I never wanted to learn to row a boat. I did not believe it was a necessary life skill though I imagine it would come in handy if your cruise ship sank and you were in charge of the lifeboats. More than my practical reluctance to learn a skill I did not need, I was afraid. I was afraid I would capsize or that I'd drop an oar and be stranded or that I'd get hit by a speed boat or get lost or drift out to sea. Granted, our cabin was on a man-made lake so that whole sea thing wasn't likely but the rest of my fears felt very real and very big. My mother loved to row, however, and wanted me to love it too. So, she nagged me to try out a friend's row boat. I declined. Then, she bought me a row boat. I thanked her and suggested that she enjoy it instead. And she did - she paddled around the cove making joyful exclamations to try to entice me but I was content to wave at her from the shore. When all that failed, she threatened to kick my ass if I didn't get in the boat and learn to row. I ignored her and returned to my book. A few weeks passed and my mother came to me looking rather defeated and suggested that she'd settle for taking me for a ride in the row boat. She said that she'd take me around the cove and it would be an opportunity for us to spend time together. I took pity on her and agreed to go for a ride.
She dragged the row boat from the shore out to the dock and we both got in. The benches were hard and the sides seemed a little low. I wondered aloud if we might sink. She responded with a dismissive hiss, "Oh Vikki..." She pulled away from the dock and rowed around the cove. She made it seem effortless. We glided through the water with minimal splashing and little wake. I had to admit that it was rather pleasant until...she started heading out to the middle of the lake. I suggested that it might not be safe to go so far out with so many speedboats around and she just smiled and told me to enjoy the ride. We neared the middle of the channel and she stopped. She pulled the oars into the boat, smiled at me and jumped out of the boat. My mother could not swim so I began to scream but then I looked over the side and the water was only up to her chin - she had judged the depth perfectly. "What are you doing?!" I yelled. She smiled and said, "I guess you'll have to learn to row." She then turned around and sluggishly marched towards the dock. She climbed out of the water and sat on the edge so that she could watch me.
I was furious. I crossed my arms and shouted "I don't want to learn to row!" She crossed her arms and shouted "It's the only way you'll get back!" I refused to move and the boat drifted further and further away from the dock. I demanded that she come get me. She ignored me and went into the house for a beer and and a pack of cigarettes. When she came back, she lit a cigarette, took a drink of her beer and smiled a smile so big that I could easily see it from the ever-increasing distance between us. I felt trapped, forced to do something I didn't want to do, something that - for whatever reason - frightened me. I started to cry and said, "I can't do this." She said, "You can and you will." She leaned back on her hands and waited. I put my head in my hands and took a deep breath. When I looked up again, she shouted, "Just put the oars in the water and pull." So, I did. I put the oars in the water and pulled and I splashed and I turned one way when I meant to turn the other and somehow, after what seemed like hours, I arrived safely at the dock. She grabbed my hand and pulled me the last few inches. I climbed up onto the dock and while she tied the boat I sat down. Moments later, she joined me and we both stared out at the lake.
She spoke first, "I knew you could do it."
"And I'll never do it again!" I said stubbornly.
"I don't care. That's up to you."
"You don't care?! Then why was it so important to you that I learn to row a boat?!"
She laughed and said, "It was never about the boat. It was about your fear."
I think about this now as I navigate the fears of my own children. How hard should we push? When do we back off? When do we force them to confront their fears? And when do we jump out of the boat?
Of course, children aren't the only ones with fears - we have our own. I'm still afraid of tipping over or getting lost or looking like a fool but there is value in confronting fear and taking risks. I just have to remember that, sometimes, you simply have to put the oars in the water and pull.