A sharp gasp behind latticed fingers, then I reassemble my face into attentive-but-bland before Madeleine breaks the surface. It’s the latest in a series of belly flops today, and today is the latest in a series of days at the pool. Each attempt is painful for both of us. She seeks my face for acknowledgment but will only tolerate the most subtle response.
The bevy of emotions
Between smacks, her little sister Josie burbles around me, pedaling the water and grinning with triumph at the mere act of staying afloat. Not so Madeleine: fiercely determined, her dripping face remains stoic as her eyes become stony and dark. Every day she begins optimistic and proceeds rapidly through frustration, anger, resignation and despair. A rival
has learned to dive already this summer, and a friend is doing flips. Their glory just adds to the embarrassment here at the public pool-her failures seen by classmates and big kids, the worst causing nearby mothers to wince and call out sympathetically, intensifying the humiliation.
Bearing witness with love
She leans suspended over the placid blue ripples that have become her bitter adversary, and I hold my breath, yearning. But it’s like so many other steps on the journey to growing up. Through colic and solid foods and the potty, through first days of school and sounding out words, I can’t do it for her. Often my powers are limited to fretting and wringing
hands. Sure, there’s feeding, clothing and discipline, but so many of my toughest parenting struggles are just bearing witness with love.
Today is better than most days at the pool. Dinner time’s approaching, and families have scattered for the night. We’ve packed sandwiches, carrots and chips, the official summertime dinner of Daddy Business Trips. The tranquility has renewed Madeleine’s hopes, and she permits me to coach, something not tolerated when kids slouch behind her impatiently. The freedom unleashes a torrent of pep talk, but it’s hard to hold back, especially when she’s so close. Madeleine takes only some of the advice — she rolls her eyes at the watermelon idea. At one point she protests, “Your words are putting too much pressure on my head.” I simmer down. Anticipation and chlorine vapors drift through the air. Josie burbles. Madeleine
Evening falls and optimism fades. Another family arrives. We are friendly, but our pool-parenting styles clearly diverge. The dad drives the children to ever-morechallenging feats, stepping back as the little ones swim slightly beyond their limit, rescuing and setting them on task again. Still, they cheerfully comply and the dad loves coaching. Wrapped in a towel now, I’m complacent until the family heads to the diving boards. One little girl, Josie’s age, is going to try to dive, and I’m seized with alarm: what if this child, two years younger than Madeleine, makes it on her first try?
If the same thought hits Madeleine, she doesn’t show it. She switches diving boards for a new perspective, and suddenly… she’s done it. Her sleek blond otter head travels poolside. I give a muted cheer as she surfaces,then stand between ladder and diving board waiting for a celebratory high-five, a reasonably cool demonstration of affection. Madeleine slaps hands, but beyond that, she’s all business, proceeding quickly to try again. She’s not convinced that it wasn’t a fluke. This time she makes it look easy, slipping noiselessly back into the water. A pause, and her gasping, shining face appears. “You’ve got it!” I say. Josie shrieks gleefully and even coach dad cheers. Madeleine ascends the ladder, suddenly all loose, tanned limbs. She’s relaxed, but still restrained, or so I’m thinking, when she suddenly slams me with a hug so fierce that my teeth jam hard in my mouth. After wishing to take on her pain for days, a bloody lip has never felt so good.
Katie Beltramo, a mother of two, publishes www.capitaldistrictfun.com and contributes to All Over Albany and Kids Out and About.