Treading Water: or, The Deep End

This is it, then.  The lovely nutmeat of the summer.  The musty smell of tomatoes pulled from the vine; the scent of sun-baked dirt before the afternoon’s rain storm.  Sweat that teases the hair at the nape of Elder Girleen’s neck into tendrils; the beautiful, enveloping ache of refrigerated air when we finally get the front door unlocked after a morning spent running errands.

It’s just a second’s work:  from heat dense enough to weigh it in your hands to its inverse — such coolness!  Our work-a-day world’s attempt to imitate nature’s best, most magical decanting of summer: that knife-sharp plunge from land into water on the hottest July afternoon.

Lacking large, natural bodies of water around here, our pursuit of that leap, that head-clearing, breath-taking instant leads us to — where else? — the swimming pool.

Which I have written about here, and elsewhere.

The rest of this post could be spent lamenting the fact that Younger Girleen doesn’t seem to have advanced much beyond the class she took two years ago (the evidence, it seems, is right here). Could be spent divulging that if Motherhood were, in fact, a board game, I might’ve earned two points for the lunch packed for the girleens to eat today pool side (perfect isosceles triangles cut from a watermelon so ripe it split itself before the pressure of the knife blade reached it; last night’s left0ver, handmade California rolls) and then lost three more points due to the sad fact that not only had I just plain forgotten to bring with us clothes to change into, I’d gotten us to the pool ten minutes late for a thirty minute lesson.

This post could be all that, but instead, let us examine —


For that topic, subgenre  parents, in particular, has once again hit news stands in a recent New York magazine article titled “All Joy and No Fun:  Why Parents Hate Parenting”.

The article’s entertaining, and brings up many valid points, and in the end says about the same thing we all probably would’ve said before we read it, which is —

Yes, it defies logic, yes, by the standards by which we judge happiness these days it shouldn’t be the case, but all the same, us parents wouldn’t change a thing.

I read the article yesterday, and discussed it with The Husband this morning, and today, as I sat at the side of the pool during the twenty minutes respite swimming lessons gives me (just think — I would have had thirty if I hadn’t been late!) my thoughts kept idly circling back to it.

The pool is such a perfect rectangle; I adore its shimmer, its precise angles, the way that, in order to experience it, we all — always — have to strip down. I was not the only parent who brought their offspring to the lesson late.  All around me, mothers were frantically spritzing their children with sunscreen before sending them off to the side of the pool.  All around me, mothers were conducting business, on their cell phones.

We’re all so earnest these days, aren’t we?  We work — at everything — so hard.

The Summer Fiction issue of the New Yorker was open on my lap — because  I tell myself that as a fiction writer it’s part of my job to know exactly who the 20 writers under 40 are this year that will blow me away.

I am no longer under forty.

I have probably not lived up to my potential.

I don’t necessarily mean I haven’t lived up to my potential professionally, though that might or might not be true.  I suppose what I mean is this:  Wisdom, and possibly the idea of happiness (or unhappiness, as the case may be), might in some part, however glancingly, hinge on the realization that none of us live up to our potential.

Recently, I read a blog post that began:  I’m a great mom, even though I don’t…

And just as recently, someone turned to me and said:  I’m a bad mom, but…

Both these statements, arbitrarily thrown into this topic as they might be, contain within them  the same thing. An ideal, and the recognition that we can’t live up to that ideal (because I can’t help but believe that any woman who says in print I’m a great mom harbors the secret fear that she’s actually not).  Ever.  We have none of us lived up to our potential.

But over there, in the swimming pool, in all those kids awkwardly churning around?

Pure potential.

How can parenthood not be complicated?  How can we not be ambivalent?  Seeing — and experiencing, second hand — our children’s potential gives us such an undeserved second chance.  But at the same time it reminds us each and every day, every single second, of what we — because we have to, that’s what growing up is — no longer have.

I was particularly struck by the following paragraph in that New York article:

More generous government policies, a sounder economy, a less pressured culture that values good rather than perfect kids—all of these would certainly make parents happier. But even under the most favorable circumstances, parenting is an extraordinary activity, in both senses of the word extra: beyond ordinary and especially ordinary. While children deepen your emotional life, they shrink your outer world to the size of a teacup, at least for a while. (“All joy and no fun,” as an old friend with two young kids likes to say.) Lori Leibovich, the executive editor of Babble and the anthologyMaybe Baby, a collection of 28 essays by writers debating whether to have children, says she was particularly struck by the female contributors who’d made the deliberate choice to remain childless. It enabled them to travel or live abroad for their work; to take physical risks; to, in the case of a novelist, inhabit her fictional characters without being pulled away by the demands of a real one. “There was a richness and texture to their work lives that was so, so enviable,” she says. (Leibovich has two children.)

The ability to travel, to live abroad, to take physical risks, to inhabit fictional characters — golly gee, those things sound fun, don’t they? Those things are fun. And guess what,  experiencing them doesn’t often remind us of our inabilities, our lacks, our failure to live up to our potential, because if they do, we just stop doing them.

Parenthood, on the other hand, is with us always.  We can’t decide to quit doing it, the way one might conceivably decide to quit travelling and settle down.

Maybe the next generation will  get it better than we do — that we waste far far too much of our time weighing entirely dissimilar things on a single scale.


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