My daughter took a quick breath, a sound like she was gasping, afraid. Then she plunged off the side of the pool and into the water, sinking straight to the bottom. Beside me I heard my mother gasp and hold her breath until she saw her granddaughter’s face come swimming back up out of the turquoise water, breaking the ripples with a determined splash, her pink goggles half filled with water, her mouth open like a fish, breathing in another quick breath before pushing off the edge of the pool and swimming straight into my mother’s arms.
Jillian can swim, now. But for the five years previous, she wasn’t even close.
Before this month, she has always objected to getting any water on her face with loud screams and cries of disapproval. I remember taking Jillian to a swimming class at the YMCA when she was a little over six months old. At that class, I made friends with a mother of a little girl who was close to Jill’s age. We talked and got to know each other as we led our children through the games and maneuvers designed to get them comfortable in the water. It was obvious that Jillian was more cautious of the two girls, clinging to me when it was time to do a back float, grasping my arms with desperation when I would try a small toss in the air. Beside me, my new friend threw her daughter high up in the air and they both laughed when she caught her with a splash, over and over again. I watched, and secretly wondered if I was doing something wrong.
And here’s the thing, the fear that threatens to keep all mothers up at night: maybe I had been doing something wrong all along. Maybe I should have started sooner. Maybe I did too much or too little or did not give her enough warning. Maybe I should have taken her swimming in this pool or that one instead, or in the ocean more often. Maybe I was too gentle or too rough, too consoling or not enough. Maybe. Maybe it was my fault that my daughter took five years to stop screaming when water would come anywhere close to her eyes, her precious cheeks, her upturned nose.
And maybe it’s simply that now is the right time, for her, and before now, it wasn’t.
I’m finally beginning to understand, and to let go of something that has been wound tight around my heart since the first time I noticed Jillian was different than the other kids we knew. She clung tighter, demanded more attention. She struggled with too much activity; was more sensitive to bumps and bruises. We once went to a bike riding play date and she was the only one on a tricycle, and she melted down when I tried to get her to go farther or faster. The other moms gently suggested getting her a different ride, or maybe try this idea or that one. Instead I took Jillian home, put her in front of the tv, went into my bedroom and cried. Eventually, I bought her a gliding bike on Craigslist, and a friend gave us a princess bike with training wheels. She rides both of those now and then, but she’d rather dance. She’d rather draw, or read a book. She’d rather just be… Jillian.
So this is what I’m learning to understand, and it is the most important lesson I’ve ever had to learn: I have to stop looking at other children and simply see my daughter for who she is: a playful, curious, loving, thoughtful, imaginative child. She holds tight, she holds back, she watches, she considers. And when she’s ready, she leaps, and she’s brilliant.
Recently, I was walking Jillian home from school and she was tired, walking slowly, while I impatiently surged forward, pulling her little body along behind me, until I stopped, and looked back at her, and saw her, my sleepy little Kindergartner, and I understood. I saw our entire relationship distilled into that one moment: me, pulling her forward, onward, challenging her to do more, grow, learn, push past her fears. And Jillian, holding back, looking at the flowers. I saw how much we learn and gain from each other, this beautifully challenging dynamic which includes the times when she rushes ahead, more ready for some changes than I am. And then I gathered my daughter up into my arms and carried her the rest of the way home.
And now I have my answer. Maybe the only thing wrong, is that when I looked around at the other children and parents and saw something different, I worried about that difference, instead of embracing it.