At Least the Water’s Warm

I sometimes think about a story my dad told once, a long time ago, about part of his training when he entered the military. As I remember it, he had to take some sort of swimming test that required him to leap from something into water, then swim back to a certain point. Now, in my mind’s eye–my father told me this story when I was a child, and you know how kids make everything so impossibly awesome in their minds because it’s their imagination, and they’ll do what they want with it, dagnabit–Dad had to leap from a sky-scraping steel tower into the crashing swells of an open sea and struggle against the current back to safety. It was probably more like he had to dive into the deep end of a swimming pool and freestyle a lap, but I like my version better, so I’m sticking with it (who has the better imagination now, huh, kids?!). The sticking point, here–the most important detail–was that Dad didn’t know how to swim.

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Let me repeat that: he had no idea how to swim.

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I thought about that last night as I stood in my kitchen, trying to cook dinner despite the arms of a wailing baby wrapped around my shins and the escalating pitch of two young girls quarreling in the next room. David had been gone for a couple of days for work, and well…let’s just say it’s good to have him home again. Nothing makes you appreciate a spouse more than dragging a dry Christmas tree to the curb by yourself while keeping on eye on the small children who are trying to snowshoe to Tahoe.

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But about my swimming analogy. Parenting is like my dad’s swimming test–the one in my head, I mean. And I joked last night (okay, it wasn’t a joke so much as a cry for help, but never mind that detail, k? I had a glass of wine and tucked the wee children into bed and ate a few chocolate chip cookies and all was right with the world again) on Facebook that having three kids is…hard. Just, hard. And it is, of course it is. But having one can be challenging to the parent of a single child. Parenting two can feel like you never have a spare hand, nor ear, nor tiny bit of patience left for yourself. Being a parent can feel exactly like the swimming story of my dad’s that I remember, only with parenting, you’ve just jumped into the water when you have no idea how to swim, and now you’re expected to rescue all the other people you threw into the water along with you, because they don’t know how to swim–and you KNEW they didn’t know how to swim before you threw them in, you heartless jerk–and you just figured out that the water is shark-infested and everybody’s looking at you to play lifeguard. THAT’S what parenthood is.

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I’m struggling a little bit with the day-to-day tasks of weaning Cian (because, you know, the ouch), and prepping our house to list, and trying to block out some decent chunks of time for writing and editing (when? Anybody have tips? Because I’m on kid patrol from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and after that, you know, the laundry. I don’t have a JOB. How is the day so hard??). I look in the mirror and I see someone who may be at her pre-pregnancy weight, but is discovering that none of the body parts are where they used to be (Someone took my butt and redistributed it. Because that was necessary). It’s all little stuff, really. And it’s all fine. But it’s just a reminder that, metaphorically, I don’t really know how to swim.

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Last Saturday, Saoirse was getting ready for our family birthday party for Cian. She was super excited to see her cousins, and had picked out a dress to wear–one that had little crystals all around the collar–and had loaded up the accessories, first with a headband, and then a watch, and then a necklace, and finally, with a bracelet. She stood in front of the mirror, grinning and admiring her look for the day, as I walked past her room.

“Mom?” she said. “How do I look? Do I look beautiful?”

Before I could answer, she looked again at her reflection. She was still smiling.

“I look beautiful.”

And then she sighed, happy.

“I look just like a mom!”

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And there you have it, folks: you’ve no idea how to swim. There are sharks in the water. The first of a hundred storms is rolling in. But you know what? The little people in the water with you don’t know that. Moreover, they don’t need to. They’re just looking at you, their lifeguard, expecting you to take them to safety.

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And you will. Because you have to. Because you choose to. Even with a baby wrapped around your ankles wailing for his dinner and two kids fighting over who had the “drawing thing” first and the knowledge that you’re dropping the ball in so many ways. My dad made out perfectly well, by the way, on his swim test. And then he put in twenty-two years of active duty in the Air Force, a few tours during Vietnam, and nabbed a Bronze Star, among other things, before he retired.  You can do this, beautiful, you know that:

Swim.

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Just like a mom.

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