifted.
Wearing borrowed gear and used skates, I started going to a hockey skills class—like all hockey events, it was at a terrible hour, Sunday at 10 p.m., but at least the kids were already asleep, and there was no traffic. By September of that year, after sending out a general email to a women’s league listserv offering my service to any teams in need of spare players, I joined one: a D team—that is, the lowest possible level—and the worst team in the D league. A motley group of women, ranging in age from early 20s to early 50s, from child-size on up, met at our new coach’s house, drank beer, and shot pucks off a sheet of particleboard in her driveway. Because of the expense and effort of equipment and the time commitment involved, there are really very few, if any, casual adult women’s league hockey players. It’s like being a psychoanalytic candidate, or an Amish person: You’re either in or out, and thus group engagement and cohesion are high.
Like a new friend made in adulthood, hockey came around as a surprise, just when I needed it, just as I was recovering from a series of major surgeries. Hitting 40 had meant prevention, compromise, and accepting loss. As part of my recovery, I had started jogging, but hockey was different: As if by magic, it began to reverse the narrative I had been living.
Instead of being weak and vulnerable, I felt tough and strong, despite the danger. Playing hockey really is scary. I am afraid. I am afraid of messing up, and I am afraid of getting hurt. But because I am trying not to slam myself into the boards or crack my bones on the ice, I do not think about anything else. When I play hockey, my game is everything, even as I know that it’s only a game, free from real repercussions. In real life, especially for me in raising kids, everything always matters so very much—the stakes are so high. The inevitable disappointments, fear of shame, and inescapable challenges of career and family are so devastating—while in hockey, the pain only feels real. After 36 minutes on the ice, it’s done: win, lose, or tie. Like getting through a snowy Boston winter, or a school vacation, just surviving is some sort of victory. The game ends, and we go to the pub.
On the ice, and out with the team, I do not think about my family, I do not worry about my kids’ social lives, I do not calculate how many hours I need to work to afford their summer camps. I do not answer calls from patients. I don’t worry about cancer or dying. I am in a self-contained world with a group of women who are pretty much as ecstatic to be there as I am. It takes all my attention. Just like psychoanalysis, hockey is complicated, creative, always new, and something that takes years to learn, but unlike analysis, it’s a group activity, and you don’t have to sit still to do it (indeed, if you’re standing still, you’re doing it wrong!). With dozens of practices and games, countless skills sessions and YouTube instructional-video viewings, and endless hours of shooting practice in the basement, I’ve been able to improve. I’ve never been a very good athlete, but I am a grinder, willing to work really hard with what I have. Like the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, says, “ninety percent of hockey is mental and the other half is physical.”
As it turns out, being bad at hockey has had an unintended benefit: My kids can lord their skills over me, mocking my poor form and my team’s frequent losses, and I can demonstrate for them that it is OK to do something you are bad at, and work hard to get better. Two weeks ago, I scored my first goal of this season, only the third goal my team had scored in as many months. An ecstasy of excitement ensued, until the ref broke it up. “Enough hugging,” he said, clearly not understanding the momentousness of this occasion. The game went on, and we ended up losing, again. But I was healthy—healthy enough to play, and to lose, and to still love it.
Michele Baker, M.D., is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and graduate of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute (BPSI) and the Harvard Longwood Psychiatry Residency Training Program. She practices in Brookline.
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