According to Jewish tradition, I’m required to teach my child how to swim. Really — it says so in the Talmud, the ancient text of Jewish law and customs. At what age that task is to be accomplished is not specified. For this I’m lucky.
This summer marked my daughter’s seventh year. As school let out, she gleefully dove into summer by spending time at the pool: eating ice cream bars, playing ping pong, reading — but not swimming. I was concerned. I pictured my water-wary child at age 13 with swim wings, and a decade later as a young adult languishing on a lawn chair, iced tea in hand. “Me? Oh, I don’t go in the water,” she’d say between sips. “I never learned to swim.”
All those years of swim-club membership dues all for naught. And what does it mean if I fail my parental duty?
As a baby, she loved the water. It made her giggle when she patted it with her round hand. The translucent droplets mesmerized her, the introduction to this magical substance that was neither solid nor air was fun to behold as she discovered its unpredictable nature. Hey, I can’t hold this stuff! Look what it does when I kick it!
She’d float in the kitchen sink, gently held by grandparents or us. Later came the bathtub — first a blowup one we placed in our shower and later our oversized tub she called “pool.” Water calmed her, just as the baby books said it would. After tantrums of tears and frustrated cries, I’d say, “Let’s take a bath,” which would elicit the same look in her eyes as the word “walk” does to our dog. Sometimes I’d even add the magic word: bubbles.
It never crossed my mind in those early days that she would have any difficulty learning to swim. When she was one, I bought an aqua frog floatie, and she’d serenely drift about in the baby pool at our local swim club. She learned to walk using the floatie and the water’s buoyancy to keep her upright. She kept her head high, as far above the water as her little neck could stretch — God forbid a drop should splash in her eyes. On tip-toes, she’d bob through the water, chin firmly tipped up to the sky so her face and hair would stay dry — remarkably, impossibly dry.
As a preschooler, she still preferred the baby pool, but I was able to cajole her into the larger pool as long as she held on to me. As long as I promised that her face wouldn’t get wet.
I should have seen the signs.
“You get to take swimming lessons!” I told her the next summer. But instead of jumping in with her instructor, she preferred to sit on the edge of the pool, making damp handprints on the concrete and watching them evaporate. She showed her swim teacher how to draw letters with the water on the pool’s terracotta rim. Wow, you can spell, he told her. Oh, yes; but she couldn’t swim.
It was the science of water she was interested in. Investigating it, studying its properties. That way, she was in control of it. Her fascination just didn’t transfer into interest in how her body needed to behave in it.
Baby steps, her teacher told us. We’ll go slowly. She’ll learn.
But not that summer.
I know the Jewish obligation to teach my child to swim is also a metaphor — my job is to raise her to be able to ride the tide of life without me always by her side. Was there something I was unintentionally doing that might have been holding her back? I decided to give it a break and stop the swimming lessons, stop the coaxing. What was the hurry? My own apprehension that milestones weren’t being reached when I thought they should have been? We’d try again next year — this year, we could stay on land.
It’s a developmental step, just like walking, friends reassured me, as their children performed water ballet underwater in the deep end. They cheered their pint-sized jumpers as they took their first plunges off the diving board while I sat five lap lanes away at the other end of the pool, playing checkers with my child.
The next summer, my daughter became known around the pool as The Girl with the Unicorns. She’d carry them in a green foam purse, their pink-and-purple manes braided. She’d splash them in the puddles of chlorinated water at the sides of the pool. Her unicorns swam, even if she didn’t, and much time was devoted to perfecting unicorn hair-stylist techniques.
Another summer, and there was still little interest in submerging herself in the silky waters, even on the warmest days. Occasionally, we’d be able to coax her into the buoyant playground, where she’d still cling like Velcro, a monkey on her mother’s back.
I knew, eventually, she’d have to swim. I just didn’t know how to help get her there. I reminded myself that sometimes all it takes is patience. Letting go of expectations. Confidence — and I’m talking about my own — that learning will indeed take place when the time is right.
This summer, I signed her up for lessons again. I requested a patient, caring instructor and attempted to push away my concerns or worries. But a few snuck their way in: She won’t do what the teacher asks, she’ll refuse and complain, she’ll say she’d like to wait until she’s older.
But you are older, I’d say.
I took her shopping for swimsuits. She picked out a bikini with a matching swim skirt and goggles — blue ones. Coordinated outfit complete, she put it on willingly and only said, “I don’t want to go in the deep end.”
“That’s fine,” I reassured her, thrilled that she was considering any end at all.
This year’s swim instructor had no knowledge of her pupil’s strident anti-swimming stance of the past. All she knew was she had a student who was ready to get wet. One who was focused and eager to learn how to swim. Okay, maybe the word “eager” is pushing things. But her hesitation had simply evaporated. She was ready; the time was right. Goggles in place, she put her head in, all the way in. When she popped up, I pumped my fists in the air and woo-hoo-ed loudly like a cheerleader with a major crush. My Talmudic task on its way to completion, I was elated. And relieved.
I’m much more proud of her water independence than any academic achievement she’s accomplished because it was so hard won. She’s struggled and fought it and then decided, on her own, to apply herself to the task. Her concentration during lessons was evidence itself: the giant gulp of air, the squinting shut of her eyes, the submerging of her body below the water’s surface.
I contemplate buying an underwater camera to record this feat.
While still allergic to the diving-board area, she will jump in from the sides of the pool. “Go under, Mama!” she now urges me. “How come you never want to put your face all the way in?” she asks. Chlorine’s detrimental effect on my hair doesn’t seem right to explain, even though it’s the truth, so to hell with split ends — I dive under. And I feel so good when I do.
We play on the pool bottom, her hair splayed out in all directions like some sea monster. She’s holding her breath. I hold mine, too, and take this moment in. Commit it to memory.
Under water, the water’s distortion and the tint of blue from my swim goggles makes everything looks as if it’s a dream. My daughter swims fast — not away from me but toward me. We meet in the middle of the pool. Bubbles from our noses obscure our faces, and we grab each other and hold on as our bodies float effortlessly together to the surface.