Last weekend my loud little family and I were swimming at my parents’ house. It was a great day, full of splashing, grilling, laughing, and the inevitable anxiety that comes with having 3 kids in the pool at once. My 7-year-old had come a long way over the summer and was swimming like a splashy, awkward fish, so we’d been playing a game where I’d toss a stone into the pool and he’d swim down to retrieve it. I played this all summer long as a kid myself – though, being an only child, the high-fives when I swam up triumphantly were pretty bizarre. He was so excited, you could see his smile through the water before he ever broke the surface. But then I got a little too excited and did the unthinkable: I tossed the stone into the deep end. We all encouraged him and stayed close as he tried, and tried, and tried, then tried some more, but it just wasn’t happening this time. He would stand at the edge of the pool, close his eyes, and pray each time before he threw himself into water almost twice as deep as he is tall. He’d done it before, and having inherited his mother’s stubbornness, he was not willing to give up without trying. And trying. Then trying a few dozen more times.
After more than half an hour, it was just him and I in the deep end. Everyone else had gone on to play and splash, cheering him on from afar. I decided to sneak over and see if I could use my feet to scoot the stone to a friendlier depth, since the water was just a few inches over my own head. But I did not go unnoticed.
“Mommy, can you get it?”
I took swimming lessons as a child, and practically grew gills from all of the time I spent in the water. The Little Mermaid was my favorite movie (WAS?), and I would cross my ankles and pretended my feet were the fins at the end of my glorious mermaid tail. I am a certified SCUBA diver, for goodness sakes! Yet this small task had me frozen. You see, ever since I became a mother almost 9 years ago, I haven’t been swimming. I’d been in the pool, sure, lakes, even the ocean. But I hadn’t been swimming. Head-under-water, hold-your-breath, nothing-beneath-your-feet swimming. Without knowing it, I’d parked myself in the shallow end, holding babies and toddlers, observing eager boys, barking out orders about splashing. I’d hold onto them, show them how to kick behind their bodies, correct their arms, cheer them on, toss them, tickle them, and teach them, but I hadn’t been SWIMMING with them. Of course, there were times when this was absolutely necessary, and I don’t regret the watchful eye I kept over my little tadpoles as they turned into frogs… or some other aquatic animal that’s maybe not so gross. But here I was, a 30-year-old woman with years of swimming experience, and I was pausing before diving.
Part of it – okay most of it – was that I was embarrassed. I didn’t want everyone else to see me go under, for fear that I’d thrash and flail like my kids when they were beginning to swim. I didn’t want to head towards the bottom of the pool, only to come up empty-handed. I didn’t know what I’d look like, didn’t know if I’d fail, didn’t know if my ears would pop or my eyes would burn or my nose would sting. It had been nearly a decade since I’d felt the weightlessness of water, and I was feeling it.
There’s really no way to describe it eloquently, it was over so quickly. I took a breath, dove down, got the rock and popped back up. No biggie. But I did it. People saw me do it, too. And it was no big deal. Well, apart from the mascara streaming down my face and the water that just WOULD NOT stop being in my nose. A minute later, I did it again. I’m sure I didn’t look like Ariel, but I made it to the bottom and back up, and the day went on.
This all seems like a strange story to share, I’m sure. And until I felt God speak to me, the moment would have passed as if it were no different than trying a new food or hearing an old song I liked on the radio. But as I was back in the shallow end, watching the little one jump up and down in three inches of water, I felt the Lord speak to me about how significant it had been. How many other areas of my life had I spent hanging out in the shallow end since becoming a mother?
How many hobbies had I let fall aside? How many opportunities had I passed up? How much of myself had I lost in assuming the identity of a mother? How long had I allowed my relationship with God to consist of me just treading water – or even just calling out and keeping watch from the shallow end as I guided those going deeper than myself? I get it, we’re busy. We’re tired. We’re stretched and pulled and needed and wanted, and we give so much of ourselves to our children that it feels like there isn’t time or energy or money to do anything for ourselves, and a lot of times there isn’t. Friendships can fizzle and pastimes become the past as we devote our lives to raising our kids. When I was preparing to graduate college over nine years ago, I had grand plans, great ideas about my future and bubbling excitement about what I’d do with my hard-earned degree. I was going to devote my life to helping others, I’d dress up for work and have an office where I’d hang my counseling degree, I’d make a DIFFERENCE. Then I saw two lines on a test I took on a whim, and all of those plans dissipated like smoke. My future no longer belonged to just my husband and I. On that morning in March, the same day I was to have my exit interview for graduation, everything changed. I waded to the shallow end.
Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t take my calling as mother lightly. This work we moms do is invaluable, influential, immeasurable, and infinite. I wouldn’t give a thing to change the years I’ve had with my children, and I know that it will impact generations beyond just my own. But in that hard work, in the gravity of the work I’ve been doing, I stayed in the shallow end. I let fatigue keep me from hobbies, let stress keep me from relationships.
If you haven’t heard the song Oceans by Hillsong United, do yourself a favor and go download it. Right now. It’s an incredible worship song, and I absolutely love it, but there are parts of the song that make me uncomfortable to sing. “Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander, and my faith will be made stronger.” Um, can we just hang out over here where it’s safe? Where I can feel solid ground beneath my feet and know that a wave won’t take me down? Where I can breathe as I wish and not take the risk of running out of air? It’s an incredibly perplexing predicament that motherhood puts us in, simultaneously proving God’s goodness in His ability to create life and planting almost crippling anxiety in us at once. I have never been more scared than I am as a mother. Diseases, accidents, bridges, water, fire, side effects, allergies, predators, bills, tornadoes, floods, snakes, spiders, famine, war, inappropriate commercials, Caillou – there’s just so much to be afraid of for our babies. So we devote ourselves to remaining watchful, ever vigilant, observing from the shallow end. We are EXHAUSTED. To our bones. Sickness, nightmares, potty training, school, sports, practices, activities, play dates, doctor appointments, homework, projects, cooking, cleaning, folding, hanging, refereeing, soothing, reprimanding, teaching, guiding, Minecraft – everything takes so much from us and leaves us with nothing left, resting in the shallow end. Personally, I’ve been focused on being a mom for so long that I feel embarrassed and timid about trying to be anything else. Would I still be relevant if I tried to get an interview somewhere? Can I still relate to other people? What WILL I do with myself once the kids are old enough to not need me here? Heck, what will I do with myself once they’re all in school and the house is empty and quiet, devoid of fights to be broken up, books to be read, and dolls to be played with? I’ve reached the age where I watch shows that have been off the air for 10 years and listen to music that I first purchased on a cassette tape. Is there a place for me in this world, or is my time up? What will I look like if I try? What will people think if I fail? What can I possibly have to offer apart from being a mom? So I stay in the shallow end, where I know my place, where I can do my job. The problem with the shallow end is that eventually, everyone outgrows it. Two out of three of my little ones are now in the deep end, and the day will come when the littlest one takes her first brave journey into water she can’t touch bottom in. I can’t stay in the shallow end, more than anything, because that’s not where my Savior is. He’s walking on the deep end, calming the waves, inviting me to trust Him, to join Him.
I urge you, fellow mommies, daddies, friends – don’t stay in the shallow end. There’s a time and a place for it, yes, but don’t forget what it feels like to be completely submerged. Don’t be so nervous and tired that you miss the opportunity to experience the weightlessness of having nothing beneath you, especially when the weight of the world is upon you. The deep end is scary sometimes, it’s more work, it’s a little unknown, you have to hold your breath and you can’t see what’s going on above you – but you can’t have much fun in the shallow end, at least not for very long. Let’s vow to dive in, to find what we loved and forgot, to kick our feet and ruin our hair and find ourselves again. Let’s give faith a chance. Let’s allow God to carry us. Let’s find something we like to do – and do it. Let’s stop being so scared of being someone else that we forget who we actually are. Because the whole time I was underwater, I was still Mom, just much, much better.