My mother gave me a gift in teaching me to take risks


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My mother curled her toes around the edge of the diving board. Then she jumped. The only trouble was, my mother could not swim. I suppose she thought instinct, or the minor advances she’d made as an adult learner, would be enough to save her. But they weren’t.

She sank fast and hard and the bubbles that formed around her pale, flailing form made it clear she wasn’t going to make it back up on her own. Luckily, a quick-acting bystander dived into that over-chlorinated pool and pulled her back to the edge before the lifeguard even knew what was happening. My mother surfaced, rattled and gasping. But she was okay.

Afterward, the entire neighbourhood-pool crowd gathered around my family. Nobody there knew that my mother had jumped despite the fact she was a terribly weak swimmer. Surely, if they’d known, they would have scowled and asked: Why on earth would anyone do that? And if they had, I would’ve raised my hand. Because I knew I was the reason.

At 10 years old, I was too afraid of the high dive even to climb its cold, metal ladder. So my mother had done it instead. I think she was trying to show me that, if she could jump off that board, anyone could. Maybe, if she had happily swam back to the side of the pool, that would have been the day’s simple lesson. But, as it was, I walked away with a sentiment larger and more enduring, one strong enough to override the traumatizing aspects of the situation.

That day, my mother showed me that challenging oneself was an integral part of not only living, but of loving. She taught me that motherhood – fraught with challenges of all size and rank – can make you shy away from your own life, or it can embolden you to embrace it more fully.

Years after the dramatic incident, she told me she’d jumped off the high dive because she wanted to raise me to be braver than she was. Now, as grandmother to my 7-year-old son, she says she wishes she’d been more careful about making the effort. Because I’ve grown into the sort of daughter who chases tornadoes and paddles down rivers against government warnings. And that’s just been since my son was born.

I was a travel writer long before becoming a mother, and instead of stepping back when I became a parent, I actually started pushing myself harder. On the day my mother almost drowned, she went beyond her abilities – beyond what was reasonable – to show me that risk isn’t necessarily something to avoid. My soft-spoken, self-described timid mother had challenged herself – at great risk and public embarrassment – to show me that fear did not have to be my life’s driving force. It might be an emotion beyond my control. But shirking from intimidation would be a choice.

My father taught me how to swim. But it was my mother who showed me that it was okay to try the deep end, even if I spectacularly failed and required help – from family, friends, maybe even bystanders. Because of this, I’ve been able to endure the disappointments of a profession that brings as much rejection as acceptance. And when given the opportunity to undertake far-fetched adventures – ones that seem to run against the social norm of acceptability in the hyper-sensitive world of motherhood – I’m often, though not always, able to summon enough courage to jump.

I agree to explore the active volcano, swim with the sharks, drive the reindeer sledge. I risk sinking to give myself the chance to swim. I do these things to expand the real and imagined boundaries of my life. I do them because my son is watching.

The Washington Post

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