The tears are coming. Her lips are puckered. That brave, scrunched face; trying to shield itself, desperately hoping to hide the weeping, but I know her. I know that face. She’s going to cry.
She buries her head. She doesn’t want her friends to notice. But they don’t see her. That’s the most excruciating part. That’s the moment my heart breaks just a little. They are splashing away, thrashing through the pool water, kicking away from my traumatised little girl.
She’s not at their level. Her peers are overtaking her, literally and metaphorically. They have jumped in feet first. She is still scared of the water.
As a parent volunteer at the school swimming lesson, I am expected to remain neutral, focus on the kid before me, but he’s a natural, Flipper with a kickboard. He doesn’t need me. My daughter needs me.
I send mini-Michael Phelps on his way and l lean across to my daughter, shivering on the pool ledge. Technically, she’s in another parent volunteer group, someone else’s responsibility. But to hell with tact and diplomacy, she’s my responsibility. The other parent volunteer’s stomach isn’t turning. Her throat isn’t tightening; mine is.
“You can do this,” I whisper. “We’ve done it so many times before, remember.”
“I can’t, Daddy,” she sobs quietly. “I can’t swim in the deep end, not like the other children.”
That’s when Daddy subsumes parent volunteer. That’s when I hug her. That’s when I want to tie all the other kids’ arms and legs together so they flail around like wobbling skittles in a bowling alley just to put my daughter back together again; to make her feel better. Because that’s when I realise that she realises. She has always known when she cannot do something. Now she knows when she cannot do something that her peers can. She is aware of her own limitations; the birth of the inferiority complex.
This is when she looks up at me and, through glassy eyes, says: “I can’t swim in the deep end like the other children and it’s all your fault, Daddy.”
I didn’t need to hug her quite so much after that.
It was those damn swimming goggles. Both cure and curse, those swimming goggles made my little girl swim. With Daddy’s guidance and little girl’s bravery, she dived under the water one day, instincts kicked in and she returned to the womb. In utero, as it were, she can swim.
Without her goggles, her underwater fears return. She cannot swim above water. Ergo, she cannot swim. She cannot swim during her first school preliminary swimming test.
“You forgot my goggles, Daddy,” she mutters, through tears and a startling amount of snot.
Daddy knows he must salvage the situation, take the bull by its masculine horns and come to the rescue of his insecure little girl; say something sensible, say something inspiring, say anything.
“I didn’t forget your goggles,” I whisper, rubbing her back gently. “Your mother did.”
Her eyes tell me that was not the answer she was after. She craves inspiration, not puerile point-scoring between parents.
But these are the moments I fear most: the missteps, the mistakes, the misfortunes. In many respects, milestones are straightforward. We applaud them, record them and cherish them. Compliments come easy, or at least they should. They make the heart soar all by itself.
My daughter’s eyes make my heart sink faster than her little panic-stricken body each time I try to ease her into the deep end. They betray defeat; not just fear, that’s a given, but fear and defeat. My girl knows that she’s not quite up to the task yet, but her friends are.
Parenting textbooks will try to tell me otherwise, but she fully grasps insecurity and inferiority. Her eyes always betray her to Daddy.
So we get scared together. I ease her into the water. She is still crying. I have pretty much bumped fellow parent volunteer out of the pool, all sense of decorum long gone. My girl insists she cannot swim above water, not in the deep end, not without her goggles – her damn goggles – but I answer every fearful fret with a smile.
I crouch in front of her in the pool, we lock eyes and we take off. She flaps and flounders. She cannot get from one side to the other unaided, or stop crying, but we complete the tiny width of the pool and the longest 30 seconds of my life.
We finish last, obviously, but we overcome the sense of inferiority, for now at least. She does not have to win, but her old Dad will never let her feel like a loser.
“You see, you did it,” I cry, unable to hide my relief. “You’ll just get better and better now.”
“Yeah, I know,” she sniffs. “But only if you bring my goggles.”
About the Author: Neil Humphreys is one of Singapore’s best-selling authors. His works include Notes from an Even Smaller Island (2001), Scribbles from the Same Island (2003), and Final Notes from a Great Island: A Farewell Tour of Singapore (2006). Be My Baby (2008) chronicled his journey to parenthood and was his first international best-seller. His latest Singapore book, Return to a Sexy Island, is a No.1 national best-seller. Humphreys has written extensively for The Straits Times, TODAY, The New Paper, Men’s Health and Young Parents in Singapore. He currently lives in Bedok with his family and hopes his daughter will learn conversational Mandarin so she can teach her Dad.
First published in 02-01-2013.