I sat on the edge of the outdoor Olympic-sized pool, my feet dangling in the tepid water, toes curled under. It was Florida-summer-humid, but a light breeze raised goosebumps on my arms. My mother stood in the pool, facing me, the water lapping at her chest. She was but one in a long line of Mommies. All the other mommies were praising their children for jumping into the pool, into their outstretched arms.
It was the last day of the Mommy-and-me swimming class—the day we were to jump into the water ourselves. There was nothing to be afraid of; our mothers would catch us. The instructor said there would be a surprise after the class.
The minutes dragged on. I thought about the surprise. Was it a magician, maybe, or a clown? Cupcakes, with thick chocolate icing and rainbow sprinkles? Balloons?
And still, my skinny legs dangled in the water as I sat.
“Just jump, I’ll catch you!” my mother begged.
The pool was vast and deep, shimmering blue under an overcast sky. Looking at it, I could almost feel that choking, gasping sensation; the water burning my throat as I twisted my head desperately for air; my arms thrashing, reaching for….
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t jump.
“I’m right here! What do you think will happen? I’ll catch you!” My mother’s voice took on a distinctly strident note.
My lips turned downward into a pout. I shrugged, hugged my arms to myself, fixed my gaze at my toes. I flexed them, watched as tiny bubbles flitted through and around them in swirls. My toenails were painted purple, my favorite color.
My mother threw down the gauntlet: “If you don’t jump, I won’t let you stay for the surprise! We’ll just go straight home.”
I wanted that surprise, oh, did I want that surprise! I wanted to be part of the group of children, to bask in the proud smiles of all the adults, especially my mother’s.
But the water…
So as the rest of the swimming class headed to the side of the pool with happy whoops and shouts, my mother and I hurried to the car, wrapped together in a large blue beach towel, although only my legs were wet.
That image is freeze-framed in my mind: My skinny legs dangling in the luke-warm water. The smells of chlorine, sunscreen and sweat. The overcast sky, hinting at rain. Children laughing, splashing.
My mother’s ebbing patience.
Wanting to jump. Wishing I could jump.
But the fear, dark and choking and ultimately prevailing over the desire and hope fluttering weakly in my chest.
And, over the years, I have wondered: Was my mother right? Should a child be made to suffer a consequence for being afraid?
But now I’m a mother, and my perspective has shifted. Because as painful as it is to see your kids disappointed, it’s even more painful to see them held back by their own inhibitions. And overcoming fear, like swimming, is a life-skill. In fact, it may possibly be the only life-skill I would choose to impart to my children, if I were somehow forced to pick just one. A person who can overcome fear is well-equipped to navigate life’s often difficult paths.
So I’ve decided that my mother was right, after all.
Because—and I don’t remember precisely when or how it happened—I did eventually jump.
And I really do love swimming.