Sensei Mom

“When your mother asks, “Do you want a piece of advice?” it’s a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.”
– Erma Bombeck

There are many reasons for my sporadic posting, (for the six people who do take the time to read), and one of them is that I have produced my very own tiny human in the last two years. Exciting, I know, and much, much harder than a shodan grading. Giving birth puts many things into much-needed perspective. 21 hours of labour will do that.

Anyway, now I juggle two titles: Sensei, and Mom. And like all mothers before me, I am going to offer unsolicited wisdom, as revenge for all the unwanted advice I got from family, friends and complete strangers in the queue at Checkers (because nothing inspires condescending advice from randoms like a baby bump. The same fuckers won’t offer you a chair to sit on, but they will ask about whether you plan to have natural birth or not. Rude.)

First Lesson: I Am A Woman, Not An Island

Learning to accept help has probably been one of the most valuable lessons of the last two and a bit years. Because from the moment everyone knew (especially the dojo), the offers of help began to pour in. From my husband, who took over my teaching load when I was too tired to stand, to the bags of ginger sweets from friends for the 3 months of all-day nausea, to every dojo mom who has bounced Hunter to sleep, to the teens and kids who play with him so that I can teach/grade/event manage. I have learned to accept offers of help, because people really do want to help and its important to let them, and especially when its a chance to let someone learn a valuable skill, like letting a teen handle admin tasks. It is especially great when people volunteer to take Hunter off my hands so that I can focus on teaching, because at the end of the day, I really do love teaching and it matters to me that I can still do it, and do it well, and not sacrifice it entirely on the altar of motherhood.

Second Lesson: Motherhood is Mine to Disrupt
I admit I was warned, but I didn’t really know that so much of parenting would just outright suck and be boring. The waiting, the nappy blowouts, the sleep regressions, the food struggles, the fear when my child is sick and his temperature is spiking. The endless worry about milestones, and the inevitable comparisons, made by both myself and others. “He looks a bit thin”, and “are you sure you’re feeding him enough?” and “shouldn’t he be doing X by now?”

And it is still scandalous to admit all this, because “what about all the people that will be too put off to have children?” Well, good, because they aren’t tough enough for this gig. Also, apparently upon becoming mothers, we are all supposed to turn into these earth goddesses who are also so good at cleaning, and breastfeeding, and sleep training, and cooking and a million other things. (Ali Wong puts it better in her stand-up special Hard Knock Wife.) Voetsek to all that, I say. I truly love teaching karate, and I love my son and my husband, and everything else can fit into that. I refuse to give up teaching, and I am incredibly lucky that I have a husband who more than does his half – he does some of my work too. We try to keep to a routine, but sometimes there are interruptions, and that’s fine. No, I am not a perfect mother, but no one is, and I’m doing my best, and that’s all anyone can ask. And if that’s not good enough, then fight me.

Lesson Three: Stronger than Before

I went through my blog the other day (procrastination) and came across all these godawful, whiny blogposts, and I must have deleted dozens of them, because nothing teaches one strength like parenting. Things that used to knock me on my ass barely register now. People are mean? Whatever. Sleep-deprived and suffering a chest infection? Show must go on.

“Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws,” said Barbara Kingsolver, and this is why we can still do what we need to do, even when sick, even on two or three hours sleep. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since December 2017, when I was 5 months pregnant and got up two or three times a night, because pregnancy reduces even the best bladders. (Oh, and the incredibly vivid dreams, yes, can’t forget those). The longest I’ve slept is 5 hours. My son’s chronotype is ‘ferret on meth’, and since he doesn’t sleep, neither do I. But somehow, I’ve gotten used to it, and the bags under my eyes match my black belt. (I still don’t like it when people point out how tired I am. Bitch, I know. Offer to take this child for two hours, or something. Bring me a Red Bull, my one vice.)

When I turned 30, I started running out of fucks. Now, I have zero, not even one, left to give. Either help, admire, or get out of my way. Sensei Mom has too much to do.

Lesson four: Empathy (Sorry, Mom) and Gratitude for Days

I am now suddenly and completely retroactively sorry for being the brat I was, and how I put my poor parents through hell. According to my mother, I didn’t sleep either, and I couldn’t understand growing up why she delighted in telling everyone about it. I get it now. I realise that she was just looking for a bit of sympathy, and maybe for someone to offer to take me off her hands for a bit. Luckily, I have a big family, an incredible husband, a dojo family, and a part-time nanny, and I would be completely sunk on my own. I could write an Oscar acceptance speech trying to thank everyone, but I fear I am already running long here. I am consistently in awe of parents who go at it on their own, for any number of reasons, especially as families shrink and/or splinter all over the world.

Entering the sisterhood of motherhood has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. Because even though there are judgy moms who have an opinion on everything and everyone (Karens), there are also welcoming moms, who have taught me tricks and commiserated and let me rant and be pathetic every now and then. There have been moms in shopping centres with an extra wet wipe, or complete strangers in a train station in Okinawa who gave us a fan to cool Hunter down. The whatsapps late at night with mom friends, who are also either in the trenches, or enjoying the rare hour when everyone is sleeping and its time for pointless instagram scrolling, or reading, or Netflix bingeing. My relationships with my mom and stepmom have become richer, because I get it now, and they still have something to teach me, even if parenting has changed dramatically in 30 years.

Lesson Five: Everything Has Changed (And You Get Used To It)

The hardest thing, sometimes, is mourning the person I used to be – when I had the luxury of time to run for two or three hours, and then shower and nap afterwards. When I didn’t need an organising committee to make time for a nap. When I could go to every training session, and every gashuku, start to finish. Teaching kata to kids is not the same as real training (because I need to work on Saipai, a kata that is currently not on speaking terms with me, understandably) and it has been hard to swallow my pride and accept that my karate just kinda sucks now. Funakoshi said that karate is like a pot of water, and we need to keep it hot to keep it boiling, and I haven’t been able to keep up that heat.

My san dan journey has been set back a few years, because while I did train while pregnant, and was back in my gi two weeks after giving birth, I have to face the fact that I lost time. I lost lots of time. I have to fight hard to carve out training and running time. Every time I try to train, my son suddenly becomes clingy, and I must step off the mat, because its not fair to disrupt the whole class for the sake of my training. My own health, while important, must take third or fifth or tenth priority, some days. This is how women get worked out of the system, because karate and the patriarchy and generally everyone else doesn’t wait for you, and it is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) understood that one is like, super grateful to be a mom and will happily surrender her entire journey to motherhood. Karate is for men, isn’t it? Isn’t that why there are only men at the top? We are slowly changing that, but being on this side of motherhood, I can see why so many of us just quit, or slowly disappear. I understand.

But, karate is long, and life is short, and as Hunter gets older and more independent, I am slowly clawing back time to train. A wise Sensei Mom once told me that before I know it, he’ll be big and training alongside me, and I’ll have plenty of time again. And I try to remember that, especially on the days when time feels like it is dragging, and I’ll be wiping butts forever.

Overall, hopefully, importantly, I hope this has all helped me become a better instructor. There aren’t a lot of Sensei Moms, but we are out there, and if we can keep at it, and show the girls coming up behind us that motherhood can be enriching, not limiting, and that they can be tough and soft, and breastfeed while kicking ass, then every Sensei Mom has earned a different kind of black belt.

“Being a mom has made me so tired. And so happy.”
– Tina Fey

Don’t Save: Teach

“We rescue because it feels good,” Lahey says.

Parents want to rescue their kids from everything, and so do instructors, sometimes. In this clear-eyed article about the gift of failure, we are reminded that “we seem to be more worried about raising happy children than competent or autonomous ones.”

Go ask your instructor if failing a student has ever bought them joy. For all that we may be a bunch of crazy people who do martial arts for a living, it is rare (and perhaps cruel) to take pleasure in failing a student.

We are the first to complain about helicopter parenting – how dare this parent question my teaching, we fume — but when it comes to our students and protecting them, we can be just as terrible. There are some students that we just shouldn’t be protecting anymore. Kids that we know that other instructors would never pass at a panel grading. There are some students that really do need to fail, and to fail hard. You know the one. The talented kid who coasts. The sloppy kid with patchy attendance. The know-it-all who needs to be taught the first line of the dojo kun: be humble and polite.

Of course, we worry. Most students quit when they fail, because they’re not accustomed to setbacks. That’s not just a dojo thing – that is a societal fear driven by our punishing treatment of those who don’t make an immediate success of things. Because success is made so obvious with so many ranking systems (Twitter followers, Grammy awards, Forbes Lists, bullshit internet “40 Under 40” lists) , failure seems an unacceptable outcome.

We’re surrounded by stories of success that conspire to make success seem easier than it in fact is – and therefore that unwittingly destroy the confidence we can muster in the face of our obstacles….We see our early failures as proof of conclusive ineptness – rather than as the inevitable stages on every path to mastery. Without an accurate developmental map, we can’t position ourselves properly vis-à-vis our defeats. We have not seen enough of the rough drafts of those we admire – and therefore cannot forgive ourselves the horror of our early attempts. – “How Knowledge of Difficulties Lends Confidence”, The Book of Life

(Remember when you were a yellow belt, and you thought you were never going to learn that kata? Like that, but for everything.)

We have a habit of praising outcomes, not effort. We focus on gradings, not the day to day grind of just showing up, the persistence and participation that makes for great adults. We laud talented kids, we set them up as the examples, and then when the talent fails to make up for hard work, we have left them without the tools to learn.

It is our job to be the instructors, not the saviours. It is hard to look a kid in the eye and say “not this time, buddy.” Especially when you think that the kid will quit, because the short-term pain is not worth the lesson, and you’ve seen it happen dozens of times before. Sensei Pain is a great teacher, but no one wants to take his classes. It is hard to not have a bit of a saviour complex when so many seek the wisdom and guidance of their sensei. It makes it hard to be the teacher, who simply teaches without offering salvation as well. We always wish some parents would try be parents instead of best friends to their kids – we need to remind ourselves that we are instructors first, and that means doing what needs to be done, even when it makes us uncomfortable. Especially when it makes us squirm.

When we choose to protect our students from their own shortcomings, we fail them completely. Like when we don’t force them to finish doing the boring, BORING drills that will fix their problems. Yes, it sucks, but eat your karate veggies, kid. But we worry that they’ll get bored and leave, and so maybe this time, we don’t drill basics (like we meant to) and instead we teach that cool bunkai that they don’t need to know just yet.

When we grade them and let them scrape by, we teach them (and the rest of the dojo) that the bare minimum will do. We lower our standards and theirs, out of fear and misplaced compassion. No one wants to be the reason a kid quit martial arts forever. No one wants to hear that a student cried all the way home in the car.

Then we worry about pushback from parents. How dare we, this karate bum who doesn’t have a ‘real’ job, dare fail their child? Can’t we see how amazingly special they are?

“Teaching has become a push and pull between opposing forces in which parents want teachers to educate their children with increasing rigor, but reject those rigorous lessons as ‘too hard’ or ‘too frustrating’ for their children to endure” Parents, Let Your Kids Fail

Or, and this is much worse, seeing a parent pile on the abuse – “see, even Sensei knows how bloody lazy you are,” and then an unwanted conspiratorial wink as they drag the child out the dojo. What was meant to be a lesson in hard work and growth was turned into a humiliation no one asked for.

Of course we want to rescue them, sometimes. There are some kids that we wish to plead a case for: they have problems at home, or they have lots of homework. But if they’re not doing the work, and if there’s nothing physically challenging them, it does a disservice to the kids who do do the work and make the effort, but who are rewarded equally to the lazy kids. In saving one kid from themselves, we may be discouraging the ones who do the work and put in the time. Why make the effort, when Sloppy Joe still gets graded?

If you think they don’t notice, then you haven’t figured out that kids will spot the laws you’ve broken and call you out on it. It is the core root of why kids tattle and snitch. (That article, by the way, offers the best advice for ending the scourge of mini karate police officers in your dojo.)

I know I’m guilty of making excuses, usually because they’re a sweet kid who loves karate but not the hard work. I would miss them if they quit. But after all, it is my happy duty to forge better character through karate. Giving them a free pass creates the exact kind of spoilt brat (and useless adult) that we all dread. And if they quit, then maybe this journey just wasn’t for them, just as it isn’t for so many thousands of others.

But if they fail, and come back? Well, then that’s a job well done.

Should I Watch My Child Train?

Many dojos have a couple of benches/chairs/rickety stools where parents can sit and watch their children train. There’s a spectrum of parental involvement: some will video every single class, and some never step foot into the dojo after that first meeting. Most parents fall somewhere in the middle, but it still helps to give parents and instructors some guidelines on where the dojo needs the support of parents, and where parents need to let go and trust our process.

One of the questions we get asked most is: Can I watch my child train? 

Usually, this is a great thing, because it shows interest in the student’s progress and maybe the art itself. However, it is important for an instructor to decide how valuable it will be.


Some kids can’t train while parents are in the dojo. I have any number of students who cannot do anything except check if mommy/daddy/guardian/sibling is watching them. They’re punching in strange directions with their heads craned over their shoulders to make sure that they are being watched. They don’t listen to instructions, and will sometimes wander off the mat to go and cuddle. Sometimes it is entirely at the child’s instigation, but some parents encourage it too. In this case, it is better to encourage the parents to go wait in the car, or a nearby coffee shop, at least for the first month. There may be some tears, but it is important to establish the separation between dojo and home. (Here is an awesome guide on how to drop kids off with a minimum of tears and drama).Sensei is different to Mom and Dad, and the twain should not meet (unless biological parents happen to be teaching their kids in their own dojo.)

Once the student has settled into a dojo routine (using any number of focusing exercises), then parents can come back into the dojo and watch. If it’s still disruptive, rinse and repeat until they are no longer distracted.

Case Study 2: “I’ve never done karate, but…”

For the most part, it is important to give parents the benefit of the doubt that they are
interfering because they love their child and want only the best for them. Unless they have trained in a traditional dojo, they do not automatically understand the workings of our world. And even then, they’ll lead off with “that’s nice, but we did it differently in my dojo.”

Teaching martial arts is an intricate balance of didactics, leadership, expertise and experience. How we see the training, and how parents see the training, often have zero overlap. They either worry that their child is too slow (like a 5 year old not knowing a kata in a week) or that their child is gifted and we’re not seeing it (we are, but let’s not give ego a place on the mat). All martial arts are complicated, and often parents underestimate this. It is important for an instructor to make it clear that it takes YEARS, not months. (Party trick: ask parents to perform a mawashi-uke, and see how well they manage.)karate-moms

Parents, you are always welcome to ask questions. Your curiosity and enthusiasm is always wonderful for us, because it means you are invested in what we do. But to challenge our decisions constantly, especially when the child has just started, is to remove the student’s autonomy and undermines our authority. It is in especially poor taste when parents want an accelerated journey to black belt. If a student wants a black belt in under 7 years, they’re more than welcome to go to a McDojo somewhere else. They can buy one online, if they want. Trying to bully an instructor into handing out undeserved grades or flashing money is the complete opposite of what a dojo needs or wants.

Case Study Three: Missing in Action 

A lot of the time, instructors will be quite happy to get on and teach without any parents watching. It’s quieter, there are fewer interruptions and kids aren’t distracted. However, some students really do need that external motivation. It takes a long, long time to develop intrinsic motivation, which is the result of discipline. But there isn’t one of us who didn’t want our parents to watch our karate and approve and celebrate with us.

It is so important that once a month (or at least once a term), a parent tries to make it to the dojo to watch. Knowing that a parent is involved goes a very long way towards student retention. Also, instructors should invite the parent to come and see their child’s progress, and maybe find out why they haven’t stepped foot in the dojo. It may be that they are working two jobs, or can’t find someone to look after the really little ones. Finding out a bit about a student’s home life goes a very long way to helping a student thrive.

It is also important for instructors to be available to listen to parents (at the appropriate times, of course) and to accept constructive criticism. After all, though we might think we know their child, they may have some important context to add. I’ve learned so much from the parents in my dojo, even though sometimes it is uncomfortable to be reminded of my shortfalls.

Overall, this is my favourite way to sum it up:

“Sports is one of few places in a child’s life where a parent can say, ‘This is your thing,’ ” Miller says. “Athletics is one of the best ways for young people to take risks and deal with failure because the consequences aren’t fatal, they aren’t permanent. We’re talking about a game. So they usually don’t want or need a parent to rescue them when something goes wrong.

“Once you as a parent are assured the team is a safe environment, release your child to the coach and to the game. That way all successes are theirs, all failures are theirs.”

And discussion on the ride home can be about a song on the radio or where to stop for a bite to eat. By the time you pull into the driveway, the relationship ought to have transformed from keenly interested spectator and athlete back to parent and child:

“We loved watching you play. … Now, how about that homework?” – What Makes A Nightmare Sports Parent – And What Makes a Great One



Colorado and Crazy People

First off: see this case about a 12 year old trying to kill his family –

I think cases of this kind unfortunately kick up far too much dust around too many issues for the core of the situation to be clear. There will be the usual cliché ‘nature vs nurture’ arguments, and the gun control lobby will be out in full force. The gun-lovers will bray that ‘people kill people’. Every tuppenny shrink with an opinion will arise to blame something. The details in this case are scant enough to ensure everyone has a full run of opinionated fun times. I count myself amongst them. The parents will be blamed. The guns will be called into question. (But as Dylan Moran says, ‘guns have limited household applications’). The homeschooling will be pointed at. Colorado will somehow also be to blame, the education system, the tap water, the siblings, anything besides pointing at the fact that sometimes, people are born psychotic. Shows like Dexter and books like the Hannibal Lector series have engendered the idea that people can be psychotic and useful, but anyone with common sense still wouldn’t leave their children with these people. I enjoy these shows myself, and I’m not sure why. Maybe because it makes psychotics redeemable? That no one is ever really, truly evil? I don’t really feel like going on a fact-finding mission of all the shitty things people have done to each other for evidence of why the above is so very wrong. For now, I reference Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen, Sudan, Rwanda, Abu Ghraib, and The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo.

Maybe the hardest reality is that sometimes, kids are evil and fucked up. I may have to revise this when there are more facts on the case, but for a 12 year old to stab and shoot parents and siblings does not point to any normalancy. Some people will say “oh but the circumstances!” and these are often also the same people that think House is a moving and profound series. I thought it was cool when I was depressed and I felt no one understood my tormented genius pain. Now I realise that it actually is a terribly repetitive show that relies on someone fucked-up for entertainment value and cheap thrills. People do not do drugs because they are so incredibly cool and sexy: they do drugs because they do not have the backbone to deal with reality. But, then again, we do live in a society that avidly follows the rise and fall of druggies, so perhaps I should go back to the mothership and communicate with my leaders.

In any case, if a 12 year old has the capacity to source and repeatedly use a gun, he also has the capacity to not use it. Freudians will say “oh, but his ID this and Ego that” but, really, how many twelve year olds actually get hold of guns and live out their temper tantrums on that kind of level? Twelve year olds can earn money through chores and are capable of saving and spending it (and understand economics, on a minor level), they are having sex, some of them are drinking, some of them work as child soldiers. That they are capable of these things (with or without coercion) means that they can be held responsible for what they do. The twelve year olds I have met show insight that I do not expect of their age, and only because they’re a few months short of being teenagers. The mistake here is that we assume children are stupid. They are not even remotely so, and there is a recordof children committing acts of violence. (The link is only handy for case studies, but I wouldn’t really take advice from it on how/why child murderers arise.) I remember reading several cases last year of children raping and kidnapping, even ganging up to kill smaller children, both in South Africa and around the world. There was the parricide case in Durban 2009 in Pinetown that is ongoing, for example.

I don’t want to believe all children are fucked up and evil: that’s not my point. My point is that we make the mistake of assuming all children are innocent, and then are surprised when there are Columbine shootings and abductions and parricide. What people may pass off as cutesy temper tantrums might actually warn of impending disaster. Perhaps if kids were paid more attention, maybe they wouldn’t get to this point. I don’t know how we should all be raising kids. All I can offer is that we are always, always aware that their capacity for good can be matched by evil. And even I hate using the word ‘evil’ because Hitler is evil, Pol Pot is evil, and to use it in the context of children seems so wrong. But as the movie Magnolia noted, it is only fools that mistake all children for angels.

I expect I’ll get hate mail for this post. But I will not apologise for being honest. Kids can be amazing, and a lot of them do a great deal more their communities and friends than many adults. They are the chance every generation gets to do something right, the templates for change and growth. Because of this, they need to be respected as human beings, and not  treated like accessories or burdens. Respecting them will hopefully cut out, to some extent, this kind of fucked-up behaviour, and perhaps that’s something worth mentioning and striving for.