“Amma, I hate it! I hate it so much!”
“I’m never going back there again. Ever!”
“Please, Amma. Can you please take me out of swimming class?”
On the drive back home, she kept up a constant litany between bouts of crying. I murmured empathy and acknowledged her feelings while trying to squash my irrational anger and shame. I tried the old “don’t give up just yet,” and the stale “you’ll regret it if you stop learning now!” Even considered bribing her with candy and cupcakes if she’d try again. All the while, I seethed inside.
Why wasn’t this easier for her?
These classes are so expensive.
Kids her age were swimming laps with ease while their parents cheered on. Why won’t she try?
And as she whimpered, between hitched breaths, about how scary the pool was, I realized what a hypocrite I was.
You see, I was terrified of water. Ok, maybe terrified is too broad a word. How about — “I fear water, because of a nightmarish incident, and thirty years later, I can still remember the waves closing over me in fat, churning bubbles as I tried to claw my way to the surface, so even though I am an average swimmer now, my breath still catches in my chest for a second every time my head goes underwater.” Specific, right?
Since that childhood experience, I’ve had this solid, unwavering respect for nature. You could buy the fastest speedboat, the priciest skis, the sturdiest camping gear. You could train for hours a day since you were in diapers and be better than the best. But on any given day, Mother Nature can still toss you away with a lazy flick of her fingers. It’s good to be fearless, but it’s wiser to be humble and know your boundaries.
Which is why I learned to swim as an adult. I won’t be winning competitions anytime soon, but at least I can keep myself alive and afloat. And I want my children to be capable swimmers too. It’s not a matter of pride or winning competitions, but one of survival.
Luckily, my autistic son — who is picky about a lot of things — loves swimming. Much like his dad, who’s a powerful swimmer, Nirav will cheerfully jump into the deep end and spend hours traversing the length and depth of the pool. My daughter, however, takes after me. You’d think a traumatic pool experience was a requirement for fearing water, but it appears Reya missed that memo. It started when she was a toddler. She would scream if she got water on her head during baths. It progressed to sullen whimpering when I wiped her face and angry screeching when I washed her hair. And while she’d join us for an afternoon of water play, she’d go to great lengths to avoid any manner of splashing.
But she has to learn to swim. We spend most of our vacations on the beach, and it is a safety issue. So, I enrolled her in a class at a huge facility downtown. In the first session, she had a blast. It was noisy, chaotic, and loud. But she had fun. Yay, or so I thought. In the second class, the instructor asked her to put her face under the water. And to be fair, Reya tried. Thrice. But even from my chair, over 50 yards away, I could see tears and terror on her face. She tried again — she really wanted to impress her instructor — but she couldn’t.
In times of stress, I sometimes flounder. The wind rushes by my ears, my heart rate rises, I stop understanding and start demanding. Haunted by my struggles in the water, I feel shame and guilt, and panic. Before long, they merge into an emotional jumble, which I then project onto her. Tiresome for everyone and so, so pointless. But it doesn’t have to end like that. I’m a respectful parent, for the most part. And a big part of that is reflecting on my responses. Reya’s opinions and anxiety are something I understand. This is a journey that will wind through all kinds of terrains. She’s making memories every step of the way — memories that will shape how she approaches challenges.
This brings me to every parent’s conundrum. When to step back and when to push. Should I insist she continue these swimming classes, or do I give her a break from the water? Do I respect her requests, or do I try new ways to keep her in the pool?
The answer — like in most dilemmas — lies somewhere in the middle. First, I shifted my lens. I stopped expecting her to learn to swim at some archaic, preset pace. I didn’t; a million others don’t, so why should she?
Second, I switched instructors and times of lessons. They found us a coach with more experience working with anxious kids and at a quieter part of the day.
And third, in classic type-A fashion, I made a plan. Starting next week, we’ll work on doing swim-ready exercises during baths. Getting used to water splashing near our faces. Learning how to blink drops away (a genuine fear for many children, and a valid one too!), Dipping our faces underwater, inch by inch. Then graduating to holding our breaths and seeing underwater and silly bubble-blowing games. YouTube has countless helpful videos (reassuring in more ways than one!)
And mainly, I wish to create a space where she feels heard and understood. If I model patience and persistence in a supportive environment, she’ll see that there are a hundred ways — and a world of time — to learn a new skill. And that no matter how this story ends, her mother is cheering her on every step of the way.
In the words of a brave, blue fish from the South Pacific Ocean:
“Sometimes things look bad
Then, poof! The moment is gone.
And what do we do?
We just… keep… swimming.”