The Fraternity of Swimming Dads
“Okkkaaaayyyyyyy……..almost ready” I say to no one in particular.
I have completely dressed my son for our Saturday morning swimming lesson at a local YMCA. Like most Dads, I am completely into efficiency, and he is ready to go. His bathing suit is already on. He is also bedecked with sweatpants, T-shirt, and sweatshirt. I mirror his wardrobe and have done the same: bathing suit, T-shirt, sweatpants, sweatshirt, baseball cap, and sneakers. I have learned how important it is to create these shortcuts. This way, we arrive at the YMCA, strip off this attire, and enter the swim lesson ready to go. Getting dressed after the swim lesson will be an entirely different affair.
“Okkkayyyyy……let’s go” I say again to no one in particular. Although Jen is in the kitchen, she is already familiar with this routine, knowing that this external monologue through this morning routine keeps me in a good place. She has offered countless times to go with me, or even to do it on her own. But this is a ritual I enjoy with Vaughn solo, and guard it with enthusiasm. As a working Dad, there are so few one-on-one events that I can do exclusively with him, and to be honest, it’s very easy and one I actually enjoy. I won’t even make the pretense that I’m doing Jen a favor, or leverage this as a “sacrifice” to my personal weekend time. It is mid-March, so a Saturday morning swim lesson breaks up the monotony of the grey season. Plus, it validates me as a Dad. Private one-on-one time doing something we both enjoy – it’s really not that difficult.
“Okkkaayyy…… we’re off”. I kiss Jen and take Vaughn by the hand. He climbs into the booster seat in our Santa Fe. The drive down is 20 minutes, perilously long enough for Vaughn to take an unanticipated nap. The sky is gray, with light raindrops hitting the windshield. As I put the windshield wipers on, the rhythmic back and forth of the wipers may lull Vaughn to sleep. I can’t blame him, but I really don’t want this. Any Dad will tell you there’s nothing worse than waking your child up for a physical activity. Really –what boy wants to wake up from a warm car, only to be thrown into a lukewarm warm pool ten minutes later? I pop in Vaughn’s favorite CD – Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits, and play his favorite song – My Cherie Amour. If I sing loudly enough and occasionally talk to Vaughn, it may be just enough to keep him awake.
“Are you looking forward to your lesson?” I say to the rear view mirror, “I know I am”
“Yeeaaahhhhhh….” Vaughn says robotically, gazing out the side window.
In addition to some private Daddy / son time, I like the idea of the lesson giving Vaughn some exercise. We built a pool in our backyard the prior summer and he is a natural swimmer. The swim lessons will prep him for a summer in our backyard pool, and remove some of the natural anxiety I feel owning a pool with a small child. Just last summer, we heard of a drowning death in Fall River with a girl who was close to Vaughn’s age. According to the local news broadcast, she slipped under soundlessly in an inground pool when no one was looking, and then it was too late. On camera, the girl’s aunt tearfully confessed how quickly, how silently it occurred, as she and her family enjoyed a typical summer barbecue poolside. I count my blessings that we have an above ground pool, with a ladder that has a protective shield when we don’t use it. No such accident will ever occur in my pool. I am ever vigilant with the shield. The irony isn’t lost on me, given that I would never allow Vaughn out of my sight should we be in the backyard for any reason.
We pull into the parking lot. Vaughn isn’t asleep, but his eyes are in a non-fixed stupor, clearly drifting with his own thoughts. I take him by the hand - we walk past the front desk and into the locker room. I see some familiar faces in there, as this is the fourth week of the lesson. There are two Dads in particular I recognize. We have never made formal introductions, other than a quick nod and hello. Our young sons consume all of our attention. Nonetheless, there is a comfort and camaraderie with these Dads. It’s a bit of a mirror for me to see them with their own sons, the conversations so similar.
Vaughn and I walk out to the pool. Although the lesson hasn’t officially started, there are about 5 kids with their moms and dads splashing about the pool. We have timed this perfectly, arriving about one minute before the lesson, and the teenage instructor is ready to slip into the water herself.
The class begins as it always does, with a song. The parents are instructed to sing along, and perch their hands under their child’s back, allowing the kids to float and get some practice kicking. We progress to a new song, with the same basic concept – only positioning our hand underneath their belly, allowing them to both kick and practice keeping their neck above water.
There are more songs and more practice exercises. With this being the fourth week, there is some predictability to the lesson, allowing the children to flow from one activity to the next. Our favorite is where the parents are asked to throw a plastic ring to a remote area of the pool, and the children are told to chase after it. The parents are instructed to provide as minimal support as possible, only giving it as needed. I love this activity, as all the children are playing a simultaneous game of chase, their faces lit up with excitement and tenacity. I feel a surge of pride as I feel how little Vaughn needs my help -- he doggy paddles across the pool to retrieve his purple ring, his arms and legs thrashing with excitement.
The lesson flies by quickly and soon all parents and kids are poolside, toweling off. Vaughn and I make our way to the locker room and shower together, rinsing the chlorine out of our hair. At this stage, he is typically very clingy, burying his face into my shoulder, fearful of the shower nozzle and its spray getting into his eyes. I hold him the whole time and angle the nozzle in such a way that he merely tips his head back, while I do all the work. The other two Dads and sons are in there with me as well, and we pepper the post-lesson with occasional small talk: the weather, the Patriots, any changes we saw in today’s lesson.
Soon, Vaughn and I retreat to the lockers to get dressed. I try to undress first, but he is shivering so much that I get him into his sweats as soon as possible.
As I scoop up his sweatpants, he exclaims loudly “Oh Daddy, you have a really big penis!…”
I freeze. Everyone in the locker room hears it, and there are muffles of laughter in every corner. I feel the blood rush to my face and neck. “Yes, Vaughn…….yes, let’s get dressed”.
“Ohhhh, kids….they have no filter.........” says one of the Dads.
‘Yep, sounds like something my son would say…..” says another.
I appreciate the comments, knowing it’s their way of minimizing my embarrassment. Strangely, although I am self-conscious, I know that I am around men who “get it”. There’s a feeling of fraternity in the locker room. The comments underscore the commonality between all fathers. This isn’t a place for judgement. We’ve all been through various trials with our children: the meltdowns at supermarkets, projectile vomiting in our face, and yes – those unexpected comments that stop you dead in your tracks.
As we make our way out, one of the two Dads I know follows us to the exit. I zip up Vaughn’s jacket in the vestibule, he slaps me on the back. “Until next week Paul…….” he says.
“Sure, until next week, Rob” I say spinning around, looking over my shoulder. I smile naturally as I say it.
Vaughn and I climb into the car. I can’t wait to get home, can’t wait to tell Jen of the incident in the locker room. She’ll understand and we’ll have a good laugh about it. S he’ll even recount one of her own stories and we’ll revel in the past embarrassment we felt. This is a rite of passage for all Dads – the outrageous comment your child declares in front of a group of strangers, and your ability to laugh through your embarrassment.