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I gather that most preschoolers don’t care too much about whether they know their teacher’s name, or the name of a new buddy at the playground, or anyone else. I know when I co-op at Zoe’s school most of the kids call me “Zoe’s mom” and that’s sufficient.
For Zoe, she feels a great sense of comfort and connection knowing someone’s name. If she makes a friend at the playground she will ask his or her name first thing, and usually ask it again when she leaves because she forgot it while they were playing. Then she can say “goodbye Jasmine!” as we’re heading out, and talk for the rest of the day about her new friend Jasmine.
So today, for the second time this week, there was a substitute teacher at swim class. Tuesday’s substitute was friendly enough and I asked her name and told Zoe what it was. I was surprised as I watched from the observation deck that she had a completely different style of teaching from the regular instructor, and at first I wondered whether they would actually learn anything, but then I saw that the kids were all practicing various skills on their own while the teacher worked with each kid individually. I could see they were having a lot of fun not sitting on the wall as usual. I was actually hoping that teacher would be there again today. Instead it was a different substitute, and it was just all wrong.
I made the mistake of not asking her name at the beginning. I guess I just forgot. There were only three kids (instead of usually six or seven) so I thought it might be good for Zoe to get some extra individual attention. But it wasn’t.
As you may have read in my previous post, Zoe has loved her swimming lessons and been very brave. I’m not sure how much she’s actually learned about swimming, but she’s gotten way more comfortable playing and using the various floatation devices and toys they provide. Today she was terrified. The teacher either didn’t understand that this was a class for beginners or didn’t care, and she pushed them to do more on their own than they’d ever done. Instead of working with each kid individually, she would hand them the floating barbells or strap them into the floating belts, and expect them to motor down the length of the pool themselves. She had them working most of the time in depths Zoe couldn’t stand up in. Zoe had no idea what to do. I watched from above with growing unease. I saw the two other kids (one of whom is six years old) doing what he was supposed to do with ease. The other little girl flailed a little more but still went for it. Zoe was panicking. The instructor would try to give her a little push and she would grab onto the instructor with a look of desperation. I knew what was happening but I didn’t know how to stop it.
About two-thirds of the way into the lesson, the lifeguard turned and looked up at me and pantomimed that Zoe was crying, so I went downstairs. The instructor told me Zoe was panicking, as if the instructor had never dealt with a scared child before. I talked to Zoe for a minute and calmed her down and convinced her to get back into the pool for the last five minutes of class, to practice blowing bubbles. Then the instructor asked the kids to go under. The other two did it and Zoe wouldn’t. She has allowed the other instructors to help her go under every class. But by this time she was totally shaken up. Finally, thankfully, it was over.
On the way home Zoe mentioned at least a dozen times that she couldn’t stop thinking about how scared she was in the pool, and how she was afraid the instructor was going to let her sink. I can totally understand how she didn’t feel like she could trust the instructor who she had never seen before and whose name she didn’t know, and who was asking her to do things in a way she’d never done them before. I would have been scared too. I asked her why she was so upset. She said she was afraid the teacher was going to let her sink.
I told her that no instructor would ever let her sink, and no grown-up who’s taking care of her would make her do something dangerous. I told her the floaties hold you up, even if your face gets a little wet. I told her that Randy or I would take her to the pool soon to practice some of what she was doing in class. Nothing she hadn’t heard before, but clearly she wanted a reminder. She said she didn’t want to go back. I asked the front desk person if her regular instructor would be back next week and he said yes. So we’ll go back next week. Hopefully the memory of today’s class will fade. But I still remember being in a pool when I was probably close to her age, and being sure I was drowning because I was under water for more than a couple seconds after losing track of the wall or my floatie or whatever it was that I had been holding onto. This is why I want her to learn to swim sooner rather than later. But she has to be able to trust her teachers to relax. I am often torn between the urge to advocate for my kid and give her the chance to advocate for herself. But in a pool when you’re terrified is not a time when you can easily speak up about what you need. Next time I’ll be sure to make a formal introduction.
“Is your son in the advanced class?”
“Oh yes, he’s a swimming prodigy. He only took the beginner class four or five times before he made it to the advanced class.”
“Oh it took my son at least four or five times before he got out of the beginner class.”
They dissolved into laughter.
I thought, “oh no, we’re going to have to do this three or four more times?”
But I looked down and saw Zoe smiling from the edge of the pool, looking up at me and waving excitedly every five minutes. Every time we go to the pool for a lesson she is ecstatic. When I come down to the pool at the end and wrap her in a towel, she is cold but thrilled. “Did you see me? I jumped into the pool and got my whole body and my whole head wet! I wasn’t scared and I didn’t even cry!” I am so proud of her for being brave. I am so happy she is having fun. My husband and I both were very late bloomers when it came to swimming. At three (almost four, really) Zoe is, if not the youngest in her class, one of the youngest. There are two sisters who are four and five years old whose mom told me had taken the class once before and a parent and child class before that. They are just that much more confident in the water. And Zoe is getting there day by day. Today when it was her turn she held on to the floaty things exclusively instead of always trying to use the instructor’s arm for support. So that’s something.
When we got to class today we saw kids from an earlier class, who looked like they were seven or eight or nine years old, swimming totally independently. I got tears in my eyes. At that age I was still standing fearfully at the edge of the pool. So what if it takes Zoe four more sessions of beginner before she gets to that point. She is having so much fun and she’s not scared and that is half the battle.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
At my book club recently we discussed Sharon Salzberg’s Loving-Kindness. Salzberg explains a variety of meditation practices to help us experience love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. At one point she talks about the state of anger and how destructive it can be, even though anger can also spur positive effects like standing up for yourself or others or changing policy for social good. I struggle with how to reconcile using anger for good and letting it eat you up. Similarly, I have an overdeveloped compassion muscle. I am a sponge for the trials and tribulations of friends, family, or even acquaintances. It’s a challenge for me to keep my compassion, which is theoretically a good thing, in check.
So my vocation–telling the stories of the fantastic and invaluable work nonprofits do to help families and communities–is a source of satisfaction and sometimes a strain. As I hear about the injustices my clients are trying to overcome for the people they serve, and the sparse resources they have to do so, I am overcome. I must remind myself to, as Mister Rogers advised, “look for the helpers” whenever there’s a problem or crisis. And the people I write for are the helpers. So that’s a comfort.
Last summer at Lilith Fair I heard Sarah McLachlan sing World on Fire about how we as individuals deal with the myriad weighty challenges in the world. I felt like it was my theme song. I made it my cell phone ringtone for when my nonprofit clients call.
Sometimes it’s better to turn off the news. One friend of mine in the book club discussion said she turned off NPR for several weeks during the vicious election season and listened to Harry Potter books on cd instead. Why immerse yourself in news that’s going to infuriate you?
But when something horrific and unimaginable is happening to people somewhere else in the world, isn’t it our responsibility to listen and understand, to be a witness to their suffering? I don’t know the answer. If I did that every day, my spirit would crumble. But if I ignore it altogether, who am I? Sometimes personal response to a disaster depends entirely on where you are and what you’re doing when you hear the news. If you’re on vacation or celebrating a holiday with family, it’s easier to mute the news and try to enjoy yourself. If you’re ensconced in everyday life and plugged into the media, it’s easier to get sucked in. Two weeks after my daughter was born the Virginia Tech shooter murdered dozens of students and teachers in Blacksburg. I was spending a lot of time sitting in an overstuffed chair and breastfeeding, so it was hard to ignore the news, especially as my mom who was staying with us to help me out, always tunes in.
All this is to say that I’ve deliberately watched a lot more coverage of the earthquake and tsunami nuclear disaster in Japan than I usually do when something terrible happens somewhere far away. I’m not sure why, and I don’t know that it’s good for my psyche, but it is what it is. I made a donation today to the Red Cross to help the people of Japan. I know there are a lot of worthwhile NGOs working in Japan. I encourage you to support one. I have a lot. A lot of these people now have nothing. The world is on fire. It’s more than I can handle. I bring what I am able.
Yesterday I forgot a lot of things. I forgot the record from Zoe’s last eye exam when we met with the eye surgeon. Fortunately it didn’t matter. The surgeon just wanted to know if the ophthalmologist thought Zoe’s vision was normal, which she did. The surgeon thought Zoe’s surgery from a year ago is holding up well, so we are spared another round of surgery for at least a year. Despite my forgetfulness, Zoe made a beeline for the toychest in the large waiting room as soon as we arrived, even though she hadn’t been there since last summer. I guess the location of toys makes an indelible impression in a three-year-old’s mind.
Then I forgot to bring my collection of vitamins to show the new acupuncturist I met with, who specializes in reproductive health. Turns out that didn’t matter either. She got what she needed to know by asking me questions. I did remember my checkbook, which probably mattered more to the acupuncturist.
When I got home the babysitter got ready to leave and was lingering by the door when I realized I had forgotten to pay her. Went for the checkbook again.
I downed a quick snack because I had forgotten to have lunch, while Zoe put on her bathing suit to get ready for her swimming lesson.
It was pouring rain outside and I had been wearing a rain jacket. The acupuncturist was burning herbs in her office and I felt like my jacket smelled strange. I didn’t want the people at the pool to think I’d been smoking pot before bringing my daughter to her lesson. I switched to my long trenchcoat, which I usually only wear for dressy occasions.
Halfway to the pool I realized I’d forgotten a towel for Zoe. We stopped at Rite Aid and CVS to see if I could buy one. While they do have pool toys for sale already, no towels to be had. I asked at the front desk of the rec center, but they do not have towels to sell or lend. I was troubled. Zoe repeatedly said, “It’s ok, Mommy. I’ll just be wet when I get out of the pool. It’s ok.” I decided to use my coat, which conveniently has a very soft lining, to wrap her up. After watching her kick and paddle and blow bubbles from my seat on the floor of the observation deck, I hurried down to collect her at the end of the lesson. I scooped her up inside my coat and went into the locker room. She was delighted. “Your coat is so warm!” she exclaimed. I suggested she get dressed. “Let me stay in your coat for a minute,” she said. Finally I got her dressed and we headed outside as the rain got heavier. I got a little wet. But I kept Zoe dry. And I remembered to tell Zoe I was proud of her for being brave in the pool. More important than a towel.
I am glad that Zoe loves her dad. Sometimes, however, I get tired of her stopping in the midst of what she’s doing, or suddenly taking on the Charlie Brown pathetic posture and saying “I miss Daddy.” Or “I miss Daddy so much. Or “I am so sad because I really really really miss Daddy.”
Yes, she can be a bit of a drama queen. But I always struggle not to take this personally. My husband reminds me that she spends a lot more time with me than with him, so it’s understandable that she misses him. But when we’re together and things are going well, why does she have to think about him so much? He also reminds me that when she’s with him, she often says that she misses me. I believe him, but of course I don’t hear her say that.
What may be worse is when I’m being the bad guy and that launches her into an emotional fit of longing. As in, “No, you can’t play with the blood pressure machine,” or “No, you can’t have another cookie.” She looks at me as though I’ve sentenced her to a time-out for the rest of her life. “When’s Daddy coming home? I miss Daddy.” It’s no fun being the bad guy.
There’s an episode of Modern Family where they talk about the idea that you can only have one fun parent. Although Zoe and I have a lot of fun together, sometimes I feel like that’s the case because I’m usually the one who says, “Zoe, let’s have a fun adventure. We’re going to Target!” or “Zoe, I have a special job for you. Can you help me fold the laundry?” Or “Zoe, I need help making dinner. Can you do the measuring?” Sometimes she falls for it and sometimes she doesn’t. I spend a lot of time creating fun activities for her (that aren’t always thinly disguised chores) and me to do together. But sometimes it’s just real life. What else are you gonna do?
I’m going away this weekend with a couple mom friends to the beach. While I certainly need the break and am grateful for the opportunity to take it, I already miss my husband and Zoe. And while I am delighted that Zoe is thrilled beyond belief to have her “Daddy Daughter Days,” as we’ve been calling the weekend, I kinda want her to miss me too. Because I’m kinda fun too. At least sometimes.