How suburban moms get their kicks

Trading the mini-van for round kicks and front punches has its perks.

"Judges, my name is Pattie Baker. I represent the Dojo American Karate Center. With your permission, may I begin?"

I took a breath and tried to think only of the karate form I was about to perform, the round kicks and front punches, knife hands and high blocks that would consume the next two minutes of my life. I tried not to think about what a minivan-driving, middle-aged suburban mom like me was doing here.

There were three of us at that city-wide tournament in the "Over 40 Female" category, and yes, I knew my two competitors. They were, like me, the moms of children who take karate at our neighborhood karate center. And, like me, they had spent years sitting on the outside of the glass wall that divided the "parent viewing area" from the instruction area, the sweaty blue mats where our children spun bokkens and escrima sticks, sparred, and broke boards. We called ourselves the MOBB, which stood for Mothers of Black Belts, and joked that we would one day start taking karate classes ourselves. But mostly, we talked about homework and health, knitted and read, and nibbled our nails to the quick during our children's almost-impossible-to-watch black belt exams. Younger siblings joined their older ones, and many other moms (and dads) joined our world. Over the years, we had knit together not just scarves but lives.

One Saturday morning, while sitting there yet again, no one in a rush to make dinner or too tired from work, we toyed once again with the idea of signing up for classes. There were always reasons why we couldn't. Too old. Too hard. No time. No money. No interest. This day was different, however. This day, the chief instructor walked over to us and said, "There are five birds on a wire."

Okay, this wasn't an odd beginning to a conversation. This is how he talks. We were used to it.

"Two decide to fly away," he continued. "How many are left?"

No one wanted to answer. A trick question. Clearly a trick question.

Finally, someone said, "Three."

His eyes gleamed.

"No, five," he answered. "Deciding to do something is not the same as doing it."

And then he walked away, and we all just looked at each other, as I'm sure he knew we would. And although we all knew we were being played like fiddles, we also recognized that, perhaps, it was time.

For me, my journey to black belt had started several weeks earlier, when I heard the chief instructor say to a class of children preparing for a tournament, "If you can do a one-handed cartwheel, for goodness sake, do it."

I was only half-listening while knitting, knitting, knitting, and frankly, getting a bit tired of the knitting. Yet, all the way home, the next day and the next, I heard his voice over and over again.

"If you can do a one-handed cartwheel, for goodness sake, do it."

I had never tried a one-handed cartwheel. "But what if I can do it?" I thought. "What if all this time, my whole life, I am capable of doing a one-handed cartwheel and don't even know it?"

Alone in my living room, I practiced cartwheels with two hands until I could do them well, or at least relatively well for someone who hadn't done one in years.

"It's the momentum," I figured out. "If I have enough momentum, I can tuck one hand in and still get over easily, can't I?" Being a lefty, I eliminated my right hand.

"Momentum," I told myself. "Momentum."

I pointed my left toe forward and stuck out my left arm, relegating my right hand uselessly to my right hip.

Momentum. Momentum.

I thrust my left hand down to the ground and flung my body over. I counted the four beats-hand, space, foot, foot-and I realized, yes, I can do it. I can actually do a one-handed cartwheel. A shaky, crooked one, of course, but undeniably a one-handed cartwheel. I had probably been able to do this my entire life, yet never knew it. And in that moment, I wondered, what else can I do that I've never tried?

So when the chief instructor challenged us that day with his bird story, I bit. As did every other mom, and a few dads, in that room that day. Within two weeks, we had all lined up at class in our brand new, stiff little uniforms with our white belts tied around our waists. And when he instructed students to bow to their parents, we faced the glass partition from a new point of view. And we bowed. To our children.

I have been training in karate for a year now, and, believe me, I have the bruises to prove it. Every "bird on the wire" with me that day is still going strong as well. We still call ourselves the MOBB, but are wondering if one day it will stand for Moms Owning Black Belts. Currently, we're working on a tournament form that includes us moms and our children. And, yes, we're adding as many cartwheels as we can.

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