The Mother and the Mothered
At a quarter to three each afternoon last week, I dressed my two sons in board shorts and rashguards, covered their pale skin with sunscreen, and watched them splash their way into swimming lessons. By Wednesday, the sun beat down on their kicking legs and every-day-more-freckled faces with ninety-three-degree intensity. The spring chill barely remained in the chlorinated water. By late May in Texas, community pools make promises of refreshment that their water cannot keep.
Our eldest, Owen, fell into a pool last summer and has feared water ever since. In order to rinse his hair in the bathtub without ensuing panic, I cover his face with a washcloth. I tell him that he and the washcloth become magical together, that the water can’t overwhelm him when he and the washcloth unite. I wonder if he knows the washcloth magic is the stuff of myth. Either way, he’s generally appeased enough by my expressive storytelling to let me get away with the tale.
Our youngest, Gabriel, loves the water. I have a greater fear of him diving headlong into the ocean than I do him being scared to swim. Gabriel treats the water like a friend. He also lacks muscle tissue below the knee and wears leg braces twenty-three hours a day. And so, in the cases of both sons, I entered the week of swim lessons with quite a bit of uncertainty about what the afternoons would hold.
The first three lessons brought with them stunning ease and enjoyment. I watched from a nearby picnic table, occasionally going full-suburban-mom and squatting down near the pool’s edge to take pictures and videos (for the grandparents, of course). The boys faced a few fearful moments when their noses occasionally filled with water upon forgetting to “blow out bubbles,” but they spent the vast majority of their time in the pool smiling, calling for me to watch their new skills, and pretending to be sharks whose heads went “all the way under!”
The mother and daughter pair who taught the boys to swim seemed to possess a true form of magical myth-weaving. They covered over my boys’ fears and limitations, setting them free to experience the water.
On Thursday I joined the teachers and my sons in the pool so I could learn how to develop their swimming skills over the remainder of the summer. Gabriel refused to wear goggles, preferring to slap the water off his face and blink his way back to clear vision. Memories of begging my mom to go “all the way under!” and get her hair wet—the ultimate sign of her full commitment to swimming with my sisters and me—washed over me as my own ponytail sank beneath the surface.
Owen invited me to the floor of the pool where we waved to each other on our way to retrieving sunken dinosaurs and torpedos. He smiled at me underwater as he flailed around to rescue a velociraptor, beaming with the joy of a fear overcome. As I came up for air, Gabriel kicked next to me with his rarely-bare legs, squealing, “I splash you, Mom!”
Swim lessons intertwined the airy summer days of childhood and the weighty call of motherhood. Just moments ago, it seems, I awaited the magic of my own mom responding to my request to fully submerge herself in the pool. Now, I find myself with the power to create myth with a washcloth, and to conjure magic by getting my hair wet.
When childhood turned to adulthood, I did not lose my longing for the perfect potion to cover my fears and limitations like the washcloth that covers Owen’s eyes in the tub, or the towel I wrapped around his body as he ate a lollipop after his lesson. I still ache for a narrative that shows me where I belong and keeps me safe within the confines of its plot. I want something magical to set me free to experience life more fully, to send me diving down to the depths, sure I will come back up for air.
Myths of motherhood, just like the pools warming in the sun, make promises that their futures cannot keep. Their tales tantalize young moms, swearing to the possession of full confidence someday, to a sense of arrival in the distance. Yet reality bears witness to little-girl hearts that never fully grow out of themselves, to the fact that the callings of motherhood never fully displace the desires of childhood.
The boys have another week of swim lessons at the end of the month. If thirty years in Texas has taught me anything, it’s that any hint of springtime cool will have evaporated by then, rendering the water as warm as the bathtimes that need the magic washcloth. As I enter the pool waters, I’ll still sink beneath the surface and think of my own mother as I mother my own children. I used to linger at the pool’s floor, hoping my mom would come have a tea party with me. And now, instead of tea cups I find dinosaurs. Both at the bottom of my own heart’s pool too. And maybe I can take them both to the surface.