By Sarah Dille
I watched from behind the glass window as she took her first plunge into ten feet of water. She had told me in the car that she was feeling brave enough to do it. I believed her, but I’m not quite sure she believed herself, until she found her legs leaving the side of the pool and she braced herself for the slap of the water onto her small body.
I don’t know who let their breath go first. I’m not even really sure I realized I had been holding mine as I watched her propel herself forward in the water with well-practiced scoops and kicks. I waved at her enthusiastically, proudly, amazed. I could not have done that when I was five. It was my best friend who taught me to swim. One summer, years past the time I should have known, years past the birthday parties at pools where I sat sheepishly on the side or hovered on the steps, not knowing how to tread in the water or float, not knowing how to conquer my fear of what would happen if I let go. It was always embarrassing. But I didn’t really know how to fix it.
The summer before 7th grade, my friend took my hand and led me into the pool. She showed me how to blow bubbles out my nose, relax my body and my mind enough to trust myself to float. She helped me sit on the side of the pool, told me to make what my daughter now calls pancake hands and helped me dive for the first time into water that rose above my head, letting go of my fear and mistrust of myself in a pool. She helped me let myself go. She made me brave.
Every summer now, I relearn about myself at the pool even though most times it is not me who is submerged in water. I watch my daughter and her swimming teacher and I realize that many of the lessons to be learned in the room that smells so strongly of chlorine are lessons for me. They aren’t about blowing bubbles or floating, about scooping arm movement or how to dive properly. They are, once again, lessons on trust; lessons on bravery; lessons on letting go. I learn about taking wishes from my childhood and pushing them upon my motherhood, taking a cue from that small girl I once was, sitting at the side of the pool too afraid to take risks.
Parenting has taught me that I can’t be that girl anymore. Every day of parenting is a risk, is an act akin to diving into water where you know you cannot stand on your own two feet.
Every part of parenting is about trust. About trusting my partner, my daycare provider, my children and, mostly, myself. The early days of motherhood felt to me much like those initial attempts at floating. It was only as I relaxed that I was better able to keep my head above the proverbial waters.
And, swimming lessons have, year after year, also taught me a bit about letting go. As swim instructors guide my daughter towards independence, help her to not need my holding her and catching her, teaching her to float freely in the water, I realize again and again that raising a child seems to me a lot like teaching them to swim. The consequences of not succeeding are downright scary. It is so much easier to stick them in your arms or make them wear floaties until they are 29. But then they’ll never really experience the freedom and fun of the water. They’ll never learn to swim. So I try to let go. Let go of unrealistic expectations, of comparisons to other mothers and children, of expert advice that only contradicts my instincts. I watch my daughter bravely jump into ten feet of water, letting herself go and trusting herself to float back to the surface and I want to feel that freedom too.
It is sometimes scary to be a parent in this intensive parenting culture. Those of us who have always been successful—in school, in our jobs—we hate the prospect of not matching that success with our children. We hate the idea that someone else might be better than us or that there may be some magic formula out there that we are not privy to. Therefore we buy the books, search the Internet, tap into our own mother’s brains in hope of finding the secret. We surround ourselves with expert information until it feels like we are drowning.
Sometimes I feel like I did that summer before 7th grade, ready to take the plunge, confident that a friend will be there on the other side to hold me up and hold my hand and hold my heart with care. Other days I feel like I can’t swim. Like I’m standing in water that reaches just above my head and I don’t know quite what to do to reach the surface.
But when I have doubts about what I am doing, the choices I am making, which I inevitably do, I remember all I’ve learned in the pool.
Sarah Dille is a mom of two great kids, wife to a serial remodeler, and a full-time English teacher. To keep her sanity, she writes about weathering the many changes of parenting and the lovable craziness of her children on her blog, toddlersummer.com.