A few months ago, I started taking swimming lessons. At 42, I bought my first swim cap and pair of goggles, and joined a handful of other adults at our local YMCA for a six-week course. I ignored my pasty white legs and tried to look nonchalant. I regretted my vibrant blue swimsuit after noticing that the other students had on more subdued choices. The first day, and I was already wearing the wrong thing. It felt like high school, but with wrinkles.
A Pisces, I was supposed to be in my element, easily gliding through the water, playfully embracing the novelty of a new experience. Instead, I considered leaving before roll was called. Surely, I thought, being able to tread water was enough. Plenty of people don’t know how to do the backstroke. Some people live entire lives without swimming a lap. I could be one of those people.
Except, if I left, I wouldn’t be able to look my 6-year old in the eye.
I had him to blame, or thank, for my predicament. He’s at the age where we’re exposing him to a handful of activities to see what he likes or what he might be good at. He tried and rejected soccer, enjoys Tae Kwon Do, and tolerates piano. He is on the swim team and has a small collection of ribbons to show for his efforts. We don’t force him into anything, although we do require that he can’t quit an activity mid-session.
He’s generally amenable to the rules. A while back, however, in the wake of what I’m calling the “I forgot to give him a snack after school and this is what happens to a kid with low blood sugar” incident, he complained all the way to swimming. “It’s not fair,” he said. “I have to do all these new things and you don’t have to learn any new things. I’m the only one learning anything.”
I spent the car ride describing all the things I had learned in my long life and lecturing him about privilege and opportunity. I sent him in to practice and smugly reflected on my accomplishments as I watched him cut through the water with his teammates. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay self-satisfied for long.
In his tantrum, my son had exposed an uncomfortable truth. My past achievements aside, it’s been a long time since I’ve tried something new. My son’s world is one of constant change and novel experiences and the rush of mastering new tasks. He is asked daily to stretch himself and expand his abilities. He accepts instruction and constructive criticism with ease and fearlessly faces new challenges, never for a minute believing he can’t accomplish them, even if he struggles at first.
I, on the other hand, have cloaked myself in routine. I rarely stray from familiar activities. I stick to a schedule, shy away from critique, and try to avoid looking foolish. Although I encourage my son to take risks and try new things, I haven’t modeled that behavior for him. Rather than exposing myself to failure, I do what I’m good at. Some of that is driven by the nature of motherhood, I think, with its rhythms and demands and time-constraints. I can’t however, lay the entirety of my hobbit-like existence on that. There are mothers who find time to take up kickboxing and learn how to paint. I just haven’t been one of them. As I tell my son, we are all responsible for our own choices.
It was a humbling lesson, but one I needed to learn. I am considering denying my son snacks more often, on the off chance his inner sage is only unleashed when he’s hungry.
So, inspired by a boy who has lived less than one-sixth of my life, I made a promise to myself and, in a way, to him. I will try to be the kind of person I want him to become. I will learn new things. I will try to be brave. I will be curious and a tiny bit fearless. I will care less about being comfortable and more about doing the things I’ve always wanted to do. Not all at once though. And there will be no sky-diving in my future. There are limits.
And all of that is how I found myself on the edge of the pool, plotting my escape. Promises are easy to make, but harder to keep when your goggles are too tight and your swim cap too small. (Did you know they make these things in different sizes? The labeling really should be clearer.) Before I could bolt, however, Sam arrived to conduct my swimming “evaluation.” Sam was very nice, and pretended not to notice my nervous babbling. He sent me to a group and I stayed in the back, hoping not to be noticed, which is difficult when you’re forced to let go of the side and head out into the water. I watched the returning students enviously, wondering if I would ever be as relaxed as they were.
Then, at some point during the lesson, I stopped comparing and worrying and judging because I was swimming. Really swimming. Not graceful or beautiful swimming, but swimming. I was doing what I set out to do.
That wasn’t the best part, though. That came later when I told my son about my lessons and he said he was proud of me. Now, instead of watching him from the sidelines, I’m diving in too.
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