Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dear Breathe

Dear Breathe,

You are something we do unconsciously, reflexively, and for survival.  And because we are land animals equipped with lungs, we inhale air.  And while we are submerged in water, we hold our breaths.

Unless one hasn't learned how to hold one's breath yet.

I just spent the last six weeks teetering on the edge of Motherhood Heartbreak accompanying Dear Son once a week to swim lessons.  The entire experience left me weaker, stronger; crazier, saner; drowning, surviving; and suffocating, breathing.

DS detests putting his head in the water at the swimming pool.  It scares the living daylights out of him.  You can say it's a defense mechanism, because until he learns how to hold his breath to go under water, he's going to stay the hell away from it.  But all around us at the pool, kids of his age or younger are bobbing their heads in and out of the water and swimming like fish.  They make it seem so easy.  So I was that parent last summer who thought: just dunk his head in the water, and once he experiences being under water, he will be okay.  I was wrong.  Water got into his nose and I made his fear drastically worse.

You really can't blame him.  We've all had water up our noses before, and it's not a pleasant feeling.  It's rather a shocking, stinging sensation.  And the burn of chlorinated water is not something my very sensitive child would love to have up his nose.  But I do realize that he will probably not learn how to hold his breath under water before he experiences some stinging and burning sensations first.

This summer, we enrolled the kiddos in swim lessons.  Dear Daughter has been swimming well enough to learn different strokes and rhythmic breathing.  We also wanted to help DS get used to the water so that he won't be so afraid of putting his head in.  Little did I know that the very first thing the instructors asked the kids to do were head bobs (lowering their heads in the water)--something that all the others did pretty easily, but left DS completely undone.

For six weeks, DS struggled as he tried, failed, and recovered from his fear.  I, the mother sitting on the side of the pool watching, held my breath for him for long periods of time, sometimes forgetting that just because I stopped breathing doesn't mean that he will hold his breath.  I watched as he practiced a back float--the bobbing water splashed over his nose, startling him as he sank into the water.  He doesn't know how to hold his breath in there.  I watched as he performed backstroke arms and kicks--his instructor would look away and allow his nose to fall below the water, scaring him as he drops down below.  He doesn't know how to hold his breath in there.  Each time it happened he would panic and burst into tears from the fear and the sting.  Each time my heart would shove itself up to my throat, cutting off what little air there was for me to breathe as it is.

After each time he experienced the horror of water in his nose, my mind begged to leave that room filled with nauseous chlorinated vapors.  I desperately wanted to take my quivering child out of there and go outside for fresh air, warmth, and far away from the drowning sensation we were both experiencing.

But I stayed.  I stayed and watched him break down after each mishap.  He turned and looked at me with tearful eyes that pleaded for me to do something to stop that stinging discomfort in his nose.  I stayed and watched his tiny body shiver uncontrollably because his skinny body--void of any insulating fat--is trying to gain what warmth it can muster from shaking itself.  And, I was that mother who went to the side of the pool over and over, again and again, because her child needed comforting, wanted help blowing water out of his nose, and required help asking the teachers 'to not let go'.

The lowest point of these swim lessons came at the middle of the six-week course.  By this time, DS could put his head in the water while wearing goggles and pinching his nose.  My heart was hoping with all its might that DS would be able to complete the next skill without much ado, which was going down to pick up a puck from the bottom of the pool.  What inexperienced swimmers find confusing, however, is when one tries to go down, one's body naturally wants to float.  I think that opposing motion confused DS, and he panicked and choked and gulped lots of water in this process.  My heart dropped--like the very puck he was retrieving--right down to the bottom of the that pool.

The acoustics of an indoor swimming pool plays tricks on your ears.  I first realized the discrepancy when DS waded toward me as he totally lost it; what I saw on his face did not match what I heard.  His frenzied cries came across as muffled whimpers, as if the chlorinated air suffocated his desperate wailing.  Or perhaps it was my own pounding heart dulling his shrieks.  He then started to gag as all the air and water he swallowed tried to come back up.  But then the vast space of air in the high ceiling room decided to amplify those heaves, bouncing every wretch that came out of his gut and echoing them into every corner of the pool.  They were loud enough that everyone probably stopped and looked, but I wouldn't know, since I was so distraught trying to seem sensibly concerned without totally losing it myself, right then in front of him.

I told him he was okay, even though he wasn't.  I told him he did great, even though he failed miserably.  And now I was admittedly playing tricks on his mind. 

But the great thing about children and their resiliency is that they move on.  As soon as DS leaves the swimming facility, he has already forgotten all the choking and gagging that just happened and is happily going about his day again.  All the while his poor Mama is still traumatized, for hours and days afterwards, and just can't bear to imagine what will happen during the next lesson.

But what did happen is DS eventually could do unlimited head bobs, albeit while pinching his nose; he could swim independently on a noodle, scooping with hands and kicking with feet; and he could float on his back.  Basically, he was able to do the skills where he didn't have to hold his breath under water really well.  And each time he accomplished a skill, he turned around and smiled his Bestest Smile at me--so full of pride and joy--that you'd never know he was defeated and sobbing just minutes ago.

Those smiles mended my torn and tattered heart.  They told me that we were both going to be okay.

While I knew that he wasn't going to pass to the next level, I was so proud that he made so much progress.  And that he never once refused to go to lessons or wanted to quit. 

Quite honestly, I know that this phase will pass.  DD was the exact same way at his age, and now she is swimming like a fish.  I know that it takes time, a certain developmental maturation, and more exposure to water in order for DS to learn how to hold his breath under water.  It seems natural for those of us who know how, but, like riding a bicycle--until you know how to do it--it just seems like such a difficult thing to master.

And I do realize that while we struggle with this particular area--and it seems like such an easy feat for other children--DS performs well in other areas to which I might not even give a second thought.  But these six weeks was an experience that drastically took DS and me both out of our comfort zones--kind of like fish out of water (ha!)--and tired me out with my instinctive maternal reflexes kicked up into overdrive.

So while we breathe air in and out in order to survive, we do just the opposite in water in order not to drown.  Similarly, in order for me to see DS through this learning process and survive it, I must remind myself to continue to breathe, in and out, while he learns just the opposite in the water.   

The irony of it drowns me.

So, Dear Breathe, I hope it won't be long before DS learns the ins and outs of you, for I fear that I won't have much air left in me to respire.  And I know that there will be plenty more occasions where I'll have to deliberately and actively inhale and exhale as I watch my kiddos learn more new and scary things.  Please just make sure to kick in every now and then--in case I forget--so that I won't suffocate as I continue my journey as a devoted Mama cheering on her kiddos from a distance, among the crowd on the sidelines. 



  1. Reading your letter, the shortness of breath is contagious. I had to stop a few times and remind myself I wasn't there!

    My daughter hasn't mastered the no-nose-pinching underwater thing yet at 9yo, but I'm confident in her swimming ability not to have worried that she was swimming almost every day this summer throughout weeks of YMCA camp.

    It's one of those Parenting things I think we all go through, yes? I'm glad you could share, maybe it dilutes the pressure a little for us all?

    1. It *is* one of those obligatory Parenting things we must encounter, yes! And you are right, Sean--I *am* sharing to seek those shared experiences of parenthood heartaches. I know you have certainly helped me 'dilute the pressure' just by coming here to read and comment with your own story! And I think it's wonderful that your daughter spent so much time at the pool this summer without letting her nose-pinching hold her back! Thank you again for visiting!

  2. Oh, Sandra, I love how perfectly you have captured the angst of Motherhood.

    My oldest son had the most trouble learning to swim. He feels a loss of control in deep water that prevented him from sometimes leaving the side of the pool, while my daughter would grab a noodles and, at 3, just blaze on down to the deep end.

    Oddly enough, none of my children have a single reservation regarding the ocean.

    Thanks for sharing:)

    1. I had so much emotion pent up in me over the last six weeks that I knew this post had brewed long enough. Maybe because he's the baby of the family, or maybe because DD just learned faster; I dunno. I just remembering being traumatized long after each lesson, just the same way the stench of chlorine lingered inside my nose long after we left the pool. I so admire little children who are fearless in the water. But I guess there are advantages to kids being overtly careful in water, too.

      The ocean, though, is magical. My kiddos love the ocean, where they can plant their feet firmly in soft sand and just play. They have no fears there--it's so very special. :) Thank you, Kim!

  3. Aww, you have a brave little boy there! He sounds like such a trooper! I love the way you write, as I felt like I was right there with you watching him gasp for air while trying to get that puck. You're brave too mama! I think that swim lessons are a wonderful thing because I feel so bad for grown adults who can't swim and you never know when you'll need that skill. And avoiding water all your life is just so drab.
    I could only imagine what it takes to be in your shoes and hold every ounce of your being OUT of the pool and not jump in and help him. But like everyone, DS has to learn how to do this himself, and I have no doubt he will, just like his big sis! :)

    1. It just seems to be harder for him than most other kids... but yes, I'm sure he'll get there. Maybe next summer? Swimming *is* an important skill to learn, and that's why we're doing this even if it seems like torture. And man, was it torturous for ME! (I had to get him out of the pool fast that one time since I thought he was going to throw up in it!

      Thank you, Cassie. It was hard writing this since I had to relive it to write it. :)

  4. The way my son learned, but he was much younger and didn't have any fear of water, was in the bath tub. He would wear his googles and fish for his plastic animals, he could spend almost an hour sometimes and he learned to hold his breath before going to the pool.

    I also remember reading, and I practiced this with both my kids when they were younger, that if you blow hard on their faces their instinct is to hold their breath and so they can understand how to do it.

    He will get it, and kudos to you for perservering (sp?).

    1. DS liked taking showers (weird, since he doesn't mind shower water all over his face) so he stopped taking baths when he was very little. But the strange thing is--he *can* hold his breath. But the act of getting his head into water messes up that entire concept. And I think that's what he needs to overcome--trusting that when he holds his breath under water, then water won't go into his nose. When he comes out of the water, he's in such a rush to breath again that he sucks in both air and water. Sigh. Yes, we stuck with it because he really liked the lessons, minus the head-in-water parts. :)

      Thank you for sharing your experiences with me, Laura!

  5. My kids are like fish now, but I remember similar (but not as severe) struggles with our younger son. Swim lessons were full of crying, clinging and whining. As a parent it is heart-wrenching to watch. I'm so glad you saw progress in him. I hope he warms up quickly next season and you see more progress :)

    1. Believe me, after the first lesson, I didn't think he'd make *any* improvement based on his reactions. So, by the end, he really had come a long way. I'm so glad to know your boys came out swimming like fish despite initial struggles. I still have hope! Thank you for sharing and understanding, Janna!

  6. Is this your son's first lesson? Probably not. What age did he start? I read this and thought of my 2-yr old. I was planning to enroll him in a swim class this year because I don't want him to have fear of the water. Maybe I think the earlier they start, the less fear they have. Maybe I'm wrong.

    I share your struggles just through your writing. How difficult it was to watch on the sidelines as he struggled. We hate to see our children struggle but know that they have to learn how in order to overcome difficulties themselves. The best gift we can give them is self-sufficiency. And the part where you say that he walked away after a lesson with no memory of what happened in the pool, while you walk away still traumatized, is so dead-on.

    I'm glad that DS has mastered certain skills and still working on the rest. It's great to read in the comments that not all kids are fish-in-the-water and you're on the right path.

    1. Hi, Lisa! It *is* his first lesson. Maybe that's why--we started too late. But as his mommy, I know he would have reacted the same way at age 2, 3, or 4. DD started at 5 or 6, even, and she's okay now. But still, rough start.

      Yes, traumatized... The six weeks is over, and I'm still traumatized, enough to write this post. I just had to get this all out. I'm purging, so I can pack it away until next summer, LOL. DS still loves to play in the pool with a tube--just not with his nose under water. At least there's that. We'll try again next year.

      Thanks so much for your comments, Lisa!

  7. Looks like this is a common problem. My first daughter refused to let go of her swim teacher's neck when she was 5. My other daughter wouldn't even enter the pool when she was 3. It's been a terrific struggle, but now they can both swim, and they love it!

    1. Hearing your experience does make me feel better. I really don't have any doubt that DS will outgrow this fear at some point, but when you're in the midst of it, it just feels so horrible. Thank you for sharing your girls' wonderful outcome with swimming, Asianmommy!

  8. Oh it is SO hard to step back sometimes, isn't it? This is part of the reason we started doing private lessons, because where we were just wasn't working for Mister Man. Fortunately they both love the water now, including Little Miss who used to scream like a banshee whenever she was where she couldn't touch, even if I had my arms wrapped around her as I walked. Go fig. Now? You should see them. You didn't join the pool this year though did you? Swimming every day and just playing has been the best therapy for my 'fraidy cats :)

    1. It IS so hard. We just go to the pool when we can (remember my sun-phobia?) over the summer. I'd love to--but cannot afford--be able to go to an indoor pool year round. But, I agree with you. It just takes time and playing to get there. That's how DD did it, so I'm sure we'll get there. DS' fear is something else. I plan to 'play hard' in the pool next summer! Thanks, Michelle!