I’m always telling my children to be brave.
Seeing my own insecurities reflected back on two innocent faces has to be one of the most challenging — and unexpected — parts of parenthood. Wracked by anxiety myself from a young age, I’m often consumed with smoothing life’s sharp edges for my son and daughter. I know I can’t always do that — indeed, that I shouldn’t always do that — but … well, how do I stop?
I don’t want them to worry like I have worried.
I want them, I think, to be normal.
My adult mind knows that “normal” is an illusion. No one is normal. There is no normal. But my heart — that pounding, persistent thing — still feels the old pangs of embarrassment and fear when I see my children challenged in all-too-familiar ways.
On Sunday, the struggle was literal. Oliver and Hadley started swim lessons: Hadley’s first round, and Oliver’s third. The last time, two years ago, was awful. A disaster. At age four, and with his sensory issues, Ollie wasn’t close to ready. He struggled. Refused to follow directions. He couldn’t focus with the other kids around (all perfectly compliant, of course), and only wanted to sit on the steps and kick around.
I tried to force it. I spent a lot of money, I said, like he cared about money. I took off work to be here. I want you to try — please, please, just try.
He wouldn’t. He lost it. And we both cried in the middle of a dingy swim school with a room full of people watching.
I just wanted so badly to save him as I haven’t believed I could be saved: from my overwhelming fear of deep water.
I wanted him to swim.
To swim for both of us.
After throwing in the towel (literally) and accepting Oliver just wasn’t ready, we forgot the remaining lessons that summer. I shoved the memories of that struggle — a power struggle; a physical struggle; an emotional struggle — into a box marked “Nope.” I haven’t felt brave enough to try again.
Water just always seems to be there, though — lurking. And despite how silly it feels, I’ve spent my life with the label of a Non-Swimmer. It’s like a party trick, you know? When I’m in mixed company, maybe seated with strangers at a corporate retreat, I can trot it out with gusto. “Fun fact: I cannot swim,” I say, as though I’ve confessed to having never left the state of Maryland. The raised eyebrows seem to express a similar surprise.
I had opportunities to learn, certainly. My parents took my sister and me each summer — weeks that eventually stretched across years. It didn’t matter how much I tried: I was petrified. I still am. And no matter how much I was encouraged or prodded or incentivized, the fear did not move.
While Hadley is already building confidence, giggling and splashing with the instructor, I can actually feel the panic radiating off her older brother. Seeing Oliver struggle makes me feel powerless. Takes me back to the NICU. Dredges up all these old, awful feelings of inadequacy and failure.
But these are my issues, not theirs. I’m slowly learning to separate the two.
My husband is usually sitting next to me in these moments, a hand on my arm. “It’s OK,” he says. “They’re OK! Look. They’re fine!”
He watches me watching our children. I feel him breathing, thinking. Processing.
“I know,” I say quietly, watching Ollie sputter. “I just … I know what that feels like … “
Falling. Plunging. A total loss of control.
Spencer himself swims like a fish.
I have to look away.
Later in the day, we take the kids to a friend’s house. Sandy has invited us to her backyard oasis many times. We visited on the Fourth of July, and I remembered to pack the kids’ swimsuits. They got in with the other adults, all capable swimmers. I checked their life vests, perched on a chair, and watched.
Something snapped Sunday as I watched my kids in the pool, nervous but eager. Something that had been moored, even buried, broke free.
After a lifetime of thinking I can’t, I can’t, I thought of what I often murmur to my children. What I told them that very morning, dabbing sunscreen on the delicate freckles dusting my daughter’s cheeks.
The kids scamper off with Sandy, helping to unearth potatoes from her garden. It’s quiet. Still.
“OK,” says my husband. “Your turn?”
I can’t, I start.
But for once, the words get all clogged up.
With an arm around his shoulders, Spencer talks me through leaning back and calming my body enough to just … float. Float on my back. I can’t, I start to say, and stop. The hand bracing my back slackens. It takes several tries — and some panicky sputtering — but eventually, amazingly … he lets go. And I stay, bobbing awkwardly at the surface, everything submerged save my eyes, nose, and mouth.
I look up at the sky, solid blue with puffy clouds in the distance. Feel the soft, damp summer air on my face. Hear the voices of my children in the distance, answered by my dear friend in her patient grandmother voice.
I drifted. I existed. I was.
I can’t remember the last time I did something new — something that scared me. Adulthood has helped insulate me from so much that burned me up with anxiety when I was younger.
I can make my own choices. Avoid places I don’t like. Avoid people I don’t like. Avoid conflict.
But I’ll be 36 this week. Mid-thirties. Late thirties?
My husband sees glimmers of possibility that I can’t always spot in myself.
And maybe it’s not too late for me to grow.
I am still capable of trying.
And that? That’s my birthday gift this year.