Cheering Her On
By Holly Abbe
The public swimming pool was loud with the squeals and screams of kids splashing in the cool water and sporting newly acquired pink sunburns. Moms, Dads, babysitters and teens had set up individualized comfort stations amid the folding chairs and giant blue and white striped umbrellas. The warm air smelled kid-friendly tropical, a mix of coconut tanning lotion and gold fish crackers. Towels, kick boards and brightly colored Styrofoam noodles littered the kiddie pool like storm debris.
And in our claimed spot, under the welcomed shade of an umbrella, I was about to weather my own miniature mothering storm.
My six-year-old daughter, Madilyn, came running up to me, her eyes red-rimmed and her cheeks wet, not from the sting of chlorine pool water, but from fresh tears.
"The lifeguard won't let me go down the big slide anymore," she said, her chin quivering. "He says I'm not tall enough."
After checking with the lifeguard on duty, it turned out that Madilyn, indeed, was one inch too short to go down the big slide. However, that day was the first time any of the lifeguards had actually measured her. So although she'd been going down the slide for more than a week, if she wanted to go down the big slide again, she either had to grow an inch or pass the infamous "SWIM TEST."
Madilyn and I walked down to the lap pool with the lifeguard (who ominously grabbed a bright orange life preserver on the way). With each step, our bare feet slapped the warm cement while the lifeguard explained the test.
"She needs to swim the entire length of the pool without touching the sides. She can tread water for a while if she needs a break. But she cannot touch the sides."
I looked at the calm blue water of the lap pool. The pool had never looked longer. I looked down at my thin, tan, skinned-knee daughter. She had never looked smaller.
Her brown eyes widened as she stared at the length of the pool. Secretly, I was worried that Madilyn would not be able to do it. She was not a strong swimmer and certainly had never traversed even half the required distance of the swim test before.
"Mommy?" she pleaded, her voice full of emotion.
"You can choose, sweetheart," I tried to encourage her with a smile. "But if you want to go down the slide again, you'll have to pass this test."
"I really want to...but..." her voice trailed away as she looked down at the deep blue water.
I gathered as much positive energy as I could, and I uttered a silent prayer — for me to say the right thing and for her that she would have confidence. Then I knelt down in front of her so I could look in her eyes.
"You can do this!" I encouraged, sounding more convinced than I felt. "Just keep breathing. You can do this!"
Madilyn jumped in the water and started swimming. She had definitely progressed beyond the doggy-paddle of last year’s lessons. Her strong kicks churned the water and her flailing arms resembled something close to a crawl stroke. I walked along the pool's edge cheering her on. Behind me, a crowd gathered. They realized Madilyn was doing a swim test and started cheering her on along with me.
About two-thirds of the way down the pool, as Madilyn came up for a breath, I saw the fear in her eyes. She gasped for air, looked to her left and saw a ladder. I could tell she was considering it as a viable and welcomed option. But suddenly, I knew she could do it! I walked quickly ahead, jumped into the pool at the far end, and reached my arm out to her.
"You're doing it! You're doing it! Don't stop now!" I yelled.
Seeing me, she took a deep breath and kept swimming. She swam the last fifteen feet and grabbed my outstretched hand. She climbed out of the pool and everyone cheered. Even the lifeguard. She turned to me, shaking with exertion and reached out her tiny arms. Soaking wet and elated, we hugged and hugged.
As I held her in my arms she confessed in a whisper, "I didn't think I could do it. That was a REALLY long way."
We watched proudly as the lifeguard wrote Madilyn’s name with a permanent black marker in the official swim test book. The lifeguard then wrote his initials on the back of Madilyn's hand, and Madilyn was free to go down the big slide again. I watched Madilyn, her shoulders a bit straighter, her stride a bit prouder, bound off toward the big slide. Her tiny footprints on the cement evaporated almost immediately behind her.
For most of my parenting life, I've done as much as I could for my children. I've fed them, clothed them, bathed them, read to them and cared for them. But as I watched Madilyn swim, I realized that as a parent, my real job isn't doing things for my children — it’s helping my children do things for themselves. I couldn't swim the length of the pool for Madilyn, even though I wanted to. All I could do was believe in her and help her believe in herself. So while Madilyn's best part of that hot day was getting to go on the big slide again, the best part of my day was cheering her on.