A Lesson in Breathing

Saoirse has refused to take swim lessons. From a teacher, I mean, or a coach, or someone actually certified to know what she’s doing. You know, important people. She decided about two years ago–probably when common sense or an awareness of her own mortality set in–that she was scared of having no control in water, and has balked at the idea of “proper” swimming since. Walking around a pool, fine. Pretending to swim in wading pools, great. But actually holding her breath and going under water and blowing bubbles and not being able to touch the bottom?  Oh, dear golly, if a squeal of fright could be any more high-pitched, our neighbors would tell you. I took her to a “tough love” swimming coach last summer and stopped lessons once I saw her actually trembling in fright on the wall. I didn’t want her to hate the water. I love the water. So does David. And there’s a freedom in knowing how to swim, a joy in jumping into the deep end knowing how fun it is to rise back to the top. Along with reading and writing, we want her to master that.

That and we have a pool. If you think I don’t worry every day of the summer about having a giant hole filled with water in my backyard and young children who don’t know how to handle it, well, you haven’t been around a lot of paranoid caregivers lately. Holy, moley.

So I struck a deal with the four-year-old. I wouldn’t take her back to tough-and-gruff Coach M if she’d agree to let me teach her to swim. I figure that I can handle the basics, and once she’s comfortable with that–swimming back and forth across the pool, say, going under water–we’d move on to proper lessons with people who actually get paid to be knowledgeable.

We’ve made it through one lesson so far. I blame the sub-zero chill of our unheated pool water for chasing me away from the lessons, if you’ll believe me. Saoirse refused to get in. Actually crawled away from me. So I took a page from Coach M’s book and told her, wincing in my head the entire time, that if she didn’t get in on her own (did I mention the water was freezing?) I’d throw her in. She got scared, came to the edge of the pool, then started to back away again. So I threw her in. And by “threw her in,” of course, I mean I placed both both hands around her waist and sort of hopped her into the water. C’mon. I’m a mom, not a monster.

Not that you’d know that from her reaction. She came up (she only got half of her face under water, by the way) screaming like I’d threatened to chop off all her hair and feed it to the pool vacuum. I mean, it was a wail like I’ve never heard. Not when she fell off our bed onto her chin on her 3rd birthday. Not when her baby sister bit her so hard on the shoulder it left marks. It was ongoing, nonstop, horrendous. Seriously, our local fire department could hire this child to replace its alarm.

And then it stopped. She shook, she trembled, she begged me not to put her in the water again. But she blew bubbles. She trusted me enough to take her back and forward across the shallow end, showing her how to kick, how to breathe, how to move her arms.

And when the lesson was over she climbed into a raft that floated in the shallow end and refused to get in the water for the rest of the afternoon.

But today, we went back to our community pool (and yes, there were people there today [good to see you, Denise!]! Yes, it wasn’t freezing! Yes, it was a good day.). There’s a learn-to-swim area where SK begged to go (um, hello? We go to this pool so that she can avoid these sorts of wells of water, don’t we?). Thankfully, California’s redwood trees are envious of our daughters’ height, and even Quinn could stand on the bottom and keep her shoulders above water (yeah, she’s 2. What can I say? I married a giant). It was awesome. Saoirse was confident, and happy, and saw her sister and another little boy going under the water (Quinn’s forays into tankless diving was purely by accident. She just likes to jump into the pool while I hold her hands), and all I had to do was say, ‘Hey, Seersh. Wanna see if you can hold your breath and go under water, just once?” She smiled, looked around, and did it. Then did it again. And again and again until I’m pretty sure our township’s going to charge us when they get their water bill, because there’s a possibility she drank half of it. Another mom cheered her on, and she kept going.

What do you know? I was so proud of her. It’s amazing what some confidence and a little peer pressure can do. Maybe all we need is the security of shallow water and an audience. Maybe she’ll be okay. One day she may laugh at the idea that she used to be so frightened of the shallow end Mom had to tug her in. Maybe, even, she’ll actually learn what it’s like to dive into the deep end and come up for air, all on her own. In her own time, of course. She’ll let me know.

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