Friday, 9 November 2012

Lessons in losing

Morning, Lord.

I don't have any deep insights this morning. I just want to get something off my chest.

The other week my two girls took part in a swimming tournament. They go to a swimming club that starts out with basic swimming lessons when they're very young and as they progress they are encouraged to become competitive swimmers at whatever level is appropriate. They both love swimming. I love it less as the lessons are not at particularly convenient times and there's an awful lot of sitting around waiting and finding parking places, but hey, that's what being a mum is all about, isn't it?

So. Last year Elizabeth was the best in a group of learners (immediately after the competition she was moved up two levels to a new group) and she flew in both her races, winning two gold medals. Last year Katy did pretty well in the youngest learner group; she came fourth on her front and fifth on her back using a float. She got medals too; everyone who took part got a medal. At the medal presentation night some days later they were both bursting with pride, and so was I. They took their medals to school to show to the class; their confidence grew and they were happy.

This year was a completely different story. A year older, Lizzie was among the youngest in her group. Her first race was the backstroke, which she likes, though she prefers the freestyle. She was just wonderful and she won her heat. She arrived at the end of the pool first and turned to grin at us in the stands. Her little sister was jumping up and down in delight and shouting 'Lizzie! Lizzie! That's my sister! Hooray for Lizzie!'

Then it all went wrong. Elizabeth climbed out of the pool. She didn't know about the etiquette of staying in the water until everyone had finished; nobody had mentioned it. The man allocated to her lane told her off. I don't know what he said, or the manner in which he said it, but her shoulders were sagging and her face fighting back tears as she rejoined her group on the side of the pool. She stood on her own until her next race, uncertain and self conscious and worrying about whether she should stay or go and get changed, and whether everyone knew that she'd broken the rules and what they would say when they found out. It turns out that the man had told her that she might be disqualified because of her error in the first race but she'd have to wait and see.

The next race was called and this time they were encouraged to dive in if they felt comfortable. The older ones dived, which gave them a headstart straight away. Elizabeth's group have only just started to dive (with varying success) and so she started in the water. She swam both the remaining races carefully and cautiously, leaving no room for criticism of her style or manners.

Subsequent heats of the backstroke told us that Lizzie hadn't won anything, and the news that she had transgressed one of the rules took away any pleasure she might have felt in her heat victory. Now, in her best race, she was so afraid that she might get it wrong again that swam with exaggerated care and cautiousness and came ninth. It was miles slower than her warm up lengths at which point she had felt invincible. In the car on the way home she cried. It took us ages to establish what had gone wrong because she thought she'd done something terrible and was reluctant to tell us.

Katy's tournament, the next day, was even more of a disaster. Her teacher had entered her in the 'unassisted' freestyle and backstroke races and Katy panicked without a float. She swam so, so bravely that it broke my heart, but she came last by a mile. So far behind that she got her own round of applause. She burst into tears as she got out of the pool and cried without stopping until the next race.

'Mummy, I'm not a winner. I never win anything. I'm a loser.'

She actually swam further than she had ever swum before without any assistance, but she was devastated by coming last. I told her over and over how proud I was of her, how wonderfully hard she'd tried but it made no difference. I even asked if she was sure that she wanted to take part in the backstroke race, half hoping that she'd say no so that I could whisk her away, but she wanted to swim again.

The same thing happened.

Oh, Lord. I know that they can't win all the time. I know that they need to learn to lose. I know that I can't save them from every defeat and humiliation and disappointment. I know that this is supposedly how character is built. But I don't like it. I just don't like it.

Both my girls cried on the way home from their swimming tournaments. Last year they were jubilant and encouraged, this year full of self doubt and misery.

So, what, Lord? Am I just an over-protective mother who wants to cushion her daughters through their lives? No doubt that's what I am. Katy was entered in the wrong races and Elizabeth fell foul of a rule she didn't know about. It wasn't fair but there's nothing I could do about it.

There was no joy.

Is your heart so closely linked with mine that yours breaks when mine does? When I watched my girls going through a tough time I longed to take it away for them. I wanted to pick them up in my arms and disappear off to cuddle and whisper them better. I wanted to fight for them; to tell the man with the rules that he might be right, but she's seven years old and she didn't know, and did he realise that he'd crushed her? To say to Katy's swimming teacher that she was out of her depth (in more ways than one) and if only he'd entered her for an easier race she'd have been on top of the world.

Lord, I'm struggling with lessons that need to be learned. My girls learned that life isn't fair, that honest mistakes have consequences and that people are not always kind. All that on top of the lesson that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Katy feels as if she always loses.

You know what? I was so proud of them too. Amid all the hurt and anxiety my heart swelled for both of them. Katy had the option to quit after her first disastrous race and she didn't. Through her tears she said yes, she wanted to try again. Elizabeth didn't run away and hide even though she felt terribly self-conscious and anxious for having broken the rules. She stayed to swim again not knowing if her name would be called or not.

I thought that was amazing. I was very proud. Do you feel like that when your children down here turn up for the next race even though all the fun has gone out of it? When we try something hard and fall flat on our faces, do the angels cheer when we still get up for the next race?

It was a hard weekend. I cried. I cried for Katy's dashed hopes of winning something at last and I cried for Lizzie's confusion and self-doubt as she stood and waited to see if she would be asked to leave the pool. She really thought that they might announce that she was disqualified. She's seven years old. Katy's just five. Oh dear.

Lord, it's hard work being a mummy, sometimes. I love them so much. Is it hard work being a heavenly Daddy? Do you wish you could save me the hard lessons but you know that I need to learn them? Do you wish you could protect me from life's rubbish when you know that it's only when I wade knee-deep through it all that I develop muscles and eventually get to the other side?  You know better than anyone what it's like to watch as your child is treated unfairly, hurt indescribably and rejected completely. Did you want to snatch him up and send a fireball to consume the rest of us?

I don't always think there's a greater good when our children suffer. When kids get ill and die, where's the lesson in that? Sometimes life is just unfair because this world is broken. Feelings get hurt not to build character but just because people don't take enough care. I know that disappointment at a swimming gala is a million miles removed from some of the injustices that life throws at children. I suppose I should be grateful that they only battled with defeat in a swimming race. Help me keep a bit of perspective on it.

Thankyou that you are a God who cares about the little things as well as the earth-shattering. You care if your little ones are crushed by something as everyday as a children's swimming gala and you care about your little ones whose little ones are hurt. Thankyou for not telling me to pull myself together.


So that was it, Lord. I don't know if there's a spiritual lesson embedded in here, but I want to ask you to hold my girls tight and heal any wounds that they carry round with them. Don't let there be damage done to delicate self-esteem. Don't let guilt and failure and defeat get a grip on their hearts. Help me to show them that doing the right thing is more precious than winning. That courage is better than quitting. That turning up when discouraged is brave, and you can't be brave if you're not afraid in the first place.

I'm going to stop rambling now. Patch my Mummy heart back up, Lord; I know that there are going to be plenty more bruises like this.

Your heart must be pretty battered.


  1. Helen

    I've just read this & felt tearful too! Isn't it hard being a Mum & I'm afraid it doesn't get easier when they get older. But perhaps these knocks do make them & us stronger, so that when they are grown up & things like divorce or bad managers at work try to floor them, they stand their ground & keep fighting. Like you say, how fortunate that our Father stands by us as we struggle though life.

  2. Thankyou for your kind words; so nice to hear that it's not just me. I hope very much that these things make them stronger rather than leaving scars. Indeed, He is bigger than all the rubbish that is thrown at us.


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