Drowning in Expectations

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The kids and I are one day away from completing a two-week swimming lesson “fast track,” designed to teach children how to stay safe in the water. The focus is not on having fun. The last time we took swim lessons was when Sissy was under two, and Daddy K called them singing lessons since we’d spend most of the 30-minute class singing and jumping around. :)  Our current class is an entire hour, and even the singing involves dunking your child under water before flipping them on their back. I think I’m still in a little bit of shock.

After a rough start, Sissy has done amazing. She honestly has blown me away with her progress throughout the two weeks. She spent the first two to three classes screaming her face off, desperately and pitifully calling, “Mama! Maaaa-maaa!” She is in a class on her own with her peers, and the instructors just press right through their tears and keep teaching. Today, my girl jumped in the pool and turned over to float on her back for ten seconds, before flipping back over and swimming to the wall. BY HERSELF. It was amazing. I had a hard time enjoying the moment though, because Bug was practicing his “I’m enraged and you better do something about it” scream at the loudest possible decibel directly into my ear.

It has been a long two weeks for my boy and I. He threw up overnight once from swallowing a lot of water, and caught some sort of bug from sharing the pool with so many friends. Short naps exacerbated the issue, and he now cries, “Out, please, towel, please,” about 5 minutes into our requisite 60. My nerves are shot and my heart is raw and I’ve been spending some time trying to figure out why this has all been so hard.

And I think what it all boils down to is that I’m letting myself be significantly influenced by other people’s expectations. And the funny thing is, I’m not ever exactly sure what these “other people’s expectations” are. They might have absolutely no issue with our time in class, and take Bug’s behavior with a grain of salt. But I feel SO defensive in that water, friends. I think every eye is judging my boy, and worse, my parenting. That he would be acting differently if he just had more discipline at home, or that I am babying him and he will never learn. And I hate to admit that all of these COMPLETELY MADE UP expectations actually made me start to feel resentful toward my own child. My grip on his arm tightened, and my patience tank dropped to absolutely empty. “Just do what the other kids are doing,” I silently pleaded. “Stop crying for the love of all things holy!” I not so silently pleaded. And I felt a swirl of ugly emotions, including, guilt, shame, anger and hostility. Directed at everyone around me and everything within me.

The second we get out of that water, all my boy wants is to be wrapped up in a towel and snuggle on his mama’s lap. With a lollipop. Which I have tried to threaten not to give him if he screams the whole time, but, I mean, he’s not even two. Not this week, anyway. And my boy, he’s incredible. He’s sweet and loving, and when he’s not at swim class, he loves the water. And yet somehow I’ve turned what is supposed to be fun thing for us into a power struggle that makes him think his mama is disappointed in him, angry at him, and possibly even not safe for him. All because I was worried about meeting other people’s expectations. It’s so ridiculous really. I am a grown-up, and I am his mama, and not only am I the one responsible for raising him into a man full of compassion and strength, but I am the person who knows him best. Who cares if they think he will never learn to swim? Who cares if they think I wasted my money? Who cares if they think I have no discipline and let my kid have too many lollipops? Sadly, this week, I did, and it nearly broke us both.

If I could do it all over, we would still stay in the water during swim lessons. And maybe I wouldn’t change that many of my outward actions, but I’d change my heart. I would relax and appreciate the experience for what it was – a hard class for him, but a good introduction into water safety, and learning how to stay afloat in case he falls in. It’s an important lesson here, where we spend a lot of time in or near the water. But it’s not important enough to make me shame my child into conforming to someone else’s expectations. I would spend more time early in the first week praying about and thinking through my goals for the class, and determine what I felt comfortable with. I feel like I let him down this week, but he’s forgiving. Mama is learning, and we’ll get better together.

I think that’s a constant struggle for me in parenthood – this tendency to use shame as a motivator. It is absolutely NOT something I want to do, but it seems to naturally be my go-to in times of anger. I don’t mind my children feeling guilty if they have misbehaved or disobeyed, but I don’t want them to feel ashamed. Last year our community group talked a lot about the difference between shame and guilt. And the idea was that guilt is about something you did and shame is about who you are. I think guilt will lead to repentance, with a chance to apologize and work through the issue, finding alternative solutions. But I think shame leads to hiding, and fear, and a natural armor and defensiveness to correction.

I can only imagine how important this will be to our Boo, who will constantly have other people’s expectations thrust upon him and used as a measuring stick. It’s good that I’m learning now, and working though some hard now, so that all of my children will benefit later.  I’d say, “I can do this!” but the truth is I can’t.  But I know Jesus can, and He won’t let me down, and He won’t let them down, and He will be strong when I am weak.  So thankful for that, especially when it comes to my babies.

I read this somewhere recently, and I think it’s from Hands Free Mama, and I wrote it on a note card and taped it up in my kitchen:

Shame abandons, encouragement believes.

Condemnation paralyzes, compassion frees.

Exasperation quits, patience prevails.

Yelling silences, communication opens up.

Blame hurts, grace heals.

Faultfinding destroys, praise builds.

Rejection loses, unconditional love wins.

I love you just the way you are, exactly as you are.

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Next summer, I’ll make sure it’s laminated and bring it to the pool.

2 thoughts on “Drowning in Expectations

  1. mom says:

    I really think you should start a column in a newspaper. You have such a gift for writing and expressing yourself! Happy to hear the E’s took swimming lessons. Knowing how to swim is so important and such a fun thing to do in the summer!

  2. Before I even finished reading this, Ali, all I could think of when you were describing your struggle was,” This sounds like Special Needs Parent training 101 for sure!” A wise person once told me that God never wastes an experience in our lives and that He weaves it all into our good for His glory. He is preparing you now for what lies ahead as you get closer to becoming Boo’s Mommy! You’re going to do great :)

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