As a young child, I loved to swim. On more than one occasion the words “like a fish” were used in discussing my love for the water. I spent my summers at our local community pool, practicing flips and handstands in the shallow waters, and fetching pennies from the pool floor of the five-foot deep area.
I remember one time I was at a party, and the hosts happened to have a pool. All of the kids were in bathing suits, swimming and playing with various pool toys. I don’t remember the details, but at one point one of the preschoolers had thrown some plastic beach-type toys in the deep end of the pool, where they rested under ten feet of water.
I think one of them asked if I could get the toys. Or maybe I just volunteered myself, since I liked helping others and was quite confident in my swimming ability. Either way, I was the foolish kid (I couldn’t have been more than eight years old or so) going to the bottom of the pool.
Never having learned to dive properly, I stood on the edge of the pool, pinched my nose shut, and jumped in feet first, using the momentum to help me sink a few feet into the pool before orienting myself head down and kicking my legs furiously to reach the bottom. Ten feet felt a lot further than I thought it would be.
Once at the bottom, I gathered up the plastic toys, pushed off from the floor and kicked back towards the light.
If you hear my grandmother tell this story, you’d think I nearly drowned. I know I scared her pretty badly. I’m not sure how long I was down there, but it was long enough to worry the adults at the party. When she told the story years later, I laughed it off and said I had it all under control.
The truth, however? I’ve never been so close to drowning in my life as I was in the pool that day.
The deepest pool I had ever been in was eight feet of water. Ten was really pushing my limits. By the time I reached the bottom, I realized I needed to get back up quickly. But I wasn’t going to look like a failure, so I made sure to grab those toys.
As I pushed off from the floor, I could already feel my legs were weakening. Looking up, I could see the light reflecting off the top of the pool, but it felt so, so far away. How did it get so far away?
I kept kicking my legs, but my chest was on fire. My lungs were nearly collapsing in a reflexive effort to take a breath, yet I kept my nose pinched and mouth clamped shut. I was focused on getting to the surface, even though the light at the top looked a little darker and I started to feel lightheaded.
I lost the grip on my nose as my lungs forced air out and I started to panic that I wouldn’t reach the top in time. It was just as water was starting to come into my mouth that I broke the surface, spitting out the water as I gasped for air.
Clinging to the side of the pool, I weakly offered up the toys to their owners and smiled as my heart pounded. Nope, not going to look like a failure today.
I still remember some of the details of that event for a few reasons. First, I’m actually still very scared of drowning, even though I love water. And second, because I think on how many times in my life I’ve nearly (figuratively) drowned because I didn’t want to look like a failure.
Taking on too much is commonplace for me. Like Ado Annie from the musical Oklahoma, I “cain’t say no.” I never want to miss an opportunity, and I never want anyone to think less of me, so I will often agree to do far more than I’m capable of. Problem is, I then find myself at the bottom of that ten-foot pool, wondering how I’ll make it to the top without running out of air.
I look around at other working mothers and wonder how they do it, only to realize that either they’re better at saying ‘no’ to all of the requests on their time, or they’re smiling on the outside while panicking on the inside, just like me. Only they make it look far easier than I do.
One day I hope I can come to terms with the reality that I’m not superwoman, I can’t do it all, and occasionally I do fail miserably. That sometimes you don’t have to be the hero: you can instead hang out in the shallow end sipping a martini while your kids splash around you and let someone better suited to the job – someone who has practically no chance of drowning – dive to the bottom of the pool.