When raising kids, sometimes the smallest struggles feel epic in their proportion.
My nine year-old son, Aaron, is an gifted athletic kid with Sever’s, a heel condition that makes him prone to foot injury. His sports medicine doctor suggested swimming or water polo to condition for fall sports to keep him off crutches or out of casts.
There’s only one problem. Aaron sinks when he swims.
I don’t know why Aaron sinks instead of swims; someone told me it’s because he’s so muscular, and muscles weigh a lot. He’s had swim lessons over the years, but he just isn’t naturally gifted at it. And Aaron doesn’t like doing anything he isn’t naturally gifted at.
So I figured swim team was out, but maybe water polo would work. Despite not being a strong swimmer, Aaron loves playing in the pool, especially with any type of ball, and I thought he wouldn’t mind swimming so much if it was oriented around a game with a ball.
So, I did the “conscientious Mommy” routine, and when I heard that there was a water polo team at the swim club we belong to, I asked Aaron if he wanted to try it.
Sure, he replied. He’s such a gamer. So, I signed him up for pre-season clinic.
The introductory clinic turned out to be an hour-and-a-half of swimming laps and treading water in the deep end. Most of the time, I wasn’t sure whether Aaron was swimming or drowning. It was a little nerve-wracking.
Aaron had gone with two friends who were also trying water polo out for the first time, both very athletic kids like Aaron, and at the end of it, all three of them said they hated it and never wanted to do it again.
But I did the “conscientious Mommy” routine again, and told Aaron that his friends could quit if they wanted, but he needed to stick it out, and at least give the clinics a respectable try.
So, his friends quit, and I made Aaron go to two more clinics.
But it was hard. Not only for Aaron, but for me. I ached the whole time, watching him desperately try to stay afloat and not drown. A “conscientious Mommy” would find another way for her son to get in shape for soccer season.
After the clinics were over, I asked Aaron if he wanted to continue with water polo. I got a resounding NO in reply. Ok, buddy, I said, you gave it a good try.
And I obsessed over the summer about how he was going to get in shape for soccer without reinjuring his feet.
Water polo was completely off my radar as the summer progressed. Then, unexpectedly, right before the water polo season started up, one of the water polo parents asked Aaron and his sister Kennedy if they wanted to come to the team practice, I opened my mouth to say something like: Thanks, but we tried it; it’s not really our thing.
Before I could get the words out, and to my complete surprise, Aaron and Kennedy both shrugged and said, “Sure.”
The first practice, I stood on the sidelines and chatted with the other moms, trying to act casual and not be too obvious about watching Aaron’s reaction to the practice.
Kennedy took to the water with ease; she’s had the same amount of swimming lessons and practice as Aaron, but she’s a natural for swimming. She doesn’t sink, she floats.
Aaron, on the other hand, swam several laps, and while he was in the middle of treading water with his arms over his head and trying not to drown, he caught my eye. He shook his head unhappily and gave me a clear look that said, I really, really don’t want to do this.
I still can’t believe what I did when I saw him give me that look.
I walked away.
I walked away from the plea in his eye. I walked away for his need for help.
I felt like such a cheap crumb. For the rest of practice, I hid behind a wall next to the pool, and spied on the practice. Even though I’d just bailed on my kid, I had to make sure that no one had to call a lifeguard to perform CPR on a drowning child; that no ambulances had to be called; that when they started asking, “Where’s his mother?”, I’d pop right up and nobody could accuse me of negligence.
People saw me crouched behind the wall and stopped to ask me if I needed help.
Smiling lamely, I replied, No, thanks.
For an hour I hid and watched. I was pathetic.
At the end of practice, I strolled out poolside casually, as if I’d just come back from a refreshing workout in the gym or a soothing massage. Wrapped in towels, Aaron and Kennedy both looked water logged and tired.
I couldn’t bear to ask them how practice was; I was sure I’d be hearing all about it, and I preferred the privacy of our car or home for that conversation. So, with a fake and cheery matter-of-factness, I said, “Come children, it’s time to go.”
But I couldn’t get away so easily. The parent who’d invited them to practice saw us leaving, and called out so all could hear, “Aaron and Kennedy, did you guys have fun?”
I cringed and kept walking, pretending not to have heard.
But from behind me I heard my children yell, “It was great!”
I turned around to stare at them.
“Do you guys want to join the water polo team?” the parent called.
I just about passed out.
They loved it. Aaron loved it.
The season is just about over now. It’s a short season, only a month, but it’s intense. The team practices every day and ends each week with two grueling games in one day, so it’s probably a good thing that the season is so short.
Aaron still sinks a lot, but it’s ok for now. He’s figured out that he’s not going to drown, so he relaxes and sinks, then kicks back up to the surface. He’s playing so hard that the coach promoted him to team goalie.
We were at the last practice of the regular season, and out of the blue, Aaron looked at me and said, “Mom, when I’m a father and I have a son or a daughter, I’m going to sign them up for water polo. And if they tell me it’s too hard, and they want to quit, I’m going to tell them that when I started, I wanted to quit, too, but that just made me play worse. I’ll tell them they have to keep practicing.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between drowning and floating.