The lifeguard invited Vivvi to join him in the water so she could be tested for her swimming level. She glared at him and gave an almost imperceptible, teen-like shake of her head. He looked at me, and I took a deep breath, storing up all my available inner calm for the half hour to come. This was not going to go well. “Just have her go over there by the pre-beginners,” he said, and disappeared back into the group of red-clad teens who certainly take this job more for the social benefits than for the pleasure of dealing with threenagers who do not want to learn to swim.

I half drag, half lead Vivvi over to a cluster of 20 kids around her tiny size. I tell her to join the sitting kids, the kids whose moms must be so proud. The kids whose moms are chatting happily in the lounge chairs, taking pictures, maybe even reading. I think of the book I brought, which is sitting in my beach bag. This was my mistake, I think. Never bring a book. The universe will conspire against the mom who brings the book.

“Sit by those kids, Vivvi,” I urge.

“I want to do the little waterslide,” she says. The exchange continues over and over for the next 5 minutes. My “join the kids”, followed by her “I want…a toy, to swim, to go by Wally.” A friend is nearby, just outside the water. Her son doesn’t want to swim either, but she is standing so nicely with him, warming him up with a towel. If she is getting as rattled as me, she is not showing it. She’s a nicer mom than me, I think. Her son is responding to her cuddles. He will be swimming soon.

They have managed to separate the 20 kids into groups, and Vivvi has a sweet girl instructor with only 4 other kids. I begin to alternate between bribes (“Join your group, Vivvi. If you join them and do a good job, I’ll give you a sucker at the end”) and threats (“Join your group or I will take away your princess dresses when we get home”). She wades in the water about 5 feet from her group, out of earshot from her teacher’s instructions and looks at me, “I want to swim over here.”

I consider escalating the threats (“Join your group or I will cut your princess dresses to tiny pieces and burn them while you watch!”) As she hovers, refusing to participate, I think, I am doing this wrong. I am not enjoying the mom I am at this moment. I am letting her “swim” and do what she wants. I am letting her turn me into the mom who is standing in the water ankle deep while her daughter does not listen. I am so, so angry. If I let her get away with this, will she do this for the whole two weeks of lessons? Will she refuse to listen to her teachers in preschool? Will I regret the monster I’ve created when she’s in middle school and going through puberty and thinks she should continue to get whatever she wants? So I decide to resume control. “Vivvi, if you do not participate in swimming lessons, you don’t get to swim. I’m going to sit in the chairs over there.”

And this is how I became the happy mom of the tantrumming toddler. For the remaining 20 minutes of class, she screamed and pitched herself at my feet. She alternated between “I want to go in there,” and “I don’t want to go in there!” I alternated between explaining that if she stopped crying and would listen to her teachers, she could go, and pretending she didn’t exist. I looked around to see if I could watch a minute of Wally’s lessons and to make eye contact with and smile at the people who passed. Yes, I hated my life at the time, but I was not mad at myself anymore. I didn’t hate the kind of mom I was. I was the kind of mom who didn’t give in.

(The community pool is the place for ultimate Ott meltdowns, I’m thinking. You probably won’t believe me when I tell you Wally also had his biggest summer meltdown there a few days ago. He was having so much fun and didn’t want to leave when it was time to go. As I was marching out of the shallow end after telling him we had no choice and were leaving, he came scream-crying after me and pulled me backwards into the water by my suit bottom. Luckily I heard him coming—how could I not hear him coming? All of this town heard him coming…—and was able to gracefully (?) fall back on top of him without any wardrobe malfunction. On the way down during my slow-mo timber fall, I thought, “I love this parenting stuff. I am so good at this right now. So good.”)

But, on reflection, I am sticking with my choices to be firm. Show me a kid who doesn’t ever scream or pitch fits, and I’ll show you a kid who gets whatever he or she wants. I want to be the kind of mom who lets her kids cry. They say cry it out for sleep-training babies, but I say cry it out for toddlers also. And on the day of Vivvi’s Great Swimming Lesson Tantrum of 2015, when people who passed the flailing-on-her-face Vivvi gave me the “I’ve been there,” smiles, I thought, Don’t mind us. We’re just crying it out.

When lessons were over, I checked the time. 30 minutes later, and she was still screaming and crying. I beckoned WallyV my way, scooped up Vivvi by her kicking and screaming waist, and carried her sideways to the car like a sack of angry cats. Wally followed behind and picked up any beach bag items that were knocked loose by her flailing legs.

The rest of the day, my patience was shot. My nerves were rocked. My cup was very empty. But at least I could live with myself.

A text came in later that night. It was my nice, loving mom friend whose son was also refusing to participate. “What 3 year old doesn’t love swim lessons? Our kids, that’s who! Let’s hope tomorrow is a better day friend!” She invited me to raise our virtual glasses of wine, and explained that she was alone at Target, our happy place. This was such a relief. Her son didn’t swim either. She was shaken up also. I was not alone.

“Why didn’t you seem rattled?” I asked her. I had to know. How do you stay calm in that storm?

“I just choose to ignore him,” she said. “The only problem is, no one else does.” So I was on the right track with my strategy.

“Tomorrow might be better,” she said. And she was right. It just might be.

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