The other evening when I returned home from the pool, glowing and singing to myself, my husband admitted that he's occasionally wondered if I'm having an affair.
Swimming is, indeed, much more than exercise for me. The mindless, repetitive laps and deep, rhythmic breathing relax my chattering mind and center me the way staring at a candle flame calms a meditator. When I get to the pool, my head is dizzy with daily dross and family concerns: how to counsel my sons, when to visit far-flung relatives, where to go for vacation. An hour later, my swim complete, I feel calmed and empowered; decisions have been made, perspective has been gained. Endorphins flow through me like an elixir.
I started swimming regularly before I became a mother, but though harder to arrange, it became even more necessary after my children were born. I discovered that swimming complemented and improved every phase of motherhood. When I was pregnant and feeling increasingly whalelike on land, the pool made me feel weightless. Soon the pool became my solitary escape as a weary nursing mother. Sometimes I'd persuade my husband to sit poolside, holding our infant Nate in his arms. I'd nurse the baby and then duck into the water, depleted; by the time I emerged, Nate would be ready to feed again and I would be magically revitalized by my water therapy and once more ready to nurture him.
During those first years, after what seemed like an endless day of childcare with no sitter in sight, I'd plead with a friend to bring her toddler to the pool and we'd take turns swimming laps and watching each other's kids. When the boys were preschoolers, I'd round up a poolside teenager to look after them for a few dollars, then plunk them all down with popsicles and swim feverishly until the treats melted and they wanted my attention again.
Now that they're school age, they can accompany me and sometimes do. But my sons remain more land animals -- soccer, baseball, and basketball players -- than water babies, and swimming thankfully remains a way to be alone. The flickers of guilt I've occasionally felt for leaving them to take a swim are snuffed out by the knowledge that I'm able to be a better, happier, and calmer mother when I return to them.
Of course, my boys are number one in my life, and I sustain my devotion to them by taking a daily breather. As parents, don't we all need a time for ourselves -- when we're blissfully unreachable and unable to answer phones, drive a carpool, find lost homework, or rustle up a snack? So no matter how many pressures crowd in on me, I'm religious about finding the hour it takes for a swim. Even if I'm not in the mood, I push myself to go. Swimming provides the decompression between my two lives, gives me that personal oasis before I return to my loved ones. And it provides a vital message to my children: that their mom takes care of herself in order to care for them.
I've read that the best fit for a lifelong sport is one that matches your temperament. Swimming is that for me: contemplative, meditative, sweat-free. So when my husband wonders if I'm having an affair, perhaps he's on to something. Like a romantic rendezvous, swimming is private and a change from my rushed routine. It's a time in the day that's just for me.