Swimming Lessons: A Microcosm of Parenting

Last month I signed up my three-year-old son for swimming lessons at the local YMCA. One of my 2019 goals is to make sure both of my boys are semi-proficient swimmers, and I knew if I didn’t pay up front, it was never going to happen. Most of my friends are Goldfish Swim School zealots, but the one time I went there I was freaked by the bizarre, flourescent setup in which parents ogle at their kids through a window while checking Instagram and paying bills.

No, I wanted to be a good citizen and do lessons through the YMCA, a community organization that overcharges me for adequate services.

My wife and I prepped Sam throughout the week with the typical feigned excitement when you want your kid to do something you’re pretty sure he’s not ready to do. “It will be awesome, buddy! You love swimming!” But we knew it wasn’t the swimming part that was going to be a problem. It was the part about handing him to a strange person in a large body of water amidst cacophonous echos with elderly women AquaZumba-ing in the deep end.

It’s a lot to take in for a marginally-adjusted adult like myself, let alone a 3-year-old.

Nevertheless, we loaded the car and headed to the Y, me with high hopes, Sam with other plans.

I’m going to pause the story to share with you the emotions I felt, in order, from the time we left the house to the when we got home.

Excited.

Nervous.

Hopeful.

Frustrated.

Horrified.

Regretful.

Sad.

Proud.

Overcome.

This was in a 45-minute time frame. I defy you to name anything, aside from the second half of a Detroit Lions game, that can evoke this range of emotions.

Here’s what happened.

Excited: As we drove down to the Y, I made up some cheesy song about swimming lessons and noticed Sam crack a smile. “I’m winning him over,” I thought.

Nervous: Upon entering the building, Sam clinged to my leg like an oversized slug and started crying, “I don’t want to do swimming lessons, daddy.”

Hopeful: We got him dressed in the locker room and he started to peel himself away from my leg and giggle a little. “We’ve got this.”

Frustrated: Because it was our first time there, I didn’t know the protocol. There were no clear signs and no one to direct me where to go; I could sense Sam feeling my uncertainty. “Damn it, should’ve gone to Goldfish.”

Horrified: When I finally sorted out where to go, I walked over to the side of the pool with Sam and tried to hand him to the poor teacher, whose other two students were already in the water, frolicking around with no anxiety whatsoever. Then, Sam let out a blood-curdling scream so loud that I’m certain everyone underwater heard. This scream quickly morphed into an all-out hysterical cry, and I could feel the 100+ people in the pool area, the folks in the cardio room on the second floor, as well as the folks in the lobby staring through the giant windows (actually worse than Goldfish, upon reflection), at which point I was overwhelmed with

Regret: For being so selfish, for projecting my 2019 resolution on my kid, who just may not have been ready for this.

Sadness: So Sam and I sat on the ledge watching the other kids enjoy their lesson, while I was careful not to make eye contact with the other parents — there was nothing I was going to say that wouldn’t be somewhat hurtful to my son, even if he didn’t understand it. I was sad for me for thinking I could make this work, sad for Sam that he couldn’t enjoy the lesson. After the silence, Sam looked up and said, “Dad, can I still watch Transformers?”

“No, son. Remember you had to do the lesson. You didn’t even get in the water.”

I could see his little brain humming. I thought he might react with another wave of tears, but he just nudged a little closer.

“Maybe you could show your teacher how you can jump in?”

This negotiation continued for the entire 30-minute lesson, all the while I was holding out hope that he might join the other kids, if only for five minutes.

Pride: He didn’t. He did, however, in a Toddy Gurley-esque burst of speed, make a hard buttonhook cut to the right, sprint to the edge of the pool and launch himself so confidently and violently that you would’ve thought he knew how to swim. The teacher darted over to grab him as I caught the eye of the lifeguard whose omnipresent “I’m bored as hell” look became “That kid’s got balls.” The teacher helped Sam out of the water and handed him to me, at which point I said, “Sorry about that. I bet you’ve seen it all.”

“Not that,” she said.

In the car, I cried. I’m not sure if it was the sadness or the pride, or just the overwhelming love I felt for Sam. I think part of the reason I cried is because I knew this was just the beginning in a long series of experiences in which I’ll have to navigate the space between forcing Sam to do things that are difficult and letting him wait until he’s ready. Perhaps parenting is 90% that sentence and then a bunch of miscellaneous stuff.

Lesson #2 is next Saturday, 10:45 sharp. I’m beginning to think the lesson may not be his.

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