Friday, July 10, 2009

"Paybacks" Are Actually Quite Lovely, Thank You

Part of this post is undoubtedly a rerun. It's one of those things that rises up to touch me again every summer, and whenever it does, I can't resist talking about it.

This afternoon, I went to meet my daughter and her friend at a local pool. The other girl's mother had taken them while I was still working, and at 5:00 I got changed and headed over to meet them. My late arrival afforded me the opportunity to watch from across the room as my daughter grabbed her friend's hand and the two of them took a running leap into the pool. A little later, returning to the pool, she simply stepped off the edge and dropped into the water.

Yeah, I know. You're probably wondering what the big deal is, especially if you know that my daughter is 13.

This is it: the summer my daughter was five, she was so eager to learn to swim that she was practically quivering with it. She, like me, loved the water passionately, and she couldn't wait to swim. I signed her up for lessons and on the first day they lined up along the edge of the pool and the teacher said, "Okay, let's get in the water..." and Tori popped off the edge and straight to the bottom. By the time I reached the edge of the pool, she was safely back on the side, but sobbing. When I asked her what had happened she said, "I drowned."

For the rest of that summer, her craving to get back in the water warred with her terror. She resolutely got ready to go to her lesson each week, but could never bring herself to get in the water. In between, we went to the pool every day, and though she stared out at the water with longing, it was a solid month before she moved off the stairs...and then only to allow me to carry her a few steps out into the water, while she clung to me with what seemed like more arms and legs than I'd known she possessed. It was the end of the summer before she'd allow me to hold her at arm's length in the water, and the weather was turning before she relaxed enough to ride on my back while I walked through the water. Even then, she clenched her little arms so tightly around my neck that sometimes I had to carry her back to the safety of the side just so that I could get a few good breaths.

But every day, she asked to go swimming.

The next summer she steeled herself to jump from the side of the pool into my waiting arms, most of her body never reaching the three-foot-deep water. Slowly, ever so slowly, we edged forward: she'd jump in holding my hands, then just one hand. She'd ride on my back while I swam across the pool in shallow water. She'd hold on to the side and kick if I stayed next to her, and then if I didn't. We edged our way all the way to today, when she splashed laughing into the pool at the bottom of the water slide, oblivious to my presence.

In the greater scheme of things, I suppose it doesn't matter much that my child is happy in the water, but I have a moment like this every season, when I see her laughing and confident in the water and am overwhelmed with the feeling that it was just SO WORTH IT to sit on the steps of that pool for an hour every afternoon and not push her to go any further.

So much of parenting seems to be about second-guessing ourselves. We want to be so much for and offer so much to our children that it's inevitable that we're going to fall short, and the small mistakes and missed opportunities often loom much larger than the successes. But every summer there is at least one moment when I sit by the edge of a pool or on the sand at a beach--once even at the edge of the ocean--and am reminded of the things I've gotten right.

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