On Monday and Wednesday afternoons we have swim lessons.
(Well, my older two have swim lessons and my 16-month-old strengthens her immune system by putting disgusting things in her mouth while sitting in Puddles of Unknown Origin, fully clothed, by the side of a very busy indoor pool.)
Twice each week we pull into the parking lot of the athletic club at 3:45pm and exit the minivan as a foursome: six-year-old girl, four-year-old boy, 16-month-old
hellion toddler in a stroller, and me: mama running on too little sleep.
The eight minutes that follow happen like this.
If we’re lucky enough to get a choice parking spot, we don’t have to walk through the crowded lot, where drivers seem to be already mentally on the treadmill: moving fast and thinking about other things. Instead, we have a straight shot of sidewalk between the car and the first of several doors between us and the pool.
What would take an average adult about 45 seconds takes our pack of wild things upwards of 3 minutes – IF we stay on task. There are curbs to balance on, bike racks to straddle, and toddlers who also want to balance on curbs and straddle bike racks to reason with.
The only thing motivating enough to get us into the building is a metal post just outside the exterior doors with a button that automatically opens one of the doors for people needing extra assistance (if I do not qualify as needing extra assistance at this point, who does?).
The big kids race to the button. The older one wins. The younger one whines because he didn’t win. They discuss whose turn it is to push the button. They decide to push the button at the exact same time. They count to three and bang it forcefully, staring expectantly at the doors. Nothing happens. They discuss again who should be able to push the button. They try again. One of the doors begins to open automatically, but slowly. They race to the door and stand in front of it as it creeps open, blocking the entrance to the building entirely. When the door is open enough to scoot through, they do, and I wait on the other side until there is room for me and the stroller.
(During all of this, gym-goers silently size us up and offer anything from an understanding smile to a forced look of feigned patience as they navigate around my children. About one in ten people will stop and wait while the kids “help” open the door, a decision they immediately regret when they realize we are a hopeless band of slowgoers that threaten to take many minutes off their intended workout time. Save yourself! Go on ahead! I tell them telepathically. It’s best for everyone.)
We have now spent about a minute and a half going through the front door, and do you know where we are? In the entryway vestibule. Looking at another door. With – yes! – another automatic-open button beside it for people who are unable to pass through unassisted (which, Lord knows, we are not).
The process repeats in the vestibule, only with more inconvenienced gym-goers and less patience on my part because where there are two exterior doors to the building (one of which we just spent upwards of 90 seconds blocking in dramatic fashion), this door is the only one through which worker-outers may pass. The kids maintain an uncanny inability to figure out who should pass through a door first: one of them, the other of them, the stroller, a poor hapless bystander, or no one at all.
After more awkward door blocking (them) and cruise-ship-directing/profuse-apologizing (me), we’re IN. We sign in as people gratefully scoot around us toward their child-free locker rooms and waiting ellipticals. At this point the kids realize they are inside and do that bizarre thing where they dart off in separate directions and then stop suddenly for no reason, and I herd them toward the next door.
The next door, you guys. There’s another door. It leads to the Family Changing Room.
Good news! No automatic-open button to fight over. Bad news, though. The door is heavy. And they want to open it themselves. Together. At the same time. And then hold it for me and anyone else who needs to pass through. Only they can’t quite get it open, so I have to reach around the stroller to help. And then they can’t quite hold it open wide enough for me to pass through. And then they decide midway through to stop holding it all together and abandon me mid-doorway.
We make it in to the changing room and have only one objective while there: get two towels from the shelf (I dressed them in swimsuits at home because HELLO). Straightforward though it sounds, there is the complicated choice from 65 identical white towels to make, and the important draping of the towel over one’s neck, and the accidental dragging of the towel through puddles on the floor, which may result in the procurement of a replacement towel.
But don’t worry, because there’s another door at the end of the changing room.You knew this was coming, right? We left our car seven minutes agoand we haven’t seen the pool yet. It took less time to drive from our house to the gym than it has to walk from the car to the pool.
This door is heavy, too. And the door handle is unnaturally high – for safety reasons, I’m sure, but also because it’s clear by this point that no one at the fitness center actually WANTS anyone to make it to the pool where things like FUN and LESSONS happen). That means only the six-year-old can help open it, and barely. But oh, she tries. And I wait and we block the door, though blessedly we are now among our own people: other moms with strollers and kids and a pained look behind their tired eyes.
And then, just like that, it’s over. We’re inside the aquatic area, with just a couple hundred feet of wet tile to slosh through before lessons begin. They run, and I ask them not to. They kick off their flip flops in sixteen directions (hard, since it’s only four shoes), and I collect them. They wait patiently while I adjust their goggles and splash happily to their respective lanes. And then they swim and I baby-wrangle for 25 minutes, after which we repeat the whole process in reverse, only wetter and hungrier.
Eight minutes from the car to the pool. Eight, give or take, back again. Sixteen minutes twice a week, for a total of 32 minutes each week. And I’ve been thinking about them all wrong.
For two months I dreaded this walk. I fought it. I huffed and rolled my eyes and apologized to strangers for my dawdling children. I let the tension rise with every door we took 47 years to get through and every person we nearly bumped with the stroller. I wore the mantle of a mother burdened by her lot. And you know what? It worked. People felt sorry for me. They said things like “wow, you’ve got your hands full!”. They accepted my apologies and tossed scraps of grace and patience my way.
But the thing is, my attitude was more ;habit and less a reflection of how my day was actually going. I got it in my head that this whole ordeal was annoying and frustrating and I let my emotional auto-pilot to take over. And once I did, the people around me responded in kind. I acted like a stressed-out mom and they treated me like one.
Sure, some days are frazzled. Sometimes I really do lose my patience and Grumpy Mom makes an appearance. And it’s no more productive to beat myself up for that than it is to expect my small children to walk through doorways like mini-adults. But to default to Grumpy Mom twice a week at 3:45pm for eight minutes, purely out of habit? I realized it was silly – and that it was within my control.
So a few weeks ago, I changed my mind about the walk to the pool. I reminded myself that the kids weren’t misbehaving, that we were not in a hurry, and that no one’s life or day or workout was worse off for our inefficient journey. I stopped apologizing (unless we actually bumped into someone, of course). I stopped searching the eyes of strangers for sympathy. I stopped wanting sympathy.
And guess what? The doors don’t open any easier. The kids have made no progress toward being able to walk in a straight line. The handle on that last door is still too high for my preschooler to reach, and sometimes he’s still bummed about it. But I have a half hour every week that doesn’t suck anymore. My kids have two hours less Grumpy Mom each month. We’ve gained back an entire 24-hour day over the course of the year.
And that’s something, isn’t it?