This morning I felt very much like Mother Duck when our son competed at his very first swimming carnival.
Normally, I’d protest profusely and be seriously offended if anybody dared to compare me to a duck of any persuasion. While we might all admire a duck gliding effortlessly across the pond, nobody wants to think of themselves as waddling or even vaguely walking like a duck. Rumi associated ducks with gluttony, so eating like a duck isn’t very flattering either!
Where we live there are a lot of ducks and it’s not uncommon to see a mother duck crossing the road with a trail of tiny fluffy duckling behind her. We stop our cars, sometimes breaking quite suddenly to allow yet another mother duck with poor traffic judgement to cross the road. We look out for those tiny, little ducklings but we also take note that ducks don’t always make the best parents. Slowly but almost surely, the number of ducklings diminishes as 10 ducklings goes down to 8 then 6 and then maybe 5 and by the time the ducklings are adolescent, there might only be one or two left. It’s very rare to spot a mother duck with a grown up tribe of “ducklings”.
Anyway, as I said this morning I felt very much like Mother Duck when I sent my son off to his first school swimming carnival and I wanted to ensure my little duckling came home.
You see, my son was signed up to swim 50 metres freestyle and backstroke and it was being held in the big 50 metre pool. He is only eight years old, almost nine and he’s only really swum in this pool once before. That was when he was attempting to complete a 600 metre swim for Nippers and he conked out after 100 metres unable to breathe. We’re still not really sure why he couldn’t breathe but he does get asthma. Not knowing the cause, made it really difficult to know whether he should swim in the carnival or not and I felt I had justified concerns.
Being a school swimming carnival, there were the usual permission slips to sign and this one was quite clear. To compete, your child had to be able to swim 50 metres in racing conditions. You had to actually tick that box and sign on the dotted line. That I’m sure that constitutes a legal document so naturally I took that fairly seriously. I was putting my son’s safety on the line and I didn’t want to get it wrong.
At the same time, I knew that if I did make an error of judgement, that the teachers would fish him out of the water. That was a no brainer. Yet, there was still that element of doubt.
Not that I was catastrophising!
In 2008, a child actually drowned on a school pool excursion in the Blue Mountains and in March last year there was a near drowning at a school swimming carnival in Canberra. I’m sure those teachers loved those students every bit as much as our teachers love our kids. Even with the very best systems and procedures in place, things can go wrong. You just ask those poor mother ducks. I’m sure they thought they were taking fabulous care of their precious little ducklings as they slowly disappeared one by one!
I also have to admit that I didn’t take to water like a duck myself. I thought I was going to drown in the school pool. Admittedly, I was going for my Bronze Medallion and I had to swim a very long way fully clothed and I also have asthma. It was by no means a standard swim but I forgot all of those details while sitting beside the pool having a mild panic attack. I could see my poor little duckling sinking to the very bottom of the pool.
Breathe Ro! Breathe!
Yes, I know I wasn’t swimming but just watching Mister was becoming very, very stressful!
Anyway, we decided to test Mister out on the weekend and give him a bit of practice. We had tried to get into the 50 metre pool to have a run through before the carnival. However, the pool was closed so we headed round to a friend’s pool instead. This was when we found out Mister wasn’t taking his breaths, which could well account for his breathing troubles. So like a true blue swim coach, I was strutting up and down beside the pool: “1…2 breathe. 1… 2 breathe.” It wasn’t easy for him but he completed his 50 metres so we decided to let him compete.
At the same time, we decided to keep the whole thing very low key. We just encouraged him to finish. Anything more was a bonus. Whenever he started talking about getting a place, we gently brought him back. It’s not that we wanted to set low expectations and for him not to try but we just didn’t want him to be disappointed. We really had no idea how he was going to go.
I had been hopeful but this morning, he woke me up with a dreadful foghorn cough and it sounded like he had asthma, croup or both. This didn’t bode well for the big swim and I was feeling more and more protective and concerned. Things weren’t looking good. Should he compete? I was even wondering whether he should be staying home although I said nothing.
But he was really excited and went off to school really, really looking forward to the big carnival. I arrived a bit earlier at the pool and saved him a seat. I do the publicity for the school and much of the photography.
I have to admit that while I was waiting there beside the pool, that 50 metre pool seemed to get bigger and bigger and bigger. It was huge. I couldn’t imagine swimming the full length of it myself let alone an 8 year old. I was pretty sure that I could only dog paddle when I was his age. These were huge expectations and I felt like scooping up my little duckling and taking him well away from the ocean. This pool was no pond!
But I restrained myself and tried to be encouraging!
While I was waiting, I also realised that I was only an arm’s length from the edge of the pool and could jump in, even fully clothed, if necessary. I know this probably sounds a little crazy but I was on red alert. Make that red alert with a flashing light. I was going to be a good mother duck! My little duckling was going to come out of this swim alive!
Meanwhile, Mister was really excited and was really looking forward to the swim. I know you’re not supposed to run beside the pool but as he was called off to the marshalling area, he was running…just a little bit.
Mister is eight almost nine years old. He is quite capable of crossing a road unassisted and he is able to swim. He is starting to become independent. I am quite happy to let him go most of the time but when it came to this swimming carnival, I just found that I wanted to wrap him up in layers and layers of bubble wrap. As far as I’m concerned, it’s times like this that you have every justification for being a helicopter parent and zooming in right up close to make sure your little duckling isn’t going to drown. That’s just being sensible. I would have felt much more comfortable with him only swimming in the novelty races but he wanted to be stretched. He had shown that he was capable of making the distance. We just didn’t know how his breathing would go
As much as I wanted to protect him, I also knew that parenting is also about letting go. Giving your child enough space to grow, develop and become their own person. Sometimes, you have to take a deep breath, or two or three and all you can do is wave to your little duckling, who really isn’t quite so little anymore and wish them good luck. You are watching by the sidelines or even from home or from work. You can’t keep holding their hand forever.
The race is about to start and I now notice he is in the far lane and so I get out of my seat to take the photos. I am watching the race through the eye of my zoom lens and I am almost right beside the pool. Not to jump in to save him but to get a good shot. I have momentarily relaxed. I am now the proud Mum and I want to capture this moment forever!
So there I was poised beside the pool with my zoom lens when my heart sinks once again as he climbs up onto the blocks to dive. I was so proud but very fearful. The blocks weren’t that big but they looked big enough and he seemed quite small up there. It was like he was made of glass and he could shatter any minute. These thoughts all seems quite silly in retrospect but I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was his Mum and my little duckling was about to launch into his first swim and anything was possible.
“On your marks, get set…” The whistle blew. I was watching him through the zoom lens and he was keeping pace with the other boys. He was actually swimming quite well and he wasn’t even coming last. I felt a surge of pride and even started to wonder whether he could actually get a place. His stroke was looking good and he was powering through the water. I noticed he was also remembering to breathe. “Good boy! Well done!”
The next thing I knew he was being pulled out of the pool. Not being rescued but at about the halfway mark, he pulled out and was looking a bit short of breath. He was pretty upset… guttered even. He had really wanted to get a place or at least finish but he didn’t make it. I could feel his pain and was pleased to be there with him and him a hug. He hadn’t finished but he had kept pace and I certainly wouldn’t describe him as a bad swimmer. I congratulated him on getting halfway and for having a go.
It was now all about “having a go”.
His friends and other parents were also very encouraging and it was good to see him warm up and slowly feel proud of his efforts. It turned out that a lot of kids in his age group didn’t compete so he actually went quite well!
Now back at the relative safety of my laptop, Mother Duck is feeling quietly more confident about letting her duckling venture out that bit further next time knowing he’s going to be okay…even if he doesn’t make the distance!
I should also say that the school was exceptionally well prepared and were very safety conscious. There were teachers with rescue float thingies walking beside both sides of the pool and I was pretty sure all the teachers had eyes all over their heads. They were very capable and extremely vigilant. As much as I was anxious, the teachers always had my absolute trust. I knew he’d be fine but that’s the logical left-brain talking and I’m very right-brained.
Working on this post has made me wonder whether I might have been catastrophising just a little…
Anyway, somehow we both managed to survive his first swimming carnival. I’d say we both deserve a gold medal!
PS I edited this bit out when I was writing my post and thought I should put it back in. When I filled out the permission slip, I actually attached a note about Mister’s breathing problems and then mentioned it when I saw his teacher. At this point, I thought putting him in a lane at the edge of the pool would be a good precaution. That worked well because when he stopped, it was easy for the teacher to help him out of the pool. There was no big drama or rescue. He had a go!
I have also since spoken to his swimming instructor. Apparently, he was swimming too fast in his lesson this week and he needs to slow down a bit at this stage to finish…ie slow and steady wins the race.
As much as I sound like a nervous Nellie in this post, I was pretty together because I had taken these precautions. That still doesn’t mean your heart doesn’t flutter when your boy swims in his first carnival.