Thirty years ago this summer, my mom inadvertently taught me to swim at an IBM Country Club in upstate New York. I was three and a half years old and she was seven months pregnant with my younger sister. Now I’m finding myself flabbergasted and moved by how beautifully cyclical life is, because I’m a month and a half away from having my second child and, come August, my three and a half year old son will spend his mornings at a swim camp, conquering (er, maybe) his aversion to being submerged in water. I asked her about that summer and this is what she told me.
It was 1986 and she’d just taken a leave of absence from her job at IBM, which was in effect her maternity leave, but she was still allowed to use the pool and playground, and that’s what we did nearly every afternoon. For reasons she can’t remember, we went into the Olympic-sized pool, not the wading pool, and despite her aversion to cold water, she went right in. Summer and the 24-hour space heater that is a baby in your womb will do that.
Whenever we’re in the water, my son wears one of those little puddle jumpers and it makes life real easy for those of us with the abdominal strength of an amoeba. However, at the IBM pool, flotation devices weren’t allowed, so instead of marching me around with her in the water the way you do with a former toddler/almost kid, my mom had me stand in the edge of the pool, hold her hands, and jump in. Which I did (and I remember doing) over and over and over and over and over. After what probably felt like eons to my mom (though she doesn’t say that), I started to let my head get wet.
This is the part my own son is leery of in a way I wasn’t. He’s profoundly suspicious of water and its intent to engulf him. To him, it seems the sprinklers at the playground are an assault; the ocean, an existential monster; the backyard hose, a water-breathing python. There’s a part of me that wants him to love the water the way I quickly learned to, but I’m also impressed by his caution and his stubborn resolve. It’s so endearing that no matter how humid and sticky it is outside, he will not be made a fool of by the water. No sir, not he!
Back in August of 1986, as my mom’s own water got closer to breaking and the sun freckled our skin, she started letting go of my hands as I jumped in. By the end of summer, maybe sooner, I was jumping in by myself and gliding under the water to her, which is what you’d call swimming, I think. My pregnant mom, never a lifeguard, certainly not CPR-certified, had taught me to swim by standing there and holding her arms out and letting me figure out how to do it.
After two hours or so of swimming, I’d get an ice cream in the snack bar, my mom would push me on the swings, and, at last, I’d fall asleep on the short drive home. My mom says she loved every minute and I’m sure that she did. I’m awed by what she did that summer, what lots of moms did and are surely still doing every summer.
Of course things are different now. We wear more sunscreen, avoid being out in the heat when the UV rays are at their worst, and use the word self-care in a non-ironic manner. I am not bemoaning this! Self-care and sunscreen might be the secrets to sanity, longevity, and being one of those women with grey hair and a teenaged face.
Also, I live in Brooklyn, so I’ve imagined myself bringing my son every afternoon to the public pool in Gowanus. It’s a fantastic pool and we’ve been before, but I can’t imagine going every day for a whole afternoon under the sun. For one thing, my son still naps in the afternoons, at school or at home in his bed, and it is sacred quiet time for whoever’s care he’s in. For another, we’d need to take a little hike and a bus to the pool, carrying a backpack stuffed with towels, combination locks, and snacks. This pregnancy has been wearying from the start, and my ankles ache after walking 10 blocks with only a tote bag on my shoulder and no kid in tow. I worry that a daily trip to the pool would become more of a schlep, and my open-armed swim lesson more of a ritual in me trying very hard not to be a zombie. So instead, we opted to abandon the city at its most sweltering and take advantage of the late summer camp discount at a swim school in New Jersey, close to all of my son’s grandparents.
I don’t know how it will go. Sometimes I’m still the three and a half year old leaping into the water, having only recently let go of the hands of the person who would always catch me. In spite of how woven together this summer and my mom’s summer feel to me, my son is not me. This is the terrifying wonder that is parenting: our kids are actually not extensions of us, but other people entirely. People who don’t have IBM country club memberships and are sending their sons to swim camp, people who might hate jumping into a pool, people we don’t even know yet. Into the water, here I go.