Swimming lessons did not go well last week.
My daughter loved every moment of them until last week. She would skip around the locker room with freshly-toweled hair, pausing to say that she couldn’t wait till swimming again. But after weeks of kicking and paddling, the teacher decided they were ready to paddle by themselves. Although my daughter’s floatie was cinched around her waist and a pool noodle was looped under her arms, she was terrified. When the teacher let go, she froze in the water, legs stick-straight, arms wide, fingers splayed. She cried a guttural cry and then frantically grabbed for her teacher. When her teacher backed out of her grasp, she got angry and began screaming “STOP! Stop it! Stop!” until the teacher finally grabbed her pool noodle again. She spent the rest of the time whimpering at the side of the pool, trying to convince me to take her home.
As a parent, it was excruciating. As she flailed outwardly, my stomach twisted and turned inside. I’m wired to protect her and to keep her safe. For one crazy momma-bear second, I considered hopping in and grabbing her, rescuing the little girl who needed no rescue but desperately believed she did. But I know the way to keep her safe in the pool is to push through the lessons, even when she feels unsafe, so I relegated myself to cheesy thumbs-up signs from the bleachers.
I want her to be safe.
And this isn’t really about swimming.
Up until this point, parenting has been largely about enfolding. Hold her in my arms. Wear her in my sling. Buckle her into carrier, swing, and stroller. Make sure the gate is latched in the backyard, make sure I’ve got a tight grip on her hand in public places. Parenting has been safety-by-containing.
And now both she and I are learning new skills. Kindergarten looms on the horizon, school busses and mean kids and exposure to thousands of things that I’ve intentionally filtered out of her life so far. It makes me sentimental and nervous and scared all at once to watch her grow. (“Stop it! Stop!”) We’re both a little terrified. So she works on getting her ears wet, on her “scoopers and kickers,” and I try to figure out what she needs for the days when the buckles no longer hold her, when her legs are tall enough to jump the gate.
My husband always says that we can parent by building up walls to keep the world out, or by equipping our kids to thrive in the world. Safety-by-containing vs. safety-while-engaging. And although these heartstrings bind tighter than any five point harness on the market, I know this:
When it comes to what we’re building up, I choose her.
The boy across the street is learning to ride his bike. Just a couple weeks ago his dad was holding on to his seat for balance, and now his son takes off down the street, at once wobbly and fierce. His dad jogs behind him, close enough to scoop him up if he falls but too far to reach him before the ground scrapes his skin. Seeing the pride on both their faces, I know it’s not a bad thing, this ever-growing distance, skinned elbows and all.
Outside the pool, there is this gigantic pedestrian bridge that spans the road – a hulking eyesore with peeling sky-blue paint. My daughter’s fascinated by it. I’ve promised her that the day she paddles across the pool, we’ll climb it. I imagine us running up the ramps out to where the cars speed under us, our hair blowing in the wind. We’ll yell “We did it!” through the fencing and our words will get carried off in the traffic and the breeze, the two of us together, learning to swim.