To my sweet daughter,
Yesterday we visited the house of your father’s mother, Savta. Abba noted that this will likely be your first and last chance to swim in his pool this season. So we put on your strawberry swimsuit that you wore for your lessons and Abba put on his swimsuit and waded into the shallow end with you. You seemed to like the water right away, even more than during your lessons. I sat and watched Abba play with you in the water. You squealed with delight as he tossed you around, and calm and thoughtful as he circled you. You put your face in the water uninvited and kicked and splashed. And I watched, reveling in your joy, taking videos and photos, but not participating.
You see, my daughter, I never liked water. As a child, I didn’t like getting splashed, I didn’t even like taking baths. I had knee-length hair my entire childhood, so I think that was part of it. I hated the feeling of pounds and pounds of wet, sticky, heavy hair against my skin. I hated the crunch of the chlorine as it dried. I didn’t even like running through the sprinkler or sliding on the Slip ‘N Slide. I haven’t splashed around in the puddles, as far as I remember. I was terrified of going out on my dad’s sailboat; who knew what slimy filth lay in the darkness of lakes and oceans? And on the first day of camp, when we were supposed to take the swim test in the lake, I would raise my hand and say, “I can’t swim,” which was only partially true (I could float and walk on the water), so I could be in the lowest swim class where there was no expectation of skill or progress, and no one would make me put my face in it.
Two things shook me yesterday looking at you. I thought back to when Abba told me that it is interpreted by some in the Talmud that teaching your children to swim is a necessity, just like teaching you to read or learning a trade, which are also required by the Talmud. I felt vindicated that we signed you up for these swimming lessons a few months ago. Again, you were 6 months old and hadn’t really learned to swim; the goal was to get you comfortable in the water. And with each class, I kept track of how many times I had been the parent in the water, and how many times Abba had done it, just to make sure I didn’t relax, even if I dreaded taking you out of your costume after every class and rinsing you off in the public shower (another phobia of mine).
The second thing that shocked me was that after I sent a picture of you in the pool to your aunt, she asked me if I was swimming too, and I replied, “No, I hate swimming. . She said that when she takes your cousins swimming, she usually joins them, even though her initial instinct was to sit outside. She said she doesn’t like the process, the before and after with the wet bathing suit, pantyhose and sunscreen, but she loves playing in the water with her kids. And she doesn’t join every time, but she pushes herself to. She said she was often the only parent in the pool, which I found rather sad. And I had to admit that you and Abba looked like you were having a lot of fun.
These two things reminded me of a third thing, as I watched you play with Abba, and that is that your Babka (my mother) never played with me. It sounds so dramatic, but it’s true. She never participated. She would use any excuse, real or imagined, to stop acting when I was young. When I was older, I didn’t bother to ask, so she didn’t bother to explain. She didn’t swim because of her contacts. She didn’t take us on sleight of hand tricks because there was always another parent who could take us out. She didn’t play games with us because “you [kids] can play with each other.
And I understand. Chlorine in your nose sucks. Your uncle throwing a marble chess piece when he didn’t win stinks. The whining of children with tired feet and the repetitive board games where toddlers make up the rules as they go are tedious. They say there is no fun for the whole family, but I disagree. I won’t be the mom who watches from the sidelines. I will not miss the good times with you.
So I ran and put on my bathing suit yesterday and rushed into the water to join in your screams and laughs and splashes. And I put my phone down and we just played. The water was hot, not at all as I expected. The sun was bouncing sparks off the surface of the water. And I barely noticed the wet bathing suit. I didn’t think about my cesarean scar or my hair or what my shoulders looked like.
Older generations lament the way millennials (that’s me, sweet girl; we don’t know what your generation will be called yet) use “parenthood” as a verb. They say we’re too active, at constant attention, hovering over you, intervening, not letting you play on your own. And I hear that. But the kids can’t play in the street until the lights come on because those communal standards have changed, and you can’t drink exclusively from the pipe because our township doesn’t add fluoride to the water. And you won’t learn to swim on your own. It turns out that parenthood as a verb is as old as the Talmud. We are obligated to teach you some things, and play is often the best way to teach. And even though I can’t swim, I can sign you up for lessons, I can splash around with you in the pool, and I can teach you how to float. I think that counts.
I love you so much, my sweet girl, and I want to build these memories together. I want to be the best mom I can be for you. I want to be the mom who participates, the mom who does, the mom who floats.