Come on in…

…the water’s cold, strange and probably far more full of human waste than one would care to think about. But here I am in it anyway, thigh-deep and shivering in the shallows of the toddler training pool, my voice skewed into shrillness as I attempt to lure my reluctant toddler in to join me. He, in turn, clutches an armful of brand new swimming toys to his chest, bottom planted firmly on the topmost step, expression clouded with a deep-seated mystification as he contemplates the miasma of chlorinated blue. It occurs to me, as I resist the urge to *adjust* the apparently ‘universally flattering’ swimming costume over my evidently non-conformist posterior for the seventeenth time that minute, that I can’t really blame him. After all, it’s all very well and good for we parents to acknowledge and embrace the Fear of Resuming Normal Life in a post-Covid world. For our toddlers, there is no resuming. There is no memory of normal. This is normal. And why on earth should they want to trade the comforts of home to plunge into a tepid, chemical-smelling ocean full of strangers and their feet in the name of eventually learning how to stay afloat in this same, fetid soup of hell? Apparently you can lead a toddler to water, but you can’t shove him in it even with an armful of toys, patience and the acceptance that you’re going to look and sound like a right pillock for the next 45 minutes.

I love swimming. Then came kids. Then came three kids. I still vividly remember the 2019 days (she pluralises, optimistically) of attempting the Great Family Swim. None of them could actually swim yet which meant me and Hub had to remain within grabbing distance at all times. The pool was always hideously crammed and when you’re neck-deep in the shallows, baby on one side merrily tugging away at the thin barrier of elastic holding in the remnants of your dignity while on the other a child steadily kicks water into your eye with the accuracy of a trained sniper (it may be your child, unfortunately you neglected to use the waterproof mascara that morning because your brain doesn’t work and in any case you were definitely not going to be getting your face wet anyway but now your vision has taken on a blotchy haze on that side and there’s no real way of knowing) the days of ploughing serenely through the plishing aquamarine as your muscles delightfully burned all the calories seem very, very far away. Instead, there’s a lot of swishing small feet around while you bleat, ‘Kick! Kick!’ and try to remember the small cluster of extortionate baby swim classes you took the eldest to when she was tiny and you still possessed the will to actually do things like that. There’s a lot of fake enthusiasm as you try to persuade the toddler that her armbands really will keep her from certain drowning so she doesn’t need to cling quite so much and is she sure she doesn’t need the toilet? There’s a deep realisation of just how bloody cold the pool is when you’re not plishing away the calories. And then, more often than one would like, there inevitably comes the resigned shriek of the teenage lifeguard’s whistle as a suspicious-looking morsel of brown floats past and out we all heave, surreptitiously eyeing our offsprings’ rear ends. Was it one of ours? asks my husband through alarmed eyebrows. Who gives a shit, let’s go to Burger King, mine reply.

One could perhaps understand why it was not the biggest trial to eschew the whole sorry exercise when the global pandemic closed our leisure centres.

Even this arrangement was deemed only marginally tolerable

Now we’re out the other side of the lockdowns, however, it’s not hard to see that the one who has been the worst affected by lack of pool-time is the youngest. Use of a shared pool during a holiday in Norfolk last summer, two years after the last time we’d braved a Family Swim, saw B1 finally breach the final frontier of a slow and desperate-faced doggy paddle. B2 discovered that her Peppa Pig armbands could, in fact, be trusted to keep her from certain drowning. B3 clung, shivered, and by day seven had only reluctantly agreed to float miserably away from the shallow end so long as he remained safely ensconced in his armbands and rubber ring.

Which brings us here, to the shallows of early 2022, standing defeated and eternally be-wedgied in the face of a willful toddler who appears determinedly unconvinced that the water will ever be lovely. Week one of Operation Get B3 Water Confident was spent entirely on the steps of the toddler pool, occasionally borrowing the toys of a friendly one-year-old as he ostentatiously plunged and dove with the prowess of a tiny Olympian. Week two we came armed with a clutch of brand new swimming toys and decided we Did Not Like our armbands. Unfortunately this was also the week B3 suffered a terrifying misstep/headfirst plunge just out of my reach and I had the horrible experience of scrambling to grab him (he wasn’t under for a second and didn’t even cry afterwards but it was one of those moments which scour themselves into your memory with the remnants of the worst kind of parent nightmares). We didn’t go on week three due to illness. The first fifteen minutes of week four saw B3 refuse to even get into the water, just sitting on the topmost step, toys clutched tight, while I found myself uttering the words, ‘Shall we just go home? What is the point of spending five flipping pounds forty just to sit here on the steps freezing our arses off?’

Five minutes later I had B3 balanced torso-down on my arm, feet duly kicking as his little hands and arms paddled steadily. You could have knocked me down with a feather.

How did this miracle occur? I’d like to say it was my patience, my reassurance, my ability to distract him from the fear while bombarding with the fun… I think it was probably more just luck. His little Waboba ball floated away. He told me to get it. I told him if he wanted it, he needed to get it with me. I took him into my arms and distracted him by bobbling closer to the ball until he felt confident enough to extract one hand from the cling to grab it. I gave him lots of praise but didn’t give him a chance to demand we return to the steps, instead I kept the grab-the-ball game going by pushing it a little further away each time until eventually, with me reassuring him that I had him (this really seemed to help) his little body began to relax. We tried ‘swimming’ for the ball and, once he discovered that it wasn’t merely a ploy to torture him in new and hideously unexpected ways, there we were in the unprecedented territory of the middle shallows, dappled in soft rainbows from the window, kicking feet, paddling hands, no longer clinging mummy’s costume past its limits of elasticity… dare I say it… having… fun?

I don’t know what will happen this week. Maybe he’ll go back to the steps. Maybe we’ll carry on the small progress we’ve made… but I hope that if anyone reading this has a similarly water-scared toddler or baby, it gives you some hope. I, too, am that mum cajoling her toddler to just try, maybe just sit on the next step down, let the water splash your chin, blow a bubble? Come on in, the water’s cold and far from lovely… but come on in anyway.

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