A Mother’s Reflections on Finding Joy in a Daughter’s Desire to Soar
My daughter swims. She swims in bracingly cold water, in the ocean when she’s here, but mostly in rivers and lakes in Britain. She glides through looking-glass surfaces and emerges renewed and invigorated. Often, she is with a friend, and they will sit on the shore afterward, having a beer, then ride their bicycles back home to continue being moms and wives and working women. But they have these watery spaces in time that are theirs entirely, and among the many things about my daughter that make me proud, this, oddly, is a big one. I just think there is something defiant and magnificent about it.
My son-in-law wonders if I am impressed by it mostly because I myself cannot swim — it’s a skill I have never achieved, and an experience I can never know, so maybe I make more of it than I should. But this cold, wild swimming goes deeper than that. It’s indicative of a kind of spirit, I think.
My daughter, modest as always, declares that her proclivity for entering water is completely unsurprising. “Unlike you, Mom,” she explains, “I grew up in California with a father who taught me early on to pack a swimsuit no matter where we were going, and that getting into the water is a fundamental part of experiencing the world.”
It’s true. I had none of that. And maybe my joy about Miranda’s swimming is simply the joy of knowing she has transcended me. And isn’t that what we want for our kids? She is good at so many things that I cannot do, and although she is a complicated and sometimes difficult person, she is a strong and accomplished one. I see that I have not replicated the dysfunction of my own upbringing with her or continued the heavy legacy of sorrows that might keep someone from floating, and that brings me a kind of emotional buoyancy.
I recently came upon an article about the late writer and environmentalist Roger Deakin, a proponent of a pursuit known as wild swimming. He’d had enough of swimming laps in pools. “I wanted to follow the rain on its meanderings about our land to rejoin the sea,” he wrote, and he began swimming through the natural waterways of Britain, “getting under the skin of things, of learning something new.” In his book, Waterlog, he wrote eloquently about the element of water, and the transformations it affects upon the psyche: “When you enter the water, something, like a metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking glass surface and enter a new world in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.”
I wondered if my daughter might have been influenced by Deakin. One day, I asked her, “Are you one of these wild swimmers?”
Miranda had certainly read Deakin’s work and was familiar with his ideas, but her swimming is a private endeavor. She explained that wild swimming is a movement whose roots are political — a lot of it was about access to waterways, and environmental concerns like blatant dumping and pollution. She’s all for clean waterways, of course. But the movement became performative, competitive, even obsessive, and spawned a veritable industry. Her cold dips are cleansing on a more personal level. It’s just a thing she loves and enjoys.
“I grew up outdoors near water and mountains,” she says. She is a Gaviota girl, after all. But she finds kindred spirits elsewhere, everywhere. She and her friend Nell sometimes get together after their little sons are bathed and tucked in. “We go to the river, have a swim, have a beer, and go home,” she says –– and the river she is referring to is the Thames. “We went to Snowdonia in February,” she continues, “and there we were, two women swimming in a lake in the middle of winter, but the few people who saw us expressed only envy. They didn’t think it was weird at all.”
Long ago, in her early teens, Miranda made the following announcement, specifically geared to me, a mother who loomed large and who perhaps at times presented hopes and expectations based more upon my own inclinations than hers. She stated it unequivocally: “You. Me. Two. Different. People.”
And she’s consistently proven it true. Nevertheless, I cannot help but view her with some proprietary pride, through a mother’s foggy goggles. Maybe Miranda’s cold, wild swimming isn’t amazing to anyone but me. But maybe my daughter is my looking glass. In her, I see a little of what was best in me, or lost in me, but found in her. And maybe, more likely, I overthink all of it, and it’s just a beautiful thing, its own little poem, these feisty young women finding joy in swimming, dripping wet and laughing before they pedal home.