A few nights ago I stayed up into the morning playing poker with friends. I was super excited as I sat down to play. In my fantasy life I’m the kind of person who walks into a backcountry bar and slowly makes her way over to the card table. When I join the game everyone groans. “Not another big city chick who thinks she can play with the real boys.” I just smile and say nothing. At first I lose a couple of hands and they start getting all riled up thinking they’re going to make off with all my money. But then I step it up. I make a big bet and take them all out. I win round after round. At one point a gentleman tries to shoot me with a pistol that he’s been hiding in his boot but I’m too fast. I clamp my hand over the gun and say. “Do you really want to do that?” And I lift up my shirt ever so slightly to show off the karate black belt tied around my waist. He backs down and in the next round I wipe everyone out for good. I scoop up all my winnings and leave the crowd in a daze. “That was hot” I hear someone say as I exit the bar but I don’t even turn around to see who. “Not a chance buddy.” I chuckle. And I’m gone.

In real life however it turns out that I’m not such a good player. As my friends at the table studied their cards plotting their bluffs and weighing their odds I kept glancing over at my Texas Hold ’em cheat sheet. “Crap what if I have two pairs? Is that better than if someone has three of a kind? Can an ace be any number in the deck? Can I turn it into a three?  If I can turn it into a three than I just might have a full house. If not then I’m screwed.” As might be expected of a crappy poker player, I was the first one out. And because I am also no good at shuffling cards I was not elected to become the dealer, which I found out, is what usually happens to the first one out. So I had a lot of time to think, a lot of time.

And what I found myself thinking was, “I would have expected to be better at poker.” Now I’m not completely delusional. I am well aware that my poker fantasy is exactly that- a fantasy. It surly was not going to prepare me for being good at an actual real life poker game but I kind of just assumed that parenting would. After all they both require so many of the same skills. I know from watching poker on TV that the game is all about reading other people’s cues. As a parent, I’ve spent the past twenty-six months perfecting this skill. I can tell when my kid is going to poop forty-five minutes before it happens. I can predict how big a tantrum is going to be based on a subtle shift in her eye color- greenish grey, not so bad, blue-gray you better run. So trying to gauge weather or not someone had a good or bad hand should have been right up my alley.

Then there’s the poker face. The good poker players always seem to wear a mask as they play. Emotions are kept tightly protected. I’ve got this one down too. My kid falls and though I want to screech and gasp and shout, “Oh my god, are you okay?!” I walk leisurely to her side. “No big deal,” I say. “Let’s just shake it off together.” In parenting, my poker face almost always achieves the desired effect. In an actual game of poker it was a lost cause.

And if the emotionless glance wasn’t going to be my secret weapon, I surly thought that bluffing would be in my bag of tricks. As a parent I’ve got that one down to a science. I put on my deep scary voice and say, “Sage I’m going to count to three and you better put those scissors down. One, two…” and as I count up I just kind of hold my breath and hope she’s going to fulfill my request before I arrive at that magic number. In all reality I don’t have fucking clue what happens after three; maybe a trip to her room, maybe a stint in a time out chair. It has never come up. For now it’s just a big old bluff.

And there’s more of course. There’s the fact that both parenting and poker demand patience and resilience. They both make you want to drink and they both require that you go to bed way too late and wake up tired.

But most of all there’s the bravery involved in both. In all the poker movies, the guy you root for always plays with everything he’s got. He’s not timid, he’s not meek, he plunges full force into whatever hand he is dealt. Sometimes he makes a big terrible goof and you gasp and think it’s over but somehow he comes back stronger. He risks everything. He goes all in. As a parent I plunge forward. A lot of the time I do it blindly. I make big decisions and I make big mistakes. I try to be really brave. Each morning I take out my heart and guts and just let my toddler walk around with them. I let her carry my most fragile organs as she throws herself down a slide or walks off with a new friend. I just hold my breath and hope beyond all hope that she’ll be safe and happy. If that isn’t going all in, I don’t know what is.

So why, despite all these parallels was I so bad at poker?  After several days of analyzing and making spreadsheets trying to uncover the disconnect I finally asked my husband, “What makes you good at playing poker?” His answer was simple and elegant.

“Playing poker.”

And that’s when poker became more like parenting than I ever could have anticipated.

Nothing could have prepared me for being a mother; no classes, no books, no rehearsals, no chats with my own mom. Any moment of success or grace that I’ve ever experienced as a parent has come from the fact that I’ve been doing it, every day. I’ve been working hard. I’ve been learning as I go.

So, using parenting as a model and an inspiration, the only way I’m going to get good at poker and fulfill my fantasy of hustling a bunch of burley guys in rural Kentucky is if I get a babysitter for several hours a day and play…

and play…

and play….

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