By Vera Giles
I sat next to the learner’s pool, opposite my instructor for Overcoming Your Fear of Water.
I was 40, married, the mother of an almost-two-year-old boy. A few months earlier, I’d been laid off from my job and couldn’t seem to make myself look for a new one—but for some reason, I was also afraid to be a stay-at-home mother. Instead, Sammy went to an excellent day care, which we could afford thanks to my programmer husband, Aaron. I felt like the world’s worst mother.
I had tried several times in the past to learn how to swim. Now, I thought, since the rest of my life seemed stuck, maybe I could at least learn this one thing.
The instructor, a small, muscular woman, spoke with a friendly German accent. “Tell me why you’re here today.”
I wanted to tell her that when I was six, my mother took me by the hand and walked me into the ocean and kept walking until my aunt stopped her. That my mother was suicidal and eventually killed herself. Instead I said: “I’m afraid of the water, but I want to learn.”
“Our goal is for you to stay centered in your body. You can’t learn if you are afraid. Are you ready to begin?”
We walked to the edge of the pool.
I shivered in my new black bathing suit. It was morning and the room was cold. Small waves caused by other swimmers slapped the sides of the pool, a metallic sound with a deeper note of water sloshing in and out of the overflow vents. The instructor smiled. “Shall we go in?”
Gray daylight poured through the large side windows. The room smelled clean and wet. Accent plants softened its sharp lines. “I guess so,” I said. Was it really this simple? No fanfare? But it felt right.
“Here,” she said, extending a hand. I held it and felt small and safe. Everything about this woman told me she was there to take care of me. “Let’s walk down the steps, one by one.”
I stepped down and submerged my feet in the water. We stopped. “Remember,” she said, “we’ll go as fast as you are comfortable. You can’t learn if you are not fully present in your body—all the way down to your feet. How are you feeling?”
I felt excited and calm at the same time. Could I feel my feet? Yes, they were cooler than the rest of me, firmly planted on the tiles. My hand was in her warm, sure grip.
“Yeah, I feel good,” I said, wanting to go on but self-conscious about seeming to rush. “Let’s go deeper.”
Down we went, step by step, until the water was at our waists. There were my feet. I still felt them. We walked further into the pool.
A rising anxiety finally surfaced, and I spoke. “I can’t hold your hand,” I said. I knew immediately this was a trigger, the memory of holding my mother’s hand, of being forced to go deeper and deeper into the water that day.
She looked surprised. She thought for a second, then crooked her arm. “Can you hold my elbow? Would that work?”
It felt odd, but I no longer felt coerced or restrained. I relaxed. “Yes, that will work.”
Like blind people walking somewhere new, we continued, navigating through my phobia. I let the water reach the middle of my chest—felt it move my body. I kept checking in with my feet. After a while, my instructor said, “You’ve made amazing progress. Look how far you’ve come! It’s time to get out now. Shall we?” She held out her hand.
This time I took her hand and we began walking to the stairs.
Something broke open in my chest. My eyes stung, and a warm feeling spread through my body. A mother was taking me back to shore, holding my hand to keep me safe.
I wanted to cry. For the first time, some little part of me felt secure instead of scared. I was going to be OK.
The next day, I remembered more of what had happened in the ocean.
I was six. My mother and I were visiting my Aunt Anni in Israel.
I loved Mama and she loved me. We understood each other. We shared secrets and told each other how we really felt. Some days she was very sad and everything seemed to go away. She just sat there and I felt very alone. But then she came back and she started to smile at me and laugh at my little jokes and I knew again that she loved me. I was very good at taking care of her.
Mama was the most beautiful mother in the world. Everybody said so. Her long blonde hair and beautiful dresses and lovely laugh charmed everyone.
Her older sister Anni was loving and distracted, her dreamy voice low from cigarettes. She smelled like perfume and tobacco and the oil paints she used in her studio. Blonde and the same height as my mother, she looked like Mama’s twin. Anni and Mama laughed a lot and shared makeup and jewelry. I loved Anni, too. She was gentle and safe and acted like I was a wise and wonderful person.
It was sunny and warm with cool breezes near the shore, so we were at the beach. I was playing at the edge of the surf, trying to step into the foam as it dissolved, wanting to feel the bubbles on my feet.
Then I felt Mama standing behind me, staring out to sea. She walked next to me, took my hand, and kept walking into the ocean. I didn’t want to leave the surf, but I was used to doing what she wanted.
At first it was fun, bobbing around as we got deeper, but I didn’t like how hard she was holding my hand and I started to pull away. She wouldn’t let go.
I was mad now. I started whining. She wouldn’t let go.
I got scared. The water was pretty high now. She wouldn’t let go.
She kept walking. It got deeper. I was screaming and panicking now. Some part of me was so terrified that something clicked in my head and I started feeling far away.
Water got in my mouth. I swallowed some. I couldn’t keep my head above water or my feet on the ocean floor. She wouldn’t let go.
I kicked and flailed and screamed, breathing in water and choking and swallowing water and drowning. She held my hand and her arm was stiff against her side and as I floated in the water I kicked her leg, hard, and it felt rubbery and she didn’t react and that scared me even more and I was drowning and I couldn’t breathe and this was way worse than asthma and I started to float high above my own head and watch myself drown, just my head, the crown barely breaking the surface as the water around was choppy with my struggles.
My mother stood there, holding my hand in a death grip, her arms at her sides. The water was at her chin. She was staring out at the horizon, completely gone.
Anni came and got me. She put my arms around her neck and walked back to the beach, as I coughed and hung there limply. I started to shake as she bundled me in a towel and tried to get me dry and warm even though it was a lovely day and the water had been perfect.
I fell asleep, from shock.
I was able to come to that swim class because Sammy was in day care—even though I hadn’t had a job for six months and should have been taking care of him myself. I felt like a terrible mother.
My friends, my family, and my husband all told me I was doing a great job with Sammy. I was not an alcoholic (like my mother and father). I did not abuse Valium (like my mother). I was not depressed (like my mother and father). I was not mentally ill (like my mother).
I did not commit suicide (like my mother).
She was 38 and a half when she killed herself. Coincidentally, when Sammy was born, I was 38 and a half.
Despite years of therapy, I was still terrified that I would repeat her mistakes. I might hurt Sammy. I might even kill him. This was crazy. Why did I feel this way?
When I was laid off six months earlier, I had been back from maternity leave exactly one year. I was 39 and Sammy was 16 months old.
“At least you’ll get to spend more time with Sammy,” my coworkers said.
When I was away from Sammy, I wished for more time than the squeezed hours I had with him. I craved him like a drug. I wanted to be there every morning when I got him, giggling and kicking with delight, out of his crib. I wanted to read him bedtime stories and sing him songs every night. I delighted in his expressive face, when he grinned or rolled his eyes or scrunched his nose with mischief. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from his rosy, round cheeks, his enormous brown eyes, and his dirty blond hair. He was perfect.
But I couldn’t stand to spend more hours with him.
“Didn’t maternity leave just fly by?” the same coworkers had asked me a year earlier. My reply—”No, my God, every day was an eternity”—killed their sympathetic smiles. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to discuss what it was like to enslave my brain to someone else’s needs. With Sammy, I was no longer a mind—I was torn and aching breasts, tired arms, a hoarse voice, sore legs. I was chained to his schedule: hovering over him when he was awake; wishing he was old enough to play with toys or even just focus on my face; returning home every three hours to keep the agony of breastfeeding to myself; constantly caught up on the laundry because I was so bored and lonely during his short naps.
By the time I was laid off, Sammy was older, but I still felt like I was failing. Each time he was home all day, I had to get him out of the house or he would drive me crazy and I would begin snarling at him. The kid never sat down. He started walking at eleven months and never stopped. So we would go somewhere we could walk, and walk, and walk. When he napped (thank God he napped), I fell into a stupefied sleep as well. On days when I was alone with him, I choked on my own panic. You can’t leave me, I would think as Aaron walked out the door. I’m an only child. You’re an oldest brother. You’re the one who knows what to do with babies.
There were so many fears. Was Sammy eating enough? He’d been born five and a half weeks early. Every milliliter of milk we got into him was hard-won. Now his toddler schedule of three meals and two snacks a day was grueling. How could I offer him different foods and balanced meals each time? I was a bad mother if I didn’t.
Was he sleeping enough? Everyone knows kids never sleep when you want them to. (Never mind that my child is in fact the most reliable sleeper in the world. Don’t hate me—I have no idea how this happened.) What if he suddenly stopped sleeping well? How could I keep nap and bedtime sacred?
Every mother has these fears, my friends told me when I wailed to them. But the stakes felt impossibly high. What was normal? I once had a mother who let us run out of food and kept me awake at night to talk about her problems. All my fears and worries told me that I was a bad mother like she was.
So many parents said that Mother Love made having kids worth it—but they were wrong. When I first experienced those primal, almost preverbal, feelings—Love. Hold. Mine. Protect. Fight! MINE!—I fell off the platform of sanity I had worked so long to build, into a wild, angry ocean. Even as I craved my son, my fears of all I was doing wrong with him triggered my Mother Love to protect him from the biggest threat: me. I knew I would somehow hurt him. With my inability to care for or feed him properly, I might even kill him. I had to leave him to the experts.
Day care was a better parent than I was. Day care fed him without angst. Day care had playmates he could socialize with, and teachers who were more patient and better trained than I was. Day care had structure and rules and activities, and didn’t get anxious about doing things wrong or rotating the toys or cleaning up messy art projects. Day care hadn’t lost a mother to mental illness and suicide, and didn’t have an ex-alcoholic father who lived mostly in his head. Day care didn’t take years to learn to get along with its stepmother, or spend years in therapy to keep its issues from contaminating the kids. Day care was calm and kind and good and never, ever depressed.
More than anything, I was afraid to lose day care. Because if I lost day care, I would have to be a full-time stay-at-home mom. And then I would have to face the reasons I knew—with a cold, insane clarity—that I couldn’t be a good mother.
I was 41. My husband, Sammy, and I were visiting with my cousins from my mother’s side of the family in a rented house on the New Jersey seashore. Over several days, I got the courage to tell them the story of Mama nearly drowning me—and they believed me. Some of them remembered her. All of them knew how private their parents were about the past. They knew that Mama could have done this, and that Anni could have hidden how serious it was. Some of them were not surprised.
One afternoon, most of us went to the beach while Aaron stayed behind. We got to the ocean and Sammy, now a tall, adventurous three-year-old, wanted to go in. With me. He wanted me to hold his hand.
I still didn’t know how to swim.
I still didn’t feel like a great mother.
I still didn’t have a paying job. Instead, I had started writing a memoir.
And yet I was getting somewhere. The day before I had stood waist-deep in the ocean, talking to my oldest cousin Andreas about our family and my mother’s childhood. Andreas was at ease in the water. In the middle of the conversation he watched me bobbing with a smile on my face as a rogue wave reached my chest. He said, “You’re doing quite well for someone who has good reason to be afraid of the water.”
Now here we were on the beach, Sammy and I. The sun warmed our backs and the seagulls coasted right and left above us. The surf pushed and pulled, repelling and coaxing.
“I wanna go in da ocean. C’we go in, Mommy? C’you hold my hand?”
How could I let Sammy trust me? Had my mother been so far gone that she didn’t know she was holding my hand in the water, so desperate to kill herself that she almost took me with her? The same thing could be inside me, waiting to destroy us both.
How could she try again and again to leave me—succeeding in her third suicide attempt after I turned eight—when I had loved her so much?
Or maybe I did understand. Maybe I was doing the same thing to my son by running away from him to protect him from myself—putting him in day care, telling myself that Aaron was the one who was good at raising babies.
I looked into Sammy’s wide brown eyes and chose. I chose life.
“OK, Bud. Hold my hand and don’t go in too deep, OK?”
We walked toward the waves, wobbled a little on the shells. Sammy squealed in delight when the surf tickled his feet.
Despite my fears, I smiled back. I could do this. I could hold his hand. I could keep him safe.
I could be his mother.
Author’s Note: I still have moments when it’s hard to stay engaged with my son and to have faith in my ability to mother him. But over time I am noticing little ways that our relationship is growing stronger: more hugs, more play together, even more confidence in the face of his ordinary rebellions. I am struck by how resilient he is, and by those little moments of wisdom that pop out in the middle of being an ordinary loud, funny, defiant preschooler.
I’m accepting that the important thing as a mom is not to get it right the first time, but to learn from my scars and mistakes. It’s when I recognize that I’m going off track that the healing can begin.
Vera Shanti Giles lives with her husband and three-year-old son in the Puget Sound region of Washington state. She is writing a memoir, Crazy Sane Mama, about overcoming the ordinary and extraordinary anxieties of motherhood—resulting from her mother’s mental illness and suicide—to raise her son with joy and humor.