The disadvantage of being the “preferred parent”

Hello from North Haven!

Like so many kids, my three-year-old daughter Penrose took swimming lessons this summer. Run by the North Haven YMCA, and taught by our (soon-to-be-former, alas) Island Institute fellow and a calm, kind 16-year-old visiting her aunt and uncle, students ages 3 – 10 got to enjoy a heated pool with an ocean view.

Pen was in a class with five other 3 – 5-year-olds. As my husband was still working over at the Vinalhaven School, I took her to the first three lessons. The day of the first lesson was cool and cloudy. Penrose had on her long-sleeved, long-legged striped bathing suit, closer to a 1920s bathing costume than anything cute and contemporary. We brought a ladybug swim vest and little blue water shoes. We left the car and walked down the short woodchip path to the pool. Pen’s friends excitedly lined up at the edge of the pool. When the instructors beckoned them towards the water, Penrose turned from child to koala, clinging fiercely to my leg and whimpering. Five kids gradually entered the pool to practice bobbing and kicking. One child eventually sat with her toes in the water, poking the surface and muttering to herself.

Her teachers gave her a little one-on-one attention at the end of class, eventually coaxing both feet into the water with the lure of a snail-shaped watering can.

“Let’s cancel swimming lessons today, Mom. It’s raining.” This was the morning of day two. It was in fact raining, but not thundering, and the lesson was still on. With the bathing costume and water shoes on under a dinosaur hoodie and ladybug raincoat, she sat clinging to me with her feet in the water as her classmates again slid into the pool, eager to kick and jump and splash around. Her instructors checked in every few minutes, pouring water on her toes and inviting her to join her friends. Eventually the sweatshirt came off (though the ladybug coat stayed on). One of her friends noticed her sliding down the pool steps and asked her to play, and – miracle of miracles – she left me for a moment and walked into the water in her raincoat! She started enjoying herself. Then the lesson ended.

We talked about the swimming lessons, trying to determine what was holding her back. She told me that the water was too deep, although she had been fearless in the five minutes she spent in the water. I had a sense that it was me.

I think a lot of two-parent families can relate. With one parent, in my household’s case, me, the offspring is a clinging vine, prone to whining and meltdowns. As soon as Penrose could talk, she began vehemently requesting my presence, my hand to pour the glass of water, and actively rejecting Bill, who tried not to take it personally. But, when she did spend alone time with him, she was brave, bold and independent. It becomes very apparent if I go away for a day or two and Pen stays home with Bill – her behavior instantly goes downhill when I return.

We made an action plan for her third lesson, the last one I’d take her to before Bill’s summer vacation started. At the beginning of class she’d line up with her friends on the side of the pool. She’d get in the water. I’d sit and watch and cheer. She’d have fun!

It was the first warm and sunny day of the week, and Penrose did line up at the edge of the pool with her friends. When they walked to the opposite side to practice jumping in, she followed. Her classmates jostled for position, and she got nudged with an elbow. She started to sob and hurried back to my lap. I felt like crying, myself. She calmed down and sat in the water on the pool steps, scootching herself a little farther in every few seconds. She rejoined the class. An enthusiastic peer accidentally splashed her. She started to cry and hurried back to my lap again. She got back in the pool. She got out of the pool. And the lesson was over.

Three lessons out of eight wasted, I thought to myself, just because I was the parent there. I’d discussed with her teachers the possibility of leaving during the lesson, but I knew that the meltdown that would ensue (and probably quickly end) would be an unsafe distraction with five other kids in the water.

My husband’s summer vacation finally started, and he took her to her final lesson that week. Lo and behold, much as we’d anticipated, she got right in the water and stayed there the whole time. She didn’t necessarily do the activities her teaches described, but she wasn’t afraid and clinging, either. Over the following week’s four lessons she suddenly started kicking, bobbing and splashing with her friends, even sort of jumping into the pool on the last day of class.

Success at last! Photo by Jeff Martin, used with permission.

Because I was the “preferred parent” and primary food source for so long, Penrose’s anxiety about leaving me sometimes stops her from taking safe risks and fully enjoying herself. Although she’s happily left me for school for the past two years, if I’m visible to her, she still plasters herself to my side more often than not. She’s just now starting to go off with friends if I’m around. With her dad, she’s more able to confidently leave and return, and push herself to try new things. I’m looking forward to her growing independence with both of us, and to a lot of safe swimming fun this summer.


Courtney Naliboff

About Courtney Naliboff

In addition to this blog, I'm a contributing writer to, a Jewish parenting site, a blogger and book reviewer for, and the author of Salt Water Cure, a column in Working Waterfront. I report news from North Haven for Working Waterfront and Island Journal, and was a speaker at the Maine Conference for Jewish Life in 2015. Follow Frozen Chosen on facebook or visit my Web site for more writing and free music to download!