When a person’s performance is characterized as treading water, it’s not meant as a compliment.
To be treading water suggests a lack of motivation or capacity for forward progress. It implies stagnation, maybe even laziness.
We learn to crawl so that we can learn to walk, and then run. We start on the junior varsity with the allure of a starting position on the varsity team as our motivation. We take the entry-level job and tell ourselves that one day, we’ll prop our feet on the desk and mentor a fresh crop of 20-somethings.
We’re pushed to do more than merely tread water. The encouraged direction is up. Flat-lining is for climatic scenes on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
And yet when is the last time you tried to tread water for an extended duration?
As a kid, I could tread water for minutes at a time. I credit summer camp and a healthy fear of touching the bottom of the lake. Last summer at the pool, I tried again. I was swimming for the edge almost immediately.
The physical activity of treading water is both of those things – physical, and activity. Your arms and legs are in a constant state of motion. You must generate just enough energy to avoid sinking, but not so much as to create waves, unless you’re interested in choking on some water.
It takes a lot to keep your head above water.
I need to remind myself of this old swimming lesson. Because on my best days, I’m just keeping afloat. The concept of forward progress sounds, more often than not, like a slogan reserved for foreign diplomacy or football referees. It is not a description of my daily life.
Once my feet hit the floor in the morning, it’s a sprint through quicksand until my head hits the pillow. Get dressed, get them dressed, meet the bus, do drop-off, get to work, do work, do pick-up, unpack, make dinner, prepare lunches, pack up for tomorrow, lay out clothes for tomorrow, shower, pajamas, brush teeth, do homework, read stories, do work, complete a few coherent sentences in the direction of my husband.
It is a rush to survive, to avoid disappointing and outright failing.
Sometimes, disappointing and outright failing happens, too.
A couple Fridays ago, I forgot it was my son’s turn to bring snack to preschool. I have been to my daughter’s ice skating field trip once (it happens every Wednesday). And so much more.
I don’t go watch my brother-in-law’s football games; I send texts. I don’t go on girls’ weekends with my sisters; I send texts. I don’t visit my friends after they have babies; I send texts. And so much more.
I wish I could. I wish I did. Maybe I can. Maybe I should have. Maybe I will.
But today, I’m just trying to keep my head above water. And that has to be enough. That has to be OK.
My children will get where they need to go. I will join the conference call. We’ll eat something for dinner.
It has to be OK that I respond to work emails during an after-school activity. It has to be OK that I have a desultory five-outfit rotation for the work week. It has to be OK that my version of meal planning is gluten-full take-out from wherever is on the way home.
I will consider it a privilege to one day plan multiple days into the future, and to follow through on that plan. I will consider it a victory to have a to-do list that does not look like a losing game of Tetris. I will consider it the height of luxury to get my hair cut.
But today, the water feels deep. The work feels hard. I’m not going anywhere except everywhere.
Just treading water, you say? Why thank you. Thank you ever so much.