Sink or Swim: When Parenting Is a Do-Over
Do you remember learning how to swim? I do. It’s a childhood memory that’s indelibly seared into my brain. What should have been a fun and exiting adventure in my young life became a telling preview of my mother’s parenting style – muddled and merciless.
I couldn’t have been more than five years old. The pool that would serve as my classroom was located in a cluster of low-end apartment buildings in Parsippany, New Jersey. To my young eyes, the pool was a vast and glittering oasis, offering the freedom to explore and play to my heart’s content. That was until my mother began her own version of swim camp.
Class started with a handy dandy flotation device being strapped to my body. I’m pretty sure that this contraption is now outlawed in all 50 states, as it’s almost completely useless. Made with a cheap Styrofoam that my mother cheerfully referred to as “the bubble,” it rested loosely on my back and was attached to my body by a coarse black belt that was looped across my chest.
Lesson one was very simple. My mother lifted me up, threw me into the deep end of the pool, and told me to swim. Although I don’t remember exactly what happened next, I know nothing graceful or inspiring occurred. All I recall is bone-chilling fear and the certainty that I was going to die. Eventually, sighing impatiently, my mother was forced to dive in to save me.
Apparently she needed to change tactics. Cradling me in her arms, my mother waded out far enough into the water that I wouldn’t be able to stand. Holding me tightly, she dove beneath the surface, taking me with her. Panicking, I cried and begged for her to stop. But she didn’t. Instead she said, “If you cry, I’m going to dunk you again.”
I couldn’t help myself. Tears squirted out of my eyeballs, and I was submerged again and again and again. I don’t know how long this continued, but it was enough for me to realize, even at a young age, that my mother was never going win a Parent of the Year award. Ever.
In what seems like the blink of an eye, more than thirty years passed and it was time for me to teach my daughter how to swim. I could have outsourced the task to an instructor, as most of my friends have done, but I decided to give it a whirl myself. Each sunny day last summer, when my daughter was four, we went down to the pool in our building. I taught her how to float, move her arms, and kick. After a month or so, I was delighted to see that she could swim a short distance as long as she didn’t have to lift her head to take a breath. It was slow going, but I didn’t care. I loved our silly mermaid games and savored the distraction-free mommy-daughter time.
When the pool opened this year, neither of us could wait to get started with our summer routine. This time, she figured out how to breathe in between strokes, and before long she was cruising across the width of our pool. On a lark I said to her, “I think you might be ready to swim the entire pool.” To sweeten the deal, I told her she could pick anything she wanted from her favorite toy store as her reward. That was all she needed to hear. Glancing determinedly at the long 25 yards of water stretched out in front her, she said, “Let’s do this.”
The next day my daughter, hubby, and I marched down to the pool. Ever the coach, I tried pumping up her confidence on the elevator ride down to the pool. “What are you going to say to yourself as you swim?” I asked. “I am strong,” she replied. “I am strong, I am strong.” With that mantra in all of our heads, we entered the pool area. “Do you want to warm up or do you want to start swimming right away?” I inquired. “Right away,” she said. Before I knew it, she was in the pool and taking off for the deep end. I jumped in to accompany her.
We passed the four-foot marker, with my daughter looking strong. Decent strokes, good kicking, and not a whole lot of breaths. As we hit the halfway mark, though, I noticed her slowing down. Each time she took a breath, her lower half sank to the bottom, and she was having a hard time starting up again. At a certain point, her arms were moving but she appeared to be swimming in place.
At this point, there was only one thing to do. Yell. Tossing pool etiquette to the wind, I screamed her name, her nickname, and any encouraging thought that came to mind. “You can do it. Don’t give up, c’mon baby!” I didn’t care if our little family scene was irritating the other pool goers. My kid needed some encouragement and you’d better as hell believe her mother was going to give it her. I swam out in front of her, holding my arms out so she was no longer swimming toward an invisible wall. She was headed to mommy, her biggest fan.
On that hot Saturday morning, arms flailing, my kid didn’t give up, and seconds later her fingertips touched the far side of the pool. The crowd around the pool who, unbeknownst to us had been watching in fascination, erupted in cheers. I cried. This time my tears were not only my daughter’s wonderful accomplishment. They were also for a girl whose mother had never learned how to properly care for her daughter, in or out of the water.
Here’s the thing about parenting: You get to take all of those shitty experiences of your childhood, the ones that left massive potholes in your life, and fill them up with the happier memories you’re creating with your own kids. It’s an automatic do-over. By teaching my little girl how to swim, I had laid a joyful moment over a horrific experience that has haunted me for decades.
I’ll never forget the fear and shame I experienced at the hands of my mother, at the pool and in the many years after. But now, thanks to my new family, those feelings are being replaced by the sweet memories of my husband and I cheering our daughter on as she pushes herself forward, stroke by stroke, and reaches the other side.
~By Wendy Widom, Families in the Loop