Monday, March 1, 2010

Sending her to the couch...

One of the things I have been struck with since becoming a mother almost 4 1/2 years ago, is how complex parental emotions can be. You love love love love love your newborn baby, but feel saddened by your own personal loss of identity. Before baby I was a wife, a runner, a teacher, a graduate student, a traveler of the world... all of that was superseded by MOMMY. You desperately want some time to yourself, but then feel guilty, indulgent and selfish when you actually find yourself alone. You love the fact that your 9 month-old son prefers you over every other person on the planet, but also feel smothered and suffocated by his whining for you when he is in his father's arms.

This past week Julia had an AWFUL week. She lost her television and computer privileges for the entire week (read: no break for Mama all week) due to poor choices and bad behavior. The real crescendo of the week happened at the YMCA when we went to have Julia observed so an instructor could identify an appropriate swim class level for her. After her observation, I told her we could swim for a bit in the family recreation lane: That is, until Oliver got fussy. That seems to be the qualifier for everything these days. Sure we can do ANYTHING you want... until your brother gets fussy.

Well, as expected, he got fussy about 20 minutes after we got into the pool. I compromised with Julia. No, we don't have to leave right now. I will sit on the edge of the pool with Oliver and you can continue to paddle around RIGHT HERE IN FRONT OF ME, if you choose not to wear a floatation device. She was content to do that for a bit, and then she started playing with a couple of kids her age who were swimming nearby. They were clearly stronger swimmers than she was, as they were diving underwater and swimming underwater. Well, the next thing I knew, Julia had TAKEN OFF for the other end of the pool racing the little boy, doggy-paddling as fast as her little arms would go.

I was TICKED. And SCARED. And damn was I PROUD. I walked the length of the pool demanding that Julia come to the side RIGHT NOW. She defiantly kept her eyes on me as she continued paddling furiously to the other end of the pool. I watched as her pace slowed and started to get really fearful. What if she goes under water? I am walking the periphery with a 9 month-old on my hip! Do I leap in the water with him? Do I signal the lifeguard? Do I lay him down on the side of the pool and jump in after her? And of course as she was swimming the FULL LENGTH of that Olympic pool, I was overwhelmed with pride. Here was a little girl who just learned to swim about a month ago, and she was frantically swimming the full length of that pool, racing a much stronger swimmer than herself... and keeping pace.

At the far end of the pool, she finally touched the wall and I snatched her out of the pool by one arm before she even know what was happening. That was the end of her swim for the day, and any parent of a strong-willed four year old knows what happened next. Tantrum in the locker room, naked child refusing to get dressed, stepping back and forth over her baby brother who was lying on the floor and almost squashing him, well intentioned strangers offering to help by putting our wet towels in the laundry, Julia ripping clothing off her body as it was put on her... and sadly, the loss of swimming lessons. I told her if she couldn't make safe decisions in the pool and be independent in the locker room, she couldn't do swimming lessons and I couldn't bring her to the pool by myself with Oliver.

We got home and after a glass of pinot grigio, my rage had diminished to a dull roar. I was no longer ready to spit nails at my daughter, and ready to talk to her about what had happened at the pool. I decided to explain my complex emotions to her, and let her in on a little secret: adult emotions are not cut and dried, they are multi-layered and often contradictory. I told her she had made me so ANGRY at the pool by not following my clear instructions and then choosing not to listen when I told her to come to the edge. She had made me very SCARED when I watched her tire and I was afraid she was going to go under water. And she had made me so very PROUD that her swimming had improved so much that she could swim the whole length of the pool. But most of all I was scared. That water was dangerous and if you go underwater because you are too tired to keep your body above water, you can even die.

Julia looked at me, and responded in a way only a four year-old can. "I'm sorry I didn't listen to you Mommy. I didn't know it was a dangerous choice. You didn't tell me that." Great. So what Julia took away from this whole experience is not

1) I should listen to Mama.
2) Mama makes choices that keep me safe
3) Mama was proud of me because my swimming has gotten so much better.

No. Our lesson of the day is water is dangerous and it can kill you. This is CLEARLY going to be brought up on a psychiatrist's couch in about 20 years...

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