If I had to describe myself as a little kid, I would say that I was a scaredy-cat people-pleaser. I was shy and anxious, especially in new situations, but I desperately wanted others, especially adults, to like me and to think I was a “good” girl. Charlotte most definitely inherited my “people-pleaser” trait, which I suppose is fine for now, but I don’t really think of her as a scaredy-cat. She runs around on the playground without fear, makes new friends easily, tries new foods, has little to no separation anxiety, and is in general a pretty adaptable kid. The other day, though, that scaredy-cat trait rose to the surface, and I had the somewhat unnerving experience of interacting with myself at five years old.
A bit of a back story is needed here. We enrolled Charlotte in swimming when she was about four months old. We wanted her to learn how to swim so that she could have fun in the water without fear of drowning. She stayed in swimming lessons until she was over three years old, and then we took a little break from the lessons so that she could experience other activities like dance and soccer. We figured we had laid the foundation for her enjoyment of the water, and a little break wouldn’t hurt her. We figured she would pick up where she had left off when she returned to the pool. We were wrong.
Somehow, in the year or so that she did not attend any swimming lessons, Charlotte developed a fear of the water. She panics in water that is deeper than knee-high. She refused to go in the pool at her sports camp in early July because she was afraid. Upon learning this, Mark and I decided that she needed to be reintroduced to the water. We enrolled her in a week of swim camp. The weekend before swim camp started, we had the opportunity to go swimming at my aunt’s pool. At first, she was terrified and in tears. I calmly swam with her and helped her and coached her and by the end of the day, she was swimming to the deep end of the pool by herself (with her puddle-jumper on). She was definitely ready for swim camp.
And by all accounts, the first day went well. She reported having lots of fun in the water that day. She needed a bath, though, after all that sunscreen and chlorine, so Mark got her in the tub. And somehow, the topic of putting her head underwater came up…and all her fear returned. She was clearly terrified of putting her head underwater, for reasons she could not explain to us. And Mark felt that the best course of action here would be for her to practice doing so in the bathtub. As you may have guessed, this did not go well.
I could tell that she was positively torn between wanting to make us happy by doing it but being absolutely terrified and unable to do it at the same time. She would look at us with those big eyes and sincerely promise that this time, she was going to do it, and then completely chicken out. We tried everything. I was holding her in my arms so that she would feel safe. Didn’t work. Mark dunked his head under water to show her how easy it was. Didn’t work. We practiced breath-holding and nose-plugging. Didn’t work. She just could not do it, and I swear, I was in the same situation as a kid. I was afraid of the water, my dad wanted me to just go under, and even though I really wanted to do it, my fear wouldn’t let me. It was so bizarre seeing my daughter exhibit the exact behaviour I had exhibited at her age. And now I am on the other side of it- as an adult, I know how easy it is to do and how much fun it is to swim underwater, and I just want her to be able to do it. But I also recognize how crippling that fear can be.
Part of me wants to tell her to forget it, she doesn’t have to do it, and to just cuddle her in my arms so that she forgets her fear. And the other part of me wants to push her to get over her fear, so that she doesn’t base her life around her anxieties. I know how terrible it is to make life choices out of fear, and more than anything, I don’t want her to take that path. Sure, right now, it is just a refusal to put her head underwater, but eventually, it can become a refusal to leave an unhappy relationship in her early twenties because she is afraid of being alone or a refusal to change career paths because she is too afraid of the unknown.
I know it isn’t realistic to expect her never to be afraid. I just want her to learn to overcome her fears- to know that, yes, she can be scared, but that fear doesn’t have to control her. And the earlier she realizes this, the better. I am thirty-four, and STILL trying not to let fear control me. I don’t want that for Charlotte. And so, I am going to push her, gently and often, to put her head underwater. And I know that one of these days, she will do it. And she will see a world open up to her, where she can do somersaults and handstands and try to touch the bottom of the pool and jump off the diving board and HAVE FUN. I hope she can make the connection that all that fun opened up to her because she did something scary. I hope she learns that doing scary things can have a big pay off. I hope she realizes how strong and brave she really is. Truly, I hope she is not like me.