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Girl Gets A Swim Lesson

Maddie’s feeling restless at three
years old – longing to be with the “big kids”, to
be doing “big-kid things” like “class” and
“school”. Ever since this spring, when she cried
bitterly on the playground because she wasn’t allowed to join
in the adjacent team soccer practices, I knew Maddie needed more
than I could give her: she needs group activities without Mommy,
just like the big kids. Her life is slowly starting to revolve
around her peers rather than Mommy, which is as it should be.

So as we looked at this summer, Brian and I decided to put Maddie
in some structured classes. We thought this would be a good
short-term way to expose Madeleine to classroom-type structure, to
listening and obeying adults other than her parents. We finally
narrowed the list down, and ended up with a summer of swim lessons,
ballet camp, and soccer camp. First up on the schedule: swim

Yesterday Maddie started a two-week daily
swim class, and she’d been looking forward to it for a long
time. She loves the water, though she’s afraid of putting her
head under, and has been hoping the class would teach her how to
put her head under water without being afraid.

Even as of yesterday morning Maddie was excited; she woke up with a
twinkle in her eye, ready to eat and get dressed and head out.
We’d talked through the whole thing so there’d be no
surprises for her: that Mommy couldn’t come in the pool with
her, or even be in the same room, but that I’d be watching
through a window. That the teacher would be very patient and not
force her to do anything she didn’t want to do. And the swim
classes are at Maddie’s favorite place in the world –
her gym. With an indoor pool, they offer swim classes as well as
tumbling, and Maddie sees it as great progress to be allowed to
take anything at her beloved gym. She walked into the building,
went to the swim room (my favorite Mad Lib of the day –
“Mommy, is the big pool already in the gym, or do we have to
carry it in before class?”) and took a look at the waiting

And that’s when things fell apart.

The reality of her being separated from me sank in, and Maddie
whispered nervously, “Mommy, I don’t think I want swim
lessons any more.” I’d known this might well happen,
and was (somewhat) prepared.

“Honey, you’ve said for so long how excited you are.
Let’s give it a shot and see how it goes, ok? I’d like
you to at least try it.” Maddie agreed in theory, even as her
whole body pointed towards the exit. Cora, with her built-in Maddie
Barometer, began to whimper on Maddie’s behalf.

When the time came to go in, Madeleine lost it, dropping to the
floor in a little flowered ball, instinctively trying to make
herself less vulnerable. “Mommy, I really don’t want to
go please,” she cried over and over, as I tried to calmly
talk her into the beginning of class. Finally, I pried her Silky
out of Maddie’s trembling fingers as the teacher gently
picked Maddie and carried her into the swimming area. As the
teacher walked away, I felt the worst kind of mother – one
sending her child off on purpose to be hurt, ignoring my
baby’s pleas and hardening my heart.

I wish I could say the lesson got better, but it really
didn’t. Maddie cried, big, open-mouthed, gulping sobs, for
much of her half-hour lesson. She never clawed her way out of the
pool, or refused to do anything, but I think that’s simply
because of her inherent obedience rather than a lack of true angst
over the situation, and that really almost made it worse. To see my
daughter screaming her tears while still climbing into the pool,
lying flat on the floatie mat and kicking, broke my heart in a way
that only a parent’s can be broken – over and over,
unceasingly, unrelentingly. I ached for my brave girl, even as I
remained glued to my seat refusing to rescue her, “I’m
doing the right thing” running mantra-like through my head.

The teacher was great, refusing to push Maddie too much, and while
she got Maddie’s mouth wet she never dunked her all the way
in. Maddie went through small periods of relative calm, watching
the other children practice when the spotlight was off of her. And
then the teacher would approach again, and Maddie would crank back

Half an agonizing hour later, everyone piled out of the pool and
wrapped in their towels, and I stood impatiently on the other side
of the glass doors, looking at my poor little girl, braids framing
her red face and swaddled in her mermaid towel. She waited
patiently – resignedly, I think – for the doors to
open, then allowed me to scoop her up into an embrace. I hugged her
fiercely and whispered, “My big, brave girl! I think you are
the bravest girl I’ve ever met, and I’m so proud to be
your mommy.”

The teacher approached and quietly suggested perhaps Maddie would
be more comfortable in a class designed for kids afraid of the
water, and I begged her to reconsider. You see, Maddie loves the
water – it’s just the face thing she’s afraid of.
I know that’s a big part of it, but I think her tears were
half due to her separation anxiety. So I asked if we could have
another shot and see if tomorrow’s any easier, and she

I go back and forth on this; sometimes I think, heck, forget it!
What’s the point in traumatizing her every day? It’s
not as if she’s going to be a 12-year-old who won’t put
her head under the water, right? But most of the time I know
I’m doing the right thing. Maddie needs to learn to work with
adults other than me, and needs to get comfortable in the pool in a
structured environment.

The rest of the day, by the way, Maddie told everyone all about her
swim class. “I went to swim class today,” she told her
Aunt Nikkie, “and even though I was scared I did it
anyway.” She insisted on going to the pool after dinner to
show Daddy everything she’d learned, and knows we’re
going back again several times. At the end of the day, Maddie said,
“Mommy, I don’t think I want to go to swim class
tomorrow.” “Well, honey, let’s give it one more
try, ok? And if it’s just as scary and hard tomorrow, we
won’t go back.”

So we’re giving it one more try. Maddie agreed, at least in
theory, and her spirit is willing to head back to swim class.

The flesh, however, may protest. We’ll see what happens.


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