The first time I took my daughter to a swim class, a wild look crept into her eyes.
Itâ€™s hard to describe the panic 2-year-olds convey through their faces, but itâ€™s something their mothers recognize well. Her eyes were wide, her eyebrows were furrowed, and her mouth was in the shape of a grimace. She didnâ€™t cry or scream. It was as though she was so shocked she couldnâ€™t even make a sound, but she persisted, and when we finished the class I thought, that wasnâ€™t too bad.
It wasnâ€™t until the second class that the crying and screaming kicked in.
It started before we even got into the pool. This time she knew what was coming and she didnâ€™t want any part of it. I thought, oh, sheâ€™ll settle down, sheâ€™ll get comfortable, but I was wrong.
We started the class holding our babies and moving around in the water, working on different holds that would ease them into feeling more independent. She screamed. We came into a circle where we all took turns singing the motorboat song:
Motorboat, motorboat go so slow
Motorboat, motorboat go so fast
Motorboat, motorboat step on the gas!
We dunked the babies under the water on â€śgas,â€ť and she screamed. She screamed for the rest of that class. And the next class, and the class after that. She clawed my arms, she tried to climb onto my head, she wouldnâ€™t let go of my neck. She got to the point where the crying began before we even got out of the car in the parking lot and I hated it.
I felt conflicted about the class. For one thing, I had high hopes for my daughter. I didnâ€™t expect her to be an Olympic swimmer or anything, but I wanted her to be safe. I wanted her to be like those little swim babies who know how to flip onto their backs and float if they fall into the water.
I wanted the class to be fun for us â€” a fun thing to do on a Saturday morning while her infant brother stayed at home with dad.
Instead, I wondered if I was doing more damage than good by exposing her to her fears day after day. I still donâ€™t know the answers to that philosophical parenting question. I tend to push my children out of their comfort zones and encourage them to do things they donâ€™t want to do. There are other ways, I know. Parenting is such a complex, layered thing. Most days I am just walking in the dark, feeling my way along rough walls with scratched up fingers, not knowing where to go.
I felt this swimming endeavor was hopeless. If my daughter couldnâ€™t go with the flow when she was 2, how could she ever get past her fears? Sometimes I squint so hard in the darkness of my parenting tunnel it distorts the reality of my present moment. Iâ€™m trying so hard to do the right thing, be aware, fix something now so itâ€™s not a bigger problem later, that I sometimes place my observations of others on a linear plane. People on the plane â€” information from the plane â€” does not change.
On the plane, if you donâ€™t like to swim today, you will never like to swim. On the plane, you can see the end from the beginning. The plane gives a false sense of light to my dim parenting tunnel. I think itâ€™s something I subconsciously created to feel like I have some control on this wild ride of child-raising. But I think itâ€™s a flaw.
For years, my daughter struggled in the water. Year after year, I signed her up for swim lessons. Each year she would struggle, then progress some by the end of the session, then regress right back to where she started by the time the next yearâ€™s swimming lessons began again. But she persisted. She didnâ€™t cry anymore. She stopped screaming. She was scared, but she did it anyway. She proved my plane theory to be utterly false.
This week, I watched my now 9-year-old daughter swim across the pool with an ease and confidence that amazed me. She dove into the water like a little fish, flipped onto her back and backstroked to the wall like it was the easiest thing. She stayed afloat in the deep end for two minutes while treading water without struggling. She faced her fears and did it anyway. She faced her fears for seven years.
Now someone else is crying on the pool deck.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.