Tuesday, August 28, 2012
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.