“Go on, choose a line and get in place,” I said, giving his hibiscus-clad bottom a gentle pat. His little feet ambled over to where the lines of children stood by the pool, waiting their turn to dive in and swim across.
“One, two, three, GO!” punctuated the air at regular intervals with the assistance of a megaphone operated by the swim coach.
Every few steps, his blonde head swiveled back around searching for me under the guise of scanning the crowd. When I knew he spotted me, I would bob my head in the direction of the pool, the way I’ve seen mother animals nudge their reluctant babies from the den.
I watched as he observed the other kids, one by one crouching at the edge of the pool, their hands gripping the concrete bump near their feet, before springing forward in a dive and taking off across the expanse of turbulent blue water. The number of children in front of him slowly decreased and I could see his little body tense as his turn approached. Mine was tense too.
His moment arrived and he pushed off from the edge in an awkward leap that probably only barely met the technical requirements of a dive, but I didn’t care as I was just so proud of him for going for it. He swam a few strokes until he needed a breath and then put his feet down on the bottom of the pool and stopped to breathe for a moment before continuing with his arms. This process repeated itself for a few minutes before the teen coaches recognized that he needed assistance to make it across the pool.
With their help and quite a bit of struggle, he crossed the pool and made it back to the other side, the last to exit the water amid the silence of the rest of the children watching him and waiting for him to finish before they could continue practice. He exited the pool to the sound of the wind in the trees and water dripping off of tiny bodies and onto the pavement.
I took a deep breath, unsure of his reaction or what conclusions he would draw about himself and this activity, so necessary for the safety of all children, and saw him rejoin the line. Within a few seconds, he turned with a crumpled face and walked toward me, pulling his goggles off, tears mixed with pool water in the drops cascading down his face.
“I don’t want to do this. I just want to go home. Why do I have to do this?” was whined out at me as I grabbed the towel and began to wipe down his face. I wanted nothing more than to wrap that towel around him, burrito style, like I still do after every bath, and carry him to the car. I have three children and my mothering is different with each, driven, I’m sure, by the varying needs of their disparate personalities. With S, despite being my middle child and despite being seven years old, he is my baby. Rarely is there ever a harsh word between us and we seek each other out when in need of peace and comfort.
But he needs to do this.
If I let him leave now, this endeavor will be forever marked as a failure in his mind. He will have quit the swim team “because I couldn’t do it” or “because it was too hard for me” and I don’t want that narrative floating around his mind, to join the others of a similar vein. Aside from the necessity for each child to have strong swimming skills and swim team being the most efficient way I’ve ever known of getting there, S needs a victory. He needs a victory, even if it comes in the form of just not quitting.
“Sawyer, this is a great way to become a really strong swimmer. I know you can do this. It just takes practice. We are not leaving. We are not going home. You need to get back in the line and listen to what the coach is telling you. The more you practice, the easier this will get and, in the end, you will be so proud of how far you’ve come as a swimmer. Now go…” and with another pat on his hibiscus-bottom, I did the mommy nudge and sent him back to the pool’s edge.
Being firm is not a tool I often have to use with him, mostly because it never gets to that point between us, but also because it never feels right to deal with him that way. I worry though, in the way all parents worry that they aren’t making the best choices for the little lives entrusted to them, that my inability to be firm has contributed to some of his ongoing struggles with perseverance.
Before long, he reaches the pool edge again and repeats the process of last time…down the pool and back. This time, the children continue rotating through their positions, so there is no moment of silence while he finishes the swim on his own. When he climbs out of the pool, I watch as his head scans the crowd for me. Before he even has a chance to give his reaction to this latest round, I give him a gigantic goofy grin and a double thumbs-up.
Pulling up his goggles, he looks confused for a moment before his smile spreads, revealing the mess of gaping holes and incoming teeth that all seven year olds have and gives me a thumbs-up right back. We continue to look ridiculous in these poses for a beat before he turns around to join the line and moves his goggles back over his eyes.
After practice ends and we are walking back to the car, me carrying all the paraphernalia of an afternoon at the pool and him walking penguin-style wrapped in his towel like a burrito, I try to pump in a little added encouragement to round out the experience.
“Not so bad, see? And look how much your breathing has improved in just this first day! Eventually you’ll start to get faster and faster.”
His head tilts up at me, all messy pool hair and goggle marks, “Why do I want to get fast?”
“Because it’s a race.”
“We’re supposed to be RACING?!”
Okay, so maybe we still have a ways to go…