Last month’s prompt invited readers to write an essay that reflects upon how an activity such as a hobby or sport holds lessons for mothering. In this essay, Cecilia Wu explains what she learned about mothering by conquering her fear of swimming.
Performance, Perfection, and the Power of Silence
by Cecilia Wu
It has taken me over 30 years to get over my fear of swimming. Up until then, I had accepted the fact that I would go through this lifetime without being able to swim, that I’d be willing to overcome my fear of public speaking and giving birth before I could ever put my face under water.
Four months ago, as I began rounding the corner to my 42nd birthday, I enrolled in my first swim class since I was nine. I had gone on enough trips to the beach and the pool with the two fish in my family — my husband and son — to feel tired of sitting in the sand or on the deck watching.
Fourth grade memories replayed in my head each and every week. I remember the way I used to jump into the pool feet first when my classmates were all properly diving. I remember my teacher shaking her head at me, saying, “I don’t believe you,” when I handed her yet another forged note excusing myself from the lesson.
Over 30 years later, it did feel different. This time my desire to learn outweighed any fears of drowning or looking foolish. This time, I had 40-plus years of life experience under my belt to know that I could conquer this.
In fact, I began my first lessons with extreme eagerness. I overcame my fear of dunking my head into the water and did so repeatedly as per the instructor’s direction. Just as I had pushed my son out after a 29-hour labor, I believed that if I could clear that first hurdle of learning to go under the water, then nothing else could possibly be more difficult.
And yet again I was wrong. It did get harder. The process is not over once you take your head out of the water. When I focused on rotating my arms, I would neglect to keep my legs straight. When I neglected to keep my legs straight, I would fail to properly position my mouth for breathing. The worst part of learning to swim is the struggle to breathe. I would inhale only to take in the chlorinated water, choke, and stop.
It would have been natural for me to quit at that point. Thirty-two years back, that’s what I did. But I would be nowhere if I had stopped. Isn’t that what I tell my son?
And so I went back, not only on the days of the class, but once or twice a week on my own. There were indeed days when I got better. Usually that was the day of the class, when the instructor was watching and could give me feedback. I was also better on those days that my husband and son accompanied me. On most days that I went alone, though, I’d find myself floundering again. I had hoped — expected — to make noticeable improvement with each practice, and yet I was constantly sliding two steps back every time I thought I was finally moving ahead.
Then came a day when I was completely exhausted. Struggling to get through a week of back-to-back work deadlines, my shoulders were tight from sitting hours at the computer. In the middle of the afternoon, I escaped to the pool with the sole intention of relaxing. I wanted to feel the water softening my muscles; I wanted to hear the muffle of a postponed reality. Far from my mind that day was the desire to make progress or to nail down a technique. On that day, I succeeded in swimming almost the entire length of the pool for the first time.
The moment I stopped caring about performance was the moment I achieved my goal. Sometimes the most obvious lessons are the ones most elusive to us, because we have such difficulty trusting the gifts that lie inside of us.
At around the same time I began swimming, my son Fred started fall soccer with a new club. The first day of practice appeared perfect, with approximately 20 eager and smiling six- to eight-year-olds kicking their balls around under a Carolina blue sky. Fred, who’s typically uneasy among unfamiliar faces, jumped in without missing a beat and was running and laughing throughout the warm-up games.
After a few variations of tag, the coach moved into drills. He asked the children to dribble the ball. They imitated him. He asked them to kick the ball from left foot to right and back. The kids followed. But I knew the moment that they lost Fred.
Coach Karl’s instructions came faster and faster — inside short, outside long — and in his demos he moved in a blur. I saw Fred getting increasingly bewildered. His legs dragged more and more and his head hung lower and lower, until he stopped altogether and looked off the field at my husband and me, a lone stillness around which the other two dozen children continued whirring. From almost forty feet away, I could see that he had tears in his eyes.
For the next five weeks Fred was unable to complete a full practice. Petrified of failing, he preferred the safety of the sidelines or my lap. My husband and I told him he was great. We said that winners never quit. We promised ice cream and Bakugan toys. We told him he was great again. Then we told him he didn’t need to be great, he just needed to try. Then my husband sighed. And he raised his voice. And he said, Fine, forget it then. And I cried. I was embarrassed, frustrated, guilty, and helpless.
But we thought it over and made a plan. We were going to teach Fred that he doesn’t quit at the first sign of difficulty. I was determined for him to not fail as I had growing up.
We began by telling Fred how much we believed in him, how much potential we felt he had, how amazing he’d been so far to make the effort.
We told him stories of Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Wright Brothers, President Obama. Where would they have gotten had they quit at the first sign of hardship?
I took out library books, rented films. We watched The Karate Kid and Kung Fu Panda and read about characters who went from underdog to hero by maintaining faith in themselves.
We wanted Fred to hear the message that we didn’t growing up: that his parents believe in him, and that he could achieve anything that he wanted to.
None of it worked.
Exhausted emotionally and exhausted of ideas, I told my husband one night, No more talking about soccer. That following week, we stopped praising. We stopped cheering. We stopped begging.
I was coming to realize that even praising is pressure, attention is pressure. Just as when I was demanding perfection of myself in swimming and couldn’t relax, I came to see that excessive encouragement and support of our children will backfire in the end, because we’re still emphasizing performance and expectations.
On Sunday afternoon we simply helped Fred get ready for his practice and into the car. No cheerleading. No positive reinforcement. No mini-lectures on our belief in his abilities. On that day, Fred completed his first practice in its entirety, without any instruction or nudging from us.
My own struggle to grasp the new skill of swimming and to persevere on my own taught me that sometimes the most potent message of all is silence. In silence, we convey our trust and our faith in the other person’s intrinsic motivation to become better.
Cecilia Wu is an educator, business owner, and mother. Over the last year, she decided to “mother” herself into the person she had always meant to be. She has learned to swim, rekindled her love for writing, and rediscovered the joys of the learning process. She writes on motherhood, marriage, and self at Only You.
Notes from Cassie Premo Steele:
Do not be afraid to try again
Cecilia originally sent me this essay a few days before the due date — and then decided to revise it a bit and sent a new version by the deadline. This was quite risky and took some guts. Most writers want to present their most perfect faces to a publication and would be terrified of admitting that a piece needs more work.
In fact, it was exactly this openness to trying again that drew me to Cecilia’s essay. Here’s what I wrote to her in the letter of acceptance:
“I have one main suggestion for revision — since I saw the difference between the first and second versions you sent me, I think we can bump it up another notch. The main thing is that I would like you to expand the last two paragraphs into several more to make this section of the essay more evocative, lyrical, and specific — so that they match the gorgeous swimming scenes in the rest of the essay. Don’t worry about word count at this point — let yourself write freely, and send me what flows out of you, and we’ll take it from there.”
What came from this encouragement was the whole second section of the essay — the story of the soccer coach, the parents’ repeated attempts to push the son, and the final lesson of letting go.
What I’d like to encourage you to do, dear Mother Writer, as we enter a new year, is Do not be afraid to try again.
That short story on your hard drive? Do not be afraid to try again.
The talk you tried to have with your partner? Do not be afraid to try again.
That journal that rejected your writing? Do not be afraid to try again.
The activity your child didn’t like last year? Do not be afraid to try again.
Your desire to do more of what you love? Do not be afraid to try again.