My four-year-old son, Jack, huddles on the splotchy concrete deck of the pool. His shoulders hunch as he grips his elbows, squeezing them into his soft preschool belly. I can almost taste the papery skin of his arm, the places I’ve kissed and nuzzled hundreds of times. I sit across the pool, too far away to leap to him if the water pulled him in and he started gasping for air. After spending his lifetime ensuring I was close enough to grab his arm if he started to tilt off a chair or snag his collar before he tripped into the street, I am too far away to do anything but watch. My calves grip the cheap plastic chair holding me, the kind that wiggles when you breathe. I heave inside my chest, willing the chair to not collapse as I shake, ignoring Jack’s screams for me.
Such cries once brought forth arrows of milk soaking my shirt, ensuring I moved to him, biology damning all else. Today, even though I am across the pool, it’s as if I can feel the cold air around him and his goose bumps under my palm. He will get in that pool for his swim class. We both know this. The question is how much he and I will fight the reality that water will soon engulf his body and that I will only witness, not alleviate, his struggle.
I march over to Jack. When he was younger and afraid, he’d cling to me, Saran Wrapping his body to mine, clawing his fingers into any soft flesh he could find. Now when I reach for him, he pulls away crying, his eyes showing the betrayal we both feel. My teeth grind. Inside my head, I am crying, I am screaming. I want to grab him and go hide in the car.
“Jack.” My voice is low, urgent. This is not what I signed up for.
He wraps his arms tighter around his body, turning his back on me. I see red finger marks from where his hands have been. It’s not what he signed up for either.
When I tug him back around to face me, his bottom lip shoves out further. “A bird will poop on that!” my dad would have joked.
But he’s not here, and my mom is the reason we are. She insisted that all of her children learn to swim at an early age, and just like it was not a question if I’d try to breastfeed, read my children books or teach them how to play catch, swim lessons were non-negotiable.
“Jack. You need to go into the water.”
His eyes fill with tears as he grunts at me, hugging himself tighter and my empty arms ache.
“Jack. If you don’t go, I am taking you in myself.”
I can feel his sob choke in my own throat. I inhale deeply, fighting the panic threatening to suffocate us both. I get very still, flashing back to bodies of water I resisted: ice baths when I was an injured college runner. After workouts or races that would leave my body searing with pain, I would sit alone in the icy water, shaking, submerged from the waist down, with my athletic trainer’s reminder: “Don’t move, you won’t feel the hurt so much. Be present, focus on what you are in here to do.”
Those were some of the longest and loneliest moments of my life. I always hoped my parents would magically appear, crouching to hold my hand, bear the brutal silence with me or yank me out of the water. Now, Jack whispers,“Don’t let me drown Mama! Don’t let me drown.”
So many times in my life, I have wanted to say those exact words to my own parents: when my first ex-boyfriend wouldn’t stop following me, when I ran a track meet on a stress fracture my coach didn’t believe existed, when my now ex-husband kept walking out.
My parents aren’t ones to take over, and I’m not one to ask. Instead, they hover near the edges: waving from the driveway, watching from the stands, picking up the phone when I call or text.
Yet. I always wished for someone to shake me out of my sinking, to fill the space next to me when it became hard to breathe or stop what was happening. Jack, I know how you feel, I want to say. I wonder now: is this how my parents felt watching me struggle all those times?
Maybe you should call this lesson over. These words fly through my head but we are a family who does hard things, and I have been taught to be a parent who doesn’t move, who watches, who waits for a child to decide to find their own way even when they don’t want to.
After staring at Jack for a moment, I set my jaw, take his arms and start to drag him to the pool’s edge. I am in a sheath dress and melon colored suede heels. Two days ago, I waded in wrapped in a red lace pencil skirt that was delicate and perfect; I am still not sure if it survived the pool.
With sweat starting to drip down my face, future memories Jack will make cascade like I’m flipping through a photo album: going to the first day of kindergarten, walking home alone, driving a car, throwing his cap at graduation. We have so many moments waterfalling towards us harder than this. He will be jumping over the edge, over and over and over, sometimes holding my hand but more often holding my heart as I witness him growing up.
My hands grip the hollows of his armpits, a place that feels bony and pliable. It’s the place I hold when I lift him up to monkey bars, where I tickle him when I can’t reach the underside of his arms or legs, where laughs are guaranteed. Now he is slippery and tense, closing his arms around my fingers like a hinge, trying to pinch them out. My feet strain on the wet poolside, gripping and sliding inside my heels, which this morning completed my outfit and now feel ridiculous.
His coach reaches out to pull him out of my hands and into the water. Jack yells, “I don’t want to drown! Don’t let go of me! Don’t. Let. Go. Of. Me!!!!”
Each word is punctuated by a sharp intake of breath. His panic is a rising wave. My lungs close up as I push him closer to the edge, my body bracing behind his, my legs almost kicking him with each step. His coach’s smile and outreached arms don’t waver, even as mine start to shake during the moment we both hold him. Tears well in my eyes. I let go.
I crouch poolside the rest of the lesson, my feet aching, my calves cramping, my tears hovering. Twice a week, for months, variations of this scene repeated itself, until I wasn’t sure swim lessons would ever play out differently. But. Just like being certain you be pregnant forever, the baby will never sleep, this impossible thing will always be impossible, one day it is not.
For all those months, I sat in those plastic chairs, waiting for the crying to start, bracing for when things went badly. After all, they always seemed to, so I became a mouse with its tail in a trap, waiting and struggling with my scared son. I often wondered if it would be easier for me to just leave the lesson - and then I would hear Jack scream my name, and I knew I was staying put.
Then, one lesson, I actually read the book I always brought with me. The next, I took a meeting on my phone. Does it seem coincidental that the following night while I was out for a run with the boys trailing behind me on bikes, Jack yelled out, “Tomorrow I go into the pool myself!” The next lesson, he did. He tucked a foam noodle under his own arms, waded into the pool, and once in the water he started kicking, yelling, “Mama! Look at me! I am swimming!” A few lessons after that? He walked off the edge of the shallow end, the noodle hugging his chest. From the water, he yelled, “Mama! I jumped!”
Jack really did jump the next week, off a diving board (thanks to Jake the Pirate, he calls it “the plank”), his eyes narrow and bright as he leapt into the water clutching a noodle and paddled to the pool edge. Then, he left the noodle with his coach and swam the length of the pool, his smile almost splitting his face in half.
At that moment, I felt as accomplished as I did when after hours of pushing, I moved his body through mine. We were in this together, and somehow I had found a way to let go and not leave him feeling alone. Soon enough, swim lessons would become just another ripple in a series of hard scenes and magical moments, thousands of drops that make up any family. Waves of water, over time, buoy us up more than they pull us down. In order to be present, we have to lean in, and let go, yet not leave.
Now, he emerges from the water, drops sliding down his back, his face beaming. He yells, “Did you see me swimming, Mom? Did you see it?”
I wrap him into his towel, saying, “Do you remember when you were afraid to get into the water? You do hard things so well!”
He leans into me and I pull him into my lap, his bony knees and elbows curving into my body. Another swim lesson over, another ripple in the water of our family. He pulls back and presses our foreheads together. “I did it!” He rubs the tip of his nose against mine. “I love you Mama.”
One season of cross-country in college, I missed a meet: my injuries were bad enough that continuing to train was hurting me more than stopping. Not running felt like being thrown in the water and not knowing how to swim: then, being a runner mattered so much to me. With three other kids at home, my mom came to very few meets, and my dad hadn’t planned to make the five-hour drive - I told him it was good timing. Maybe I’d be ready to run the next weekend.
At that meet, I will never forget being alone at the bottom of a hill watching everyone warm up as crisp autumn air wrapped around me. I was fighting tears and the realization competing would wait for me when my dad appeared, jogging over the crest, waving. “I thought you might need me more today, when you weren’t running, than if you were,” he told me as I ran into his hug, nodding. He continued, “You’ll get through this, I know you will. You always do.”
Bearing witness to our children’s difficult times is one of the most powerful things we can do as parents. And the hardest. All our lives, we jump off cliffs and into the water to slide into what’s never as certain as what we already know, terrified we are alone.
I hope my kids always understand what I learned from my own parents: if I’m not jumping off with them, our hands hugging, it’s not because I don’t want to. Instead, I’m watching, waiting, never wavering in my belief that they can do it on their own.
Guest post written by Lacey Schmidt. “My mom does everything,” is how her then three-year-old once described Lacey. Most days, it feels true. Solo parent to Miles and Jack, Lacey is an HR leader by career, Mom always, and all else in the cracks she can find.
Photo by Ashlee Gadd.