Over the last two weeks we were mostly on the road visiting my parents. They’re living the retirement dream on a lake with a dock, a boat, and a jetski, and it means that whenever we visit them water plays a large role in whatever we do. For me this is great. I love swimming and water skiing and messing around on the jetski. I’ve done those things for over half my life. For the kids it’s a more fraught proposition, as we are constantly having to balance what different adults – me, Ava, my parents – want them to do and what they’re capable of enjoying. They’ve had a gradual introduction first to the dock then the next year to the boat and last year to the jetski. This year it was time to go all in. We strapped lifevests on them both and let them hop into the water to swim around with relative freedom. And they loved it. In fact, they could not get enough of the water. We had to drag them out each day to get food into them. We spent almost four full days at my parents and never got into our cars to go anywhere. Every time we asked either child what they wanted to do the answer was, “Swim in the lake.”
I wasn’t surprised that they liked it. It just caught me off guard how much they did. I guess I’d forgotten how much fun it is to splash and jump and paddle and kick and bob in the water. Polly in particular was giddy. She would bob up and down and do circles in the water over and over again. She blew bubbles and dunked her face. She practiced her doggie-paddle and even stretched her arms out for a couple strokes of freestyle.
I’d been a bit worried coming into the summer about getting them both into swim lessons because we had not had much water time last year and being 6 and 8 years old the window for getting comfortable in the water is wide open. It turns out that all we needed was a full week of hot weather and a body of water close at hand. By the end of our visit with my folks – which included a three day jaunt down to the glorious beaches of South Carolina – Pip was jumping in deep water and treading with the calm of one who knows he can keep his head above the surface and Polly was leaping from the wall and willingly letting her head go underwater before I caught her. They were both experimenting with what they could do, inching along a little further without us having to push or cajole. It was the kind of learning one hopes for, the kind of learning that really sticks, perhaps the only kind of learning that really works in the end.
The one non-water related event of interest for us that came out of our visit to my parents was the opportunity to watch a couple of games of the Womens World Cup. At home our television is not hooked up to any outside source of programming so we don’t have the ability to watch sporting events as they happen or even tape them for later. My folks have both and so we took the opportunity to watch the US-Australia game on tape and the France-Germany game as it happened.
It was hard for me to watch these games and not view them through the lens of the last time I’d really paid attention to women’s soccer: 1999 Women’s World Cup. In 1999 the discourse around women’s soccer was something along the lines of, “Hey, women can play exciting soccer, too.” It was a kind of defensive posture that indicated that this idea was something of a novelty. As we watched the games this past week, I was reminded of this a couple of times when my father – not a caveman but prone to occasionally making a socially dated remark – made a big deal out of one of the German players spitting on the field and then later asked if everyone was wearing shin guards. It was as if he was surprised that what we were watching was a hard-fought athletic endeavor and not some kabuki theater presentation put on for the sake of gender equity.
Now I don’t believe that this was his actually thought process. His words came out of habitual reflex more than intent. And my immediate feelings of defensiveness were just the same. I wasn’t just watching some games. I was purposefully giving my attention to these teams as part of a larger social project. It was politics as much as it was entertainment.
Fortunately, Polly and Pip have no such habits. They haven’t watched enough sports to care whether the players on the field are men or women. They don’t hear the title “Women’s World Cup” and think of that as some lesser version of the “real” World Cup. They got to watch the games and enjoy them for the entertainment they are and not the politics they represent. They got to watch France play Germany and get attached to their attacking style and feel crushed when the final French shooter missed her penalty kick all without the baggage of wondering how it compared to a men’s game. They got to cheer when Megan Rapinoe scored that first goal for the United States against Australia and ooh and aah when Hope Solo made a couple of diving saves early on. And while we didn’t watch the final on Sunday night, they’ll get to see highlights of Carli Lloyds spectacular hat-trick and revel in the pure stunning amazement that sports can bring without being bothered by any of the old questions. Frankly, it makes me jealous.