My daughter just started swimming lessons.
She's not yet 2 and the smallest in her class, so you might think it seems a tad early. Or rather, you might think that until you watched her near a body of water. Like a moth to a flame, she can't resist its siren call. She marches straight toward the water's edge, determination and purpose in every step. She's going in. I don't know if she is simply oblivious to the danger or over-confident in my abilities to keep her safe, but her antics mean that I spent most of last summer in a state of equal parts hyper-awareness and panic anytime we were near a pool.
With summer beckoning once more and her love of the water undiminished, it's time for Ellie to learn how to swim. I chose the type of lessons carefully. I didn't want it to be all fun and games; the last thing I needed was for her to be even more enticed by the water. I settled on a place that emphasizes survival skills first. From the youngest ages, they teach two things before anything else: how to flip yourself onto your back and float, and how to get to the side of the pool and hoist yourself out.
It was the latter skill we were working on during that second lesson. A row of four mamas, lined up in the chest-deep water. Each of us facing the wall, we were supposed to count to 10 while our toddlers clung to the lip of the pool. It had taken a couple of tries to show Ellie what she was supposed to do – at first, each time I removed my hands from hers, she had let go. Only my knee beneath her bottom had kept her from going underwater. At last, she seemed to understand what was expected, and I moved my hands beneath her, so that she was resting against them like an underwater ledge.
The instructor moved toward us, and I expected him to be pleased at how well Ellie was holding the wall on her own – especially since she's so small. But with the experience that comes from teaching dozens of babies to swim over the years, he spotted a cautious mama who was having a hard time letting go. Knowing that even the best of intentions can still interfere with learning a life-saving skill, he challenged me.
“Remove your hands,” he said. “Let her struggle, just a little bit. She needs to feel the pull of her own weight; she needs to understand the strength that it takes to hold on.”
I looked at Ellie, at her tiny hands gripping the concrete side of the pool. They looked so small, so inadequate. Surely, she couldn't support her weight on her own. She needed my help.
The instructor wasn't moving on to the next child like I expected, though; he waited behind me, watching, for me to do as I'd been told. I gritted my teeth, but slowly I pulled my hands back from Ellie. I kept them less than a hair's breadth away from her, ready to catch her if she should start to slip. I wouldn't let her go under.
She dropped slightly the moment I removed my support, but then she caught herself. Grasping tightly with her hands, she swung her feet forward until they too braced the side of the wall. Her brow furrowed in concentration, she grunted with me as I counted. Her arms and legs rigid, they held her above the water for the full set.
Ten. She knew by then that ten meant rest, and she immediately released the wall and wrapped herself around me, burrowing her face into the side of my neck. I grinned as I rubbed her back and told her how proud I was.
“See?” said the instructor, as he moved on to the next pair. “She's stronger than you think.”
This letting go is the part of mothering that keeps me up at night. It's the piece that plays right into my weaknesses; the whisper from deep within that I'm not fit to parent. Control. Or, more precisely, giving it up.
I thought it was exhausting, those first few months and years. The demands of infancy – the sleeplessness, the constant feeding, the constant worry. Feeling woefully inadequate as you muddle through until, months in, you realize you're kind of starting to get the hang of things. There's no time to rest as that phase comes to a close though, because you're immediately shunted off into toddlerhood. Now you can sleep, but you don't dare. You didn't realize how much toddlers lack a sense of self-preservation until you tried to keep one alive. Your exhaustion becomes equally mental and physical, as you fight to keep a step ahead of your whirling dervish.
And for all of that, I fared better operating in depletion and desperation than I do now. It used to be all about controlling the environment. The right hold to get them to fall asleep. The right bottle temperature and angle to get them to eat. A baby proofed house and constant vigilance to keep them safe.
Not anymore. Now they're moving beyond me, to a world I can't orchestrate. I can't bumper the sharpness of life, and the time is coming when the reassuring comfort of my arms isn't enough to make it all better. I want nothing more than to hover on the periphery of their lives, ready to jump in before the hurt comes. I want to spare them from the burn of a harsh word or the sting of a cruel joke. Life is hard. I want theirs to come with soft edges.
If I do though, I'll rob them of their chance to test their own strength. Without the opportunity to flex their muscles of resiliency and forgiveness, they'll atrophy. God has instilled within them a determination and steadfastness; I cannot deny them the opportunity to fully become the persons He has designed them to be.
Knowing this, I place my hands over theirs in instruction instead, for what I know will be all too brief a season. I show them how to find a strong grip; how to choose their holds with care. I encourage them, when they grow weary. I spot the finish line ahead while they're busy focusing on the hard work at hand; I whisper in their ear that the time is coming soon when they can let go and rest. I practice with them, while the stakes are low. Again and again, so that someday, when they find themselves in the deep end alone, they know how to find something solid to cling to.
I want them to trust they're strong enough to hold on.