Ah, Mother’s Guilt. It can hound your heart: fierce and persistent. I’ve had a bad case for about three-and-a-half years now. Of course, the thing about being a mother is that there’s always plenty of stuff going on to distract from a case of Mother’s Guilt. Like Mother’s Guilt about something else, for example. But in those rare silent spaces of the day, the shriek of guilt echoes still. And it says: “Why haven’t you taken her swimming lessons?”
Because here in Australia, it’s what parents do. We are a nation in love with water – which is not surprising given our environment. This summer we sweated through 12 days over 40°C (104°F). There was a day in January where my city held the dubious honour of officially being the hottest city on Earth (46°C/ 115°F). Our national anthem proclaims our home to be “girt by sea”: we are a big hot island enfolded in the most enticing sapphire. Our kids grow up with nappies full of sand and eyes smarting from salt-water. They visit Friends With Pools, ride on inflatable mattresses, play Marco Polo and smell of chlorine and sunscreen and summertime. Swimming lessons are a significant part of this lifestyle. You may have a naturally-birthed, exclusively breastfed, cloth-nappy-wearing, sleeping-through-the-night six-month-old, but if she’s not enrolled in baby swimming lessons, you’re only so-so as a mum. And yes, congratulations dear friend, for helping your baby achieve proficiency at Butterfly by his first birthday.
Although she tends to be cautious at first, given a little time to adjust, Lily adores jumping waves with Daddy at the beach or bouncing through the swimming pool in Mummy’s arms. It’s not as if we have completely denied her and her brother the joys of water. But somehow we just never seemed to get around to those pesky swimming lessons.
Last week I finally – years too late and definitely not in the best season – made an attempt to appease my Mother’s Guilt, and enrolled both kids in swimming lessons. Lily had her first yesterday afternoon. All day she was bouncing off the walls, exclaiming how she couldn’t wait. In fact, her uncharacteristically eager compliance to all my instructions – bathers on, hair up, track pants over the top, showering before her lesson, new goggles on – actually made us early for our lesson.
There was a moment where I was almost lulled into thinking this whole swimming lesson caper was going to be straight-forward. I say almost because being mum to my precious Lily for four years has taught me that new experiences are never easy for her (which may help to explain my reluctance to dive into swimming lessons, if you’ll excuse the pun). Dancing lessons, Sunday School, occasional care, childcare, kindergarten – all looked marvellous to her from a distance, but became tear-soaked affairs the day they shifted into reality.
Sure enough, when the moment came to step into the pool, Lily burst into tears, “I thought I wanted to have swimming lessons, but I don’t!” she cried plaintively. “I’ve changed my mind!” The instructor ended up having to carry her, thrashing and howling into the pool. I watched (as well as I could whilst struggling to prevent my toddler from hurling all manner of items including himself into the water) as she manoeuvred my daughter’s reluctant little frame into a range of positions: belly, back, star float, belly with kick-board, back with kick-board. A bench-load of attentive parents were treated to an earful of wails and whimpers, climaxing in the blood-curdling protest: “I don’t want to get my hair wet!” And my heart twisted and crashed inside my chest as Lily’s face registered a gamut of emotions: distress, anxiety, concentration, fleeting pops of joy and pride.
Towards the end of the lesson, while the other little girl in the class ducked and dived and wet her hair like a mermaid, Lily – the picture of misery – huddled on the pool steps with teeth chattering, tears streaking her face, pink goggles askew and bather pants half-way down her bottom. Honestly, I wanted to cry myself. While there had been a few positive moments, it had been a pretty agonising half-hour on the whole. And as for the Mother’s Guilt: if anything, seeing my little girl struggle out there had made it roar all the louder. But then, what’s motherhood without an ample dollop of guilt?