One of the most interesting aspects of parenthood is seeing your best and worst qualities reflected back to you in the unnecessarily loud mannerisms of a small, angry, socially inept human being.
Yesterday, you see, was Olive’s first day of swimming lessons.
It was actually her second first day of swimming lessons because I signed her up for lessons in early spring, too, but we abandoned them after a week due to a mix of scheduling issues and sheer forgetfulness (it’s a superpower of mine. Madeleine: Able to forget vital information in a single second!)
So we signed up again for the adorably-named “Sea Otter” level of swimming at a nearby outdoor pool – this time for a week of classes every single day. We showed up the first day, Olive in her bathing suit and me in a tank top and jorts – ready to sun myself poolside while she learned to doggy paddle or do a back float or whatever.
Tragically, the Sea Otter level of swimming is a parented class. This means that sunning yourself poolside is frowned upon, instead, you must actually venture into the unheated pool and teach your kid yourself, like a chump.
So, I had to hop into the freezing pool in my jorts looking reeeeeal cool. And, oblivious to the great sacrifices to style, dryness, and personal leisure time I was making, Olive refused to participate in virtually every aspect of the class.
She would not make a turtle with her hands, she would not sing, she would not turn in circles, she would not blow bubbles. She stood there impassive and shivering while the rest of her class practiced floating (with parental assistance) on their backs and tummies, and every time the instructor – a bored looking teenager named Greg – asked her if she wanted to do whatever nonsense they were doing, she affixed him with a cold stare and replied, “I will do it when I am ready.”
It was infuriating, but it was also quintessentially Olive. She’s always known her own mind and had very strong opinions about what she does and does not want to do. The other night she was showing my dad how high she could count and she omitted the number 15.
She has always omitted the number 15 ever since she first learned her numbers, it appears that the number 15 has slighted her in some way and she’s never forgotten it. I’ve long since washed my hands of the issue – as far as I’m concerned it’s up to her future teachers to argue the necessity of the number 15 because quite frankly I don’t see a need for it either.
My dad, however, corrected her.
“Olive,” he said, “You forgot 15!”
“I don’t need 15,” she said. “I’m doing it my own way.”
So. Day 1 (part II) was a bust. We came home in a somewhat subdued mood, me in a soaking wet pair of jean shorts and Olive wearing her bathing suit and cowboy boots, and I immediately lapsed into what I do best – catastrophizing. Nobody creates a ridiculous, fictitious worst-case scenario like I do. Just watch this train of thought devolve, it’s a thing of beauty:
“What on earth is wrong with her? What does it mean that she never wants to participate in things? This is just like sportsball day at her preschool when she declined to play anything the entire time and instead volunteered to be the water girl. The WATER GIRL. Is she going to be on the sidelines her entire life? Have I failed her in some vital, essential way? Is this because I didn’t take her to more of those stupid mommy and me classes? Is this because she doesn’t have siblings? Oh god. I’ve ruined her. She’s going to grow up to be that weird kid who eats lunch alone in the hallway and never has any friends and doesn’t even play a sport or do drama classes or sing. Yesterday she said she was going to be my best friend and live with me forever and I thought it was so cute but oh god, what if she was RIGHT? ”
Admirable, right? From a simple reluctance to engage in forced participation to catastrophic life failure in less than a minute!
But! Because I’m not totally insane, I eventually mentally meandered around to this:
“Okay, jesus christ, Madeleine. Pull it together. She’s three. THREE! Maybe she’s just not ready. Maybe I’m being one of those overbearing Tiger Moms who insists her kid do everything and excel at everything and what if she just hates swimming? Lots of people hate swimming! Isn’t she allowed to hate swimming? I mean, she doesn’t need to swim, does she? And I don’t want to force her to do something she so clearly detests. Maybe we should just quit and try again next year.Or not at all.”
I felt calmer then, with that open door standing there. If swimming lessons weren’t for her, we could just stop going. It’s not the end of the world!
And later that night as I sat there and went over things in my head, it hit me, hard, like I’d just been bitch slapped by an irate toddler: Olive is me. I am Olive.
I always lament how she is far too quick to give up on something if she isn’t good at it right away. This was the whole crux of the swimming issue! She wasn’t good, wasn’t confident, wasn’t comfortable, so she was refusing to try. And yet look. Look at MY reaction. Here we were, day ONE of swimming and just because it wasn’t a roaring success, I was ready to throw in the towel.
And then memories came flooding back. Feeling small and unsure and scared of what I was being asked to do. Unwilling to try in case I failed while doing so. My mom signing me up for various activities each year – soccer, viola, ballet, swimming – and then two weeks later going around and collecting her canceled checks after I’d angrily quit because I wasn’t good already after a few classes. When it comes to skills-based activities, if it doesn’t come naturally to me, I’m not interested.
I’m still like that. I’m far too sensitive and failure hurts worse than anything. I hate submitting work to magazines and newspapers in case I get turned down, but I’ve learned that I miss out on far more when I let this fear stop me from trying. It’s a lesson I took far too long to learn.
That night, I had a chat with Olive and I told her what I thought I would have wanted to hear at that age. How you have to be bad at something before you can be good. How trying and failing is always better than sitting on the sidelines wishing you had. And how I was going to be right there beside her the whole time, encouraging her and making sure she didn’t sink.
The next day I wore a proper bathing suit and she put on her cowboy boots and we went back. She didn’t sing the songs, she didn’t blow bubbles, but she hesitantly did a back float and a front float. She mastered the flutter kick, she pointed her arms over her head like a rocket and then kept them close to her sides like a pencil.
On the way home I told her how proud I was; I asked her how it felt to try something new, how it felt to learn.
Today we went back again. She sang the turtle song. She blew bubbles. She floated and kicked and then the instructor asked them to put on life jackets and float by themselves.
I could see the panic on her face, so I let her control it. I let go when she said let go and I held her again when she asked me to. She bobbed around by herself for longer and longer stretches of time, eventually trying to kick and splash her way to my waiting arms.
Afterwards, we sat in the sun, shivering and wrapped in towels, and talked about the class. What she had liked, what she was good at, and what she wanted to try tomorrow. I told her that at the end of the week she’d get a certificate, saying all the things she’d learned and that she could keep going if she wanted to.
“Do you want to continue swimming lessons?” I asked, “The next level is Salamander.”
“Yes!” she yelled, “I want to be a Salamander!”
Sometimes your kids are like little mirrors, reflecting aspects of yourself back to you and forcing you to face them without flinching.
Other times what they show you is something more, something better, and it’s your turn to learn.