I would throw myself in front of a car to keep my children safe. I imagine the embarrassment factor of me spread-eagled in a pair of denim capris on a stranger’s windshield would kill my teenage son anyhow, but nonetheless, I would toss my whole, un-showered, sand-spackled, sunburned package into harm’s way for him.
Just in case an opportunity presents itself, my children consciously walk on the “grass side” of the sidewalk, as if anything closer to the street is an open invitation for me to intervene.
But this is what we do, isn’t it? We try to deflect pain away from our children, absorb it if we have to. We would risk anything for our kids, including personal safety and forgiving Lycra. We are simply engineered to be the human equivalent of bubble wrap until they’re old enough to threaten stepping on the rows of crackling air pockets.
“I don’t need you in the deep end anymore, Mom,” says my youngest daughter, with her hand on her hip and wet pigtails dripping off her shoulders.
I’ve been coaching my 7-year-old to dive. And by “coaching” I mean holding my breath and blocking her chin from the edge of the pool with my glowing white tricep, not unlike a thick strip of reflective tape found on construction signs. I’m the warning, the alarm, the reminder to slow down and aim carefully. (And by default, I’m also underlining the importance of regular arm workouts).
The Emergency Room has already glued her chin shut twice, and I’m pretty sure a third visit would earn us a private conference with a social worker. “I ran into the edge of the pool with my face … again,” doesn’t reflect well on my parenting or lifeguarding skills.
She is the fourth child, the baby, who has grown up wearing hand-me-down life jackets and a thick layer of zinc oxide in the pool for as long as she can remember. She has been biding her time in the shallow end within my reach for a long time. The shallow end feels safe; we can both touch the bottom and neither one of us has to hold her breath.
But it is no longer enough for her. She wants more, and she insists on doing it head first.
“I can hold my breath much longer than you think I can,” she says as she lines up all of her purple toenails at the edge of the pool. “Watch!”
First of all, let me just say, I hear “watch me” no less than 10,000 times a day. Watch me spin on a chair. Watch me make a sandwich. Watch me square dance with the dog. I try to catch a quarter of the shows.
But this time, ears squarely centered between her arms, knees bent so deep the bottom of her swimsuit is brushing the cement, hunger in her eyes, I know to pay attention.
I watch her lean forward and … slap the water like a preschool teacher at a busy crosswalk. It’s a belly flop, a red-blotches-on-your-tummy belly buster.
And without even thinking, I’m swimming out to the deep end. To gather. To comfort. To rescue.
But she isn’t floating on the top in tears. She is in the deep water, swimming toward the ladder, underneath me. She was right, she has plenty of air.
“Did you see that, Mom?! I’m a diver!” she says, beaming.
She is definitely something — something brave and beautiful. Something that will not need much, if any, saving.
It’s so hard to let them risk getting hurt, to stay by the edge and watch them dive into something unknown, because we know there will be belly flops. Nobody swan dives on their first try. Sometimes it will hurt.
But not as much as staying in the shallow end.
I still hold my breath when I watch her swim, slow and silent underwater, aware of how much air she has to reach the ladder. But she assures me, she has enough.
Pop. And just like that, the bubble wrap begins to snap.
Marny Stebbins lives in Stillwater with her husband and four children. She is a staunch believer in early bedtimes, caffeine enhancement and humor therapy.