One of the things that no one warns you about when you have children is that one day you will find yourself sitting with a sweat-soaked back beside an over-chlorinated swimming pool watching your beloved son bash a fellow bather with a float – at your expense.
And yes, several lifetimes ago it may have been pleasant to splash and sing ring-a-ring-a-roses with my new baby, but now, six years on, the pool experience has lost its lustre. Or in my case, gained it since I rarely last five minutes in the changing rooms before turning the kind of shiny puce that makes people reach for the nearest defibrillator.
I’ll be honest, in an ideal world I wouldn’t barricade myself into a windowless cell with my three children, strip them to their pants and then attempt to pull a balloon over their heads. I probably wouldn’t choose to follow that up by sitting in an inhumanely hot room wiping sweat from my eyes while gesturing wildly at my ear and mouthing “LISTEN” as my son attempts backstroke while the rest of the class is practicing log turns.
But hey ho, that’s the sacrifice a swimming mum makes. A sacrifice which I’m convinced actually takes years off your life. (No hard evidence yet, I’m currently amassing proof.)
Of course, this is the one activity that my children have always been enthusiastic about. Last week I had to bribe them to go to the park on a sunny day, but where swimming lessons are concerned, no amount of snow, illness or maternal feet dragging will stand in their way.
I admit that much of the stress is self-imposed. Knowing that only a 20mm plastic partition separates us from half the children’s school peers and their parents does put something of a straightjacket on my usual parenting techniques. And with shouting, threats and crying ruled out, frankly, where’s left to go? (Actually, hissing can work, but not for long.)
The children, naturally, are attune to this slight relaxation in the norm and seize on it mercilessly. As soon as we enter our family cubicle, Harry, six, throws himself on the baby changer and lies there legs akimbo. This serves two purposes – it infuriates Alec and Kit, four, and puts him in a perfect position to aim sneaky kicks when I’m not looking. Plus when he gets bored he can use this as a step to launch himself at the top of the cubicle and look into the one next door. Usually all he can see is Alec or Kit who are peering up from under the same partition. Occasionally they get a more interesting view.
While Harry is being a baby, I get the twins into their swimming gear, wrestle on their wretched hats, retrieve items of clothing from the tops of doors, fend off goggle snapping, take them to the first of approximately 25 toilet stops and steer them to their class. Alec and Kit then spend half an hour fighting and hugging on the side of the pool, interspersed with some light floating and splashing.
Harry and I watch their performance before returning to the cubicle (via the toilets), getting Alec and Kit dressed again while Harry prepares for his class. At this point snacks are consumed (my secret and only weapon). Harry then has his lesson while I read to Alec and Kit in a bid to prevent them from throwing themselves in the water or trapping limbs down the plastic collapsible pool-side seats. I glance up only when I hear the instructor bellow, “put that float down!” and make appropriate hand gestures to a baffled Harry.
In between all this I speculate endlessly about when I can give up the lessons. I haven’t established a hard and fast rule here, but the bar has been mentally lowered over the years. Initially I felt once the boys had got a strong swimming technique I could retire from the scene, now I shall back out once they can all do a width with armbands, or possibly paddling a raft.
Except that obviously I won’t. Like every other harassed and overheated poolside parent guilt keeps me rooted to my damp chair. Children must be able to swim, that’s a given. Mine will be no different – even if their progress does make Neanderthal man’s mastering of table manners look like an overnight sensation.
Until that joyful day, I’ll keep the snack box topped up, perfect my silent disciplinary technique (which involves holding up pictures of beloved toys and drawing a finger menacingly across my throat) and crucially, keep my very own buoyancy aid to hand. Well, one of us needs to stay afloat.