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Swimming Lessons for Baby Shark

Shark in the bathtub, Ottawa, April 2018

On a quiet Sunday last fall, my in-laws decided that Feng and I had failed at parenting again. The situation was serious—at the ripe old age of 5, Mark couldn’t swim. Never mind the opportunity to enjoy water-based activities in Ottawa is pretty rare, he clearly had to learn this valuable skill as soon as possible, and we had to act fast—or at least that’s what a sheepish Feng claimed when he came home that evening with Mark, two Tupperware of homemade Chinese dumplings (because I also failed as a housewife) and a registration receipt for swimming lessons.

I was a bit annoyed. First, once again, I wasn’t consulted—it’s not like I’m the mother, right? Second, the lessons were every Saturday morning in the community centre next door to my in-laws,’ in their faraway suburb. Saturday is the only moment in the week when I can clean the house—don’t laugh, it’s kind of a priority by then—and I’d rather swim with sharks than spend 30 minutes at the poolside with my in-laws. “But you don’t have to come!” Okay, but the third point—given the opportunity, I was technically the best person to teach Mark to swim and enjoy being in the water. After all, I grew up by the ocean and spent my teens surfing and windsurfing, while the Chinese side of the family is… ahem, aquatically challenged.

But of course, it was too late for yet another what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-your-parents argument. Mark was registered for the fall session and I live by the “choose your battles” motto.

Mark loved the lessons and quickly developed a passion for swimming in pools, which led to endless fights when we were travelling last winter. “I don’t care if the hotel has a pool, we’re going to the beach. Sand. Sea water. We’re in Brazil, for fuck’s sake!” I think Mark could write the Lonely Planet guide to South American hotel pools—he tested them all after spending hours at the beach.

This spring, when I reenrolled at the gym, I saw a flyer for the upcoming spring swimming lessons session. I used the same tactic—I pretty much registered Mark without asking for anyone’s opinion. Hey, I read The Art of War too. It was perfect, I argued. My gym is close to home, it’s very clean and classes were on Fridays at 4:30 p.m.

And this is how I went from being the kid who, two and a half decades ago, was taken to activities to being responsible and fun—for once!—mother taking her child to an activity.

The weekly adventure starts around 4:00 p.m., in the family locker room packed with other kids and mothers. Mark doesn’t want to chat with anyone (“I’m too shy,” he warns me every time) but for some reason, he likes to share random bits of information while taking off his clothes, and I’m always afraid he’s going to choose this precise moment to ask one of the “big” questions. I mean, I already had the “by the way, how did I get out of your belly?” and “are you going to die?” questions a propos of nothing while making dinner. Fortunately, so far, he mostly brags about the amazing new stuff he learned—“piece of cake… it means that something is really easy!” he whispered to my ear last week as if he was sharing classified info.

Then we wait for the swimming instructor, a pretty hot twenty-something dude who looks like he could play in a stoner movie. Other kids usually eat a snack, but Mark would rather play absentmindedly with my belly button ring—(“Can I have one too?”)—and sing this annoying and catchy shark song.

At 4:30 p.m., the kids are taken to the pool and I move to the “café” where I don’t order a protein shake, whatever that is, but nurse a Coke Zero. Parents aren’t allowed at the poolside but I’m just behind the glass window. This is Mark’s time to shine and this is my time as a mother to watch him carefully because, in thirty minutes, I’ll be quizzed—“did you see when I did that?” “Did you see me?”

As soon as I sit down and Mark spots me, I see him mouth “THIS IS MOMMY!” to the other kids, who naturally assume their mommy is here and look disappointed when they see me. Then he gives me a thumbs up, winks and smiles.

And if he doesn’t pay attention, he gets splashed by other kids.

I don’t stare at Mark for the entire lesson because I want him to listen to the instructor instead of trying to impress me. But I remember, as a kid, how proud I was to show my parents skills they hadn’t taught me, and I want to give Mark the attention he deserves. Yes, even if watching kids blowing bubbles in the water is as fascinating as watching a curling game.

Thirty minutes later, we’re back in the locker room. Yes, I saw. I know, you did very well! You forgot to put on your underwear, take your pants off again. Yes, we’ll be back next week. Seriously, where’s your other sock? It’s okay you can’t sink in water, it’s actually a good thing. Do you have everything? Let’s go!

Now my in-laws are dead set on registering for Sunday singing lessons at the local Catholic church (?!).

I’m that close to claiming that Mark is begging for drumming lessons—with them, of course.

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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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