She sits on the floor, her legs bent in front of her, the soles of her feet just touching. She talks to herself, a constant stream of babble, as she flips through her board book, pausing on each page just long enough to rest her tiny fingers before moving to the next. I smile; my mother tells me my baby girl shows shades of me at her age and it is true. I hope her love of the written word grows as mine did.
A rustling in the corner breaks her concentration; the cat has found a scrap of tissue paper. For a girl just past her first birthday, this is far more interesting than Eric Carle. She flings her book to the side, slides forward, rests her weight on her hands, then hesitates. This position feels unstable, though she's gotten to this exact point dozens of times in recent months. The tissue paper beckons, just out of reach.
She has yet to crawl. When the situation is desperate, she's been known to roll, back to front, front to back, stringing turns together to reach her destination, and in the past few weeks, she's developed a kind of scooting motion, thumping her hands down together and sliding forward on her belly, an awkward land-baby version of the butterfly stroke. Though she lags behind her peers today, perhaps she'll be an outstanding swimmer one day.
She stares at her goal, leans forward, and I think this is the time she'll figure it out, but then her eyes widen and her gaze drops to her hands, and she rocks back, shifting her weight to her legs. The cat moves, the paper rustles, and it begins again. She leans forward but it is too unstable, and so she rocks back and forth, back and forth.
I recognize the look in her eyes, the hesitation, the thing holding her back, for I have experienced it all too often myself: she is afraid of falling, afraid of failure. Shades of me, indeed. This reticence, this caution, this lack of daring that holds me back, seems to have found its way into my daughter, and I wonder: is it genetic, innate, something coded into our DNA, or is it learned? Have I taught her this fear, somehow?
I am ten or eleven, staring into the deep blue void of the swimming pool from an impossible height. I glance behind me, considering retreat, but another kid waits at the far end of the diving board, his hands on the rails, his sideways posture conveying poorly disguised impatience. I assume a diving position, heart hammering, then straighten, unable to go through with it. Bend at the waist, straighten. Bend at the waist, straighten.
We are visiting my grandparents, a miniature family reunion in the heat of the summer. My younger cousins have something new this year: roller-blades. Sleek and fast as they zip around the cul-de-sac, they spark my envy. My parents, ever searching for ways to challenge and stretch their cautious oldest child, have made me a deal. If I dive off of the high board, a feat I've yet to attempt, they will buy me roller-blades of my own.
Here I stand, then, my legs like Jell-O, and I wonder how much I really want those skates anyway. This is my third and final attempt; the afternoon shadows grow long and if I lose my nerve, jump straight down as I did the past two times, I will not get another chance. I glance to the edge of the pool. Mom stands there, looking up at me, a hand at her brow. Our eyes meet, and though her mouth does not move, I hear her words clearly. "You can do it, sweetheart. Keep going. You can do it." I hold her gaze, bending slowly at the waist, then look past my pointed fingers to the water below. My toes grip the edge of the board as I will myself to do this thing, and then I am falling hands-first toward the pool. No. Not falling. Diving.
My body betrays me, my forward momentum rotating my legs too much so that my back strikes the water with a loud smack, the sound of defeat. I surface with tears in my eyes. This was my fear: that I would fall, that I would fail. But Mom meets me at the pool's edge with a broad grin on her face, wraps me in a towel and then her arms. "You did it, sweetheart, you tried. I'm so proud of you," and later that same day we drive to the sporting goods store and I leave with roller blades of my very own.
That cat in the corner still teases the tissue paper, and my girl wants it. How she wants it. She rocks, forward and back, forward and back, and she is just like me, afraid of falling, afraid of failure. I encourage her, hoping to instill some bravery in her that I lack, hoping to build in her the ability to try new things. "You can do it, sweetheart. Keep going. You can do it." She lurches forward and her face hits the carpet with a thump. I scoop her up, cradle her against my chest and she clings to me, wailing her frustration, her pain, her fear. I whisper soothing words to her, even as I smile at our similarities, for I know her tears, like those I left in the pool all those years ago, come more because she failed than because she was hurt.
In the weeks that followed my first failed attempt, I tried that dive again, and again, and again, my mom's support the impetus I needed. I place my daughter on the floor, rub her back, smile at her. "Crawl, baby girl, you can do it," I say, and as I do, I see myself dividing the water, plunging into the depths, my body straight and true.
Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at Choosing This Moment. She lives with her husband and her daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.