‘Come on, Mum,’ my daughter Rebecca moaned. ‘Just do it.’
‘All right, I’m going, I’m going,’ I said.
As I slipped into the sparkling, blue Caribbean water, a wave knocked me back towards Rebecca who’d followed me in. I hung onto the side of the boat as my feet grappled in the sand to find their footing.
I felt silly. I couldn’t swim. The fear of being underwater was my biggest phobia. People all around me were having fun, snorkelling with these huge stingrays.
One touched my leg as it glided past. I grabbed my daughter’s arm as I screamed in fright.
‘Honestly Mum,’ she said.
‘What? It scared me,’ I said defensively.
I could tell she was annoyed with me, probably embarrassed too. I was remembering all those times I religiously took my girls to swimming lessons; how they’d hated it when they were first learning to swim and I had to encourage them to put their faces in the water. She must have being dying to repay me right at that very moment.
‘You can be such a child at times,’ she said to me, as the waves knocked us about.
Well, maybe I was and perhaps I should have found the time to have lessons myself, although putting my head underwater in the bath would have been difficult considering my size. I never had the time. I’d always been too busy with the children, attending to their needs. Anyway the lessons had worked for them; they were all excellent swimmers, especially Rebecca.
Now here she was, out in the middle of the Carribean, standing on the beautiful seabed, trying to teach her mother how to snorkel. We were on a cruise ship, on our way to Jamaica, and Rebecca had decided we’d go snorkelling at Stingray City.
Back home in Australia, Rebecca’s best friend Tanya had fallen
and broken her collar bone. They’d planned for months, organizing
every detail of this trip together. Now that Tanya wasn’t able to
go they’d asked me to take her place.
This was my first overseas trip and my first ever cruise. We’d always been the battlers in the family, never having had enough money to do the things most people did on a regular basis, and now that I was divorced money was even tighter.
Rebecca had landed a job working for Ansett Australia and had done quite a bit of traveling herself. She was always scouring the net looking for new locations. I have two other daughters and promised myself when they were older I’d go on some of the wonderful deals that they offered.
I was thrilled to be spending so much time with Rebecca and was hoping this wasn’t going to make her regret bringing me along.
‘Mum, it’s easy,’ she said. ‘Just put your head down and breathe through your mouth.’
I looked around to make sure no one was watching us. They weren’t.
No one was interested in what we were doing, they were all having fun.
I looked back at Rebecca. She raised her eyes skyward, showing her frustration.
‘Come on,’ she said.
Steeling myself, with butterflies fluttering about my stomach, I tried but came up spluttering. As soon as the mask hit the water I’d gulp in fright and swallow a mouthful of salty water.
I must have been mad to let her talk me into this one. Here I was, a forty-five year old woman, wearing a life jacket so I could float, trying to learn to snorkel. How embarrassing! No one else had a problem. They were swimming and diving, stroking these beautiful sea creatures.
‘Honestly Mum,’ Rebecca said. ‘If you’re not
going to try properly I’m getting out.’
‘I’m trying, I am. I just can’t get it,’ I said.
‘Just practice like this,’ she said, breathing in and out
of her snorkel.
I did as she said. It worked. Out of the water I had no problem now all I had to do was master it underneath.
I tried many times to put my face in the water but every time I did, instead of breathing out, I’d breathe in and come up spluttering. Rebecca was getting more annoyed and I knew she was just about ready to give up on me. Determined, I thought I’d give it one last go.
All of a sudden I succeeded and from then on I was addicted. It was fantastic. I couldn’t believe I was doing it. Staring down through the mask I watched in amazement as these huge stingrays swam all over the place, moving hypnotically through the water. To be able to see them like this, in their own environment was unbelievable.
Hesitantly, I touched one and then another. It was as though they didn’t even notice. They just went on swimming. I could hear my breathing through the snorkel and was thrilled at how easy it was, now that I knew how. I didn’t want to get out of the water. I just wanted to keep on floating, listening to my breathing and touching these amazing animals.
To think of all the years I’d wasted being frightened of the water. To find so much joy in something so simple.
I forgot about Rebecca and everything else around me. I was weightless, my arms and legs dangling as I stayed afloat with the life jacket. The peacefulness enveloped me and it was as though the water and I were one. It seemed like I’d only been in a short time, but apparently we’d had already stayed longer than intended. Something in my sub-conscience was tugging at me. I heard the pealing of the bell and knew that I’d have to come out now.
Reluctantly I stood up, looking around for my daughter. She was standing on deck with the video camera in her hand. She was smiling, just like I would have been smiling at her when she was little and had achieved something she hadn’t done before.
How different our roles were – or were they? It didn’t matter how old you were; if you overcame one of your phobias it was a wonderful feat.
She hugged me after I’d handed back the equipment, giving me a towel to dry myself off. I looked at her and we both smiled. I loved her so much at that moment and knew instinctively that she was as proud of me as I am of her.
Smirking, I said, ‘Guess what I want for Christmas?’
‘A snorkel set so you can practice in the bath?’
I nodded and we both started laughing.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem