I’m sitting on a tile bench with a bunch of other parents during our kids’ swimming lessons at the local civic center. My five-year-old son is with his Tadpoles class, all of whom are just as cute as baby peas, taking turns floating around on a big piece of foam shaped like a fish. He keeps turning around and waving at me vigorously. He is happy and proud. My seven-year-old daughter is not. She is all the way across the pool from where I sit. She is in the water, but even from this distance I can see that something is wrong. One of her two classmates, a little girl with long black curls and a kind smile, pops out of the water and bounds up the steps to the diving board. With total confidence and enthusiasm, she walks to the end of the board, plugs her nose, and jumps in. She comes to the surface, still smiling, and swims over to Viv, whose head is bowed down; she keeps pulling off her goggles and wiping her eyes. The smiling girl pats her on the shoulder while their other classmate, a reedy little boy who tends to flail around a lot in the water, takes his turn off the board. He, too, is clearly buoyed by success–in this case, not drowning–and swims over to the wall. And then it’s my daughter’s turn. She really drags out the walk up to the diving board. Once up there, she stands at the end, and I can see that her shoulders are slumped downward and heaving. She is shaking her head “no” as she looks down at the teacher in the water. She is sobbing.
I shift around uncomfortably, glancing sideways at the other parents. They’re all watching their own kids. And nobody else in the pool seems to be paying any attention to the crying girl on the diving board, except her smiling little compatriot, who gives her a sympathetic thumbs-up. It seems to go on forever, and I am hurtling into agony, trying to suppress the urge to sprint across the wet tile floor and carry her off that cruel diving board in my loving arms, murmuring into her ear, “Sweetie, you don’t have to jump off. You don’t ever have to do anything so terrible and scary. Mama is here.” Instead, I sit on my hands and hold my breath. Just when I feel like I’m going to explode if this goes on any longer, the smart young swimming teacher hops out of the pool, walks up to the end of the board, takes Viv’s hand, and jumps into the water with her. I didn’t see this coming. I straighten my back and wait for them to reappear. They come up together. The teacher high-fives Viv, who still looks miserable but maybe slightly less so. She’s done something that was impossible thirty seconds ago. She’s going to be okay.
Until the next week’s lesson, when the crying begins before we even leave the house. I play the game with her that I play with myself when something scares me: Take it to its logical conclusion. “When you jumped off the diving board,” I ask her, “what happened?” “I don’t know what you mean.” “Well, did you die?” She looks at me like I’ve said something utterly inappropriate. “No.” “Did you get hurt?” “No.” “Okay, so other than scaring you, nothing really bad happened.” “But I really didn’t like it.” “I understand that. But do you think I would sign you up to do something that would hurt you? I think you have to make a choice. You can either jump off the board when it’s your turn. Or you can ask your teacher to jump off with you. Or you can tell her you would rather not do it this week. It’s up to you.” So the crying calmed down and she made it across the pool with a kickboard and then there was more heaving and weeping and some discussion that I couldn’t hear, and finally she got out of the pool and vvvveeeeeerrrrryyyyyy gingerly jumped into her teacher’s arms off the side. And then she swam, by herself, the entire length of the pool for the first time in her life. Crying the whole way, but she still did it.
Now here is my true confession: Nothing I have ever done or tried to do in my entire life has made me feel so completely incompetent as motherhood. Nothing. When I was a fat, ugly kid who got laughed at every day I still more or less knew what I was doing. I could make the other kids laugh, I could get good grades with little effort, and I could get along well with my teachers. Easy. In fact, if I’m to be really honest, most of what I’ve tried throughout my life has come easily. I can’t claim that the outcomes are perfect or that I haven’t suffered mightily in this life. But in general I’ve worked hard (and sometimes not) and done well. So that feeling of competence comes naturally to me. Maybe it’s arrogance. Regardless. It’s worked out.
Do you know that feeling of confidence? Do you know what it’s like to know that you’ll be all right no matter what? If one thing didn’t work out, I tried something else. There were always options. Once you bring a life into the world, though, your only option is to do right by it. There is no changing direction. You cannot say, “Oh, well, that wasn’t what I thought it would be. I’ll set it aside and try this now.” No. You have to be on course all the time. If you had a shitty day and all you want is to eat six bagels and go to bed, too bad. Not an option. If it suddenly occurs to you one day while you’re sitting at your desk that you really were meant to teach yoga to the indigent, you, darling–in this case “you” being “me”–had better get a grip and hustle to finish that deadline even it means you set your alarm for two in the morning and work until it’s time for the kids to get up for school. I’m not complaining; this is simply the reality of life with children.
So, when somebody like me (i.e., selfish and cocky) encounters an exercise such as parenting, it’s like a bag of bricks to the face. I have no fucking idea what I’m doing at any given moment. None. I am my daughter standing on the edge of the diving board looking down into a giant pit of water and weeping, wishing I was anywhere but here but knowing that I’ve got no other choice. There is no turning and running at this point. These people are here, they’re circling, and they’re hungry. What do you do?
Stand and cry?