I’ve Feared Swimming My Whole Life—Until My 8-Year-Old Showed Me How

When a mother is afraid, it’s up to her child to coax her into finally taking the plunge.

April-2017-WOLI-swimming-instructor-HoxtonPaul-BradburyGetty-ImagesHoxton/Paul Bradbury/Getty ImagesThe heated water splashes against my shoulders, but still I shiver. My son has been gliding along the bottom of the Holiday Inn pool, a playful otter circling my legs. He surfaces, his wet blond hair shining in winter afternoon light. “I’ll show you how to swim underwater,” he says, grinning.

An only child, he likes to teach my husband and me, reversing the usual order of his life. He has tutored us in knowledge important to an eight-year-old: how to multiply numbers, sketch animals, play the violin. Usually I’m a willing student. But this lesson I’ve avoided for months.

At Kieran’s age, I learned to fear the water. I whip-kicked my legs and windmilled my arms adequately during swimming lessons, but I couldn’t trust my body to float. My anxious mind would not let go. Fear pushed me down. Again and again, I slipped beneath the surface and breathed in water. It burned like shame.

Over the years, in lakes and oceans, I’ve kept my head above the surface, where I can see, my face never dipping into the black depths. I learned not to sink. But I never found the freedom of swimming that came easily to my friends, who leaped off docks and porpoised through waves. Self-doubt hardened into habit, then conviction. I have not swum underwater in decades. I don’t think I can.

The one person unwilling to accept this is four feet tall and wearing swimming trunks printed with blue sharks. I look out the windows at the arced birches, ice-bent. Inside, there is no distraction. It is just my son and me in the deserted pool and a question hanging between us in the humid air. Can you try? His waiting face, spattered with freckles I have bequeathed him, is open with possibility.

I think of the hard things we have asked of Kieran.

The days I left him at preschool, his eyes tear-heavy as I slipped away. The times he bared his arm for shots from the doctor. Earlier times in pools when he, too, feared deep water.

I cannot say no.

“Try to swim to me,” he says. In the first swimming lessons my husband scheduled for him, Kieran would not dip his face into the water. But then he submerged his head, and one day, he plunged into the pool.

Now his voice, calm and authoritative, soothes me. “It’s not very far.”

From the pool’s edge, down the row of empty lounge chairs, Kieran towers above the water. A few years from now, adolescence will sweep away his boyishness, angling his round cheeks, adding muscle and rough stubble. His chin is already sharpening, his torso growing lean. I glimpse the man who will emerge.

“When I count to three, you start,” he says in his teacher voice. “OK?”

“OK,” I say.

“One, two, three. Go!” I don’t move.

“Let’s try again,” he says quietly. “One, two, three!”

After more false starts, I know I must act. I suck in air, squeeze my eyes shut, and aim like a torpedo into the murk. Beneath the surface, sound stops. I travel blind in this liquid world, surging forward, shoving water aside. I hold my breath until I cannot anymore. I burst up into cool air. I don’t see Kieran. I have glided right past him.

“I did it,” I say, unbelieving. Time slips off its track. Those childhood struggles, these minutes in the pool—the years swirl. My child has urged me past the old pain.

Tears mix with the chlorinated dew on my smiling face. Kieran smiles too. “Now,” he says, “try to go a little farther.”

I swim farther.

I swim.

Can’t you sea what wonders the water can hold? Find out what it’s like to swim with manatees. 

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest