I started taking my first baby at six months old, inspired perhaps by the now-seminal cover of Nevermind and forgetting that just out of shot stood a mother maybe not in her physical prime and probably almost hallucinating from sleep-deprivation. Our nearest option was a "fun pool" – two words which when combined are as dispiriting as "yummy mummy". Let's just call it Hell. The theme of Hell was tropical paradise, illustrated by a tragic drooping palm tree and pictures of parrots on the tiles. I have no idea how an indoor arena constructed mainly from plastics and with so many chemicals in the air you could practically cut them with a pretend picnic knife could ever possibly feel tropical. "South London despair" might be a more appropriate theme.
The first dilemma was who to change first – me or him? In the days before he could walk I had to find some way to balance him; in the days when he could walk, he'd escape and bump his head before we'd even started. Nowadays taking your baby swimming is a whole new spending opportunity. There's a lot of stuff, all cute. Then we didn't have such things as float nappies, so we "made do" with ordinary ones that would bulge alarmingly within seconds of hitting the water but provide a vital buffer zone for the next dilemma: oh God don't let him poo. Once he was changed I'd drop him in a playpen while I quickly got ready and shoved our masses of attendant paraphernelia into various lockers. By this time, we'd both be cross.
The water was very hot and extremely chlorinated (to kill the baby wee), a combination that stripped the top layer of your skin, emulating severe sunburn from a real tropical paradise. It had a sloping "beach" so slippery you couldn't let go of your child's hand even though they'd tug and tug to be free. You'd only venture into the deeper area if you wanted to experience near-drowning when they put the wave machine on, which they did entirely on a whim. To one side of the beach was a large grey model elephant, its trunk a slide; a plastic turtle rested on the "shore". The turtle was a pointless hazard, an unattractive lump of slippery ridged plastic that children weren't allowed to climb on because when they inevitably fell off they'd land on their heads on the hard slippery tiled beach. The turtle is no more.
Me and child would enter Hell's hot and grubby water. Child would fall over on slippery tiles. Should I crouch down to get my shoulders under to keep warm, or remain standing ankle deep in kid wee? We'd bob around, me trying to bounce aerobically to get some benefit. I'd get very cold. Child would try the big slide but get scared at the top. I'd stand there saying, "Come on! There's other children waiting! Come on." I'd get frustrated and turn into the mother that other mothers stare at. OH FOR F… SAKE COME DOWN THE F…ING SLIDE. (I never actually said that out loud – I said it with my eyes, which is apparently more scary.) I'd try not to look at the clock, but eventually I'd give in – we'd been there for three minutes. We'd bob some more. I'd try and invent games. The games made him feel lonely. I'd attempt eye contact with other bobbing mothers. They were too busy making eye contact with their own children. While I was trying to make friends, child slid underwater and scrabbled at my costume to save himself. His nails needed cutting. Child cried. I was striated. People stared. Child discovered he loved the slide and went up and down up and down a hundred times. I lay on the pool floor waiting. Eventually, it was time to get out. Child wouldn't get out. I'd drag him out by one arm. At least one of us was crying. These were fun times.
The final dilemma was a repeat of the first: who do you dry first? Do you stand shivering in your wet things while you dry a child who then sits in a puddle and tries to grab your pubic hair while you get dry, or dry yourself first as if this were a plane emergency? Either way, neither of us would be actually dry by the time we stumbled exhausted to the galleried cafe, where I'd take in more caffeine and stare blankly at things, and he'd throw Monster Munch through the railings at the people in the pool.
Only a miserable curmudgeon would fail to mention the joy also inherent in swimming with one's babies, and it's maybe why the whole procedure is so damn complex. For as long as children remain unselfconscious, water offers freedom expressed in laughs, and the sheer enjoyment of unrestricted limbs. It is pure opportunity to be skin to skin and for them, before they've learned about competition and not being fast enough or the trials of bilateral breathing, it's fun. And when they start to float independently and try a few strokes on their own (inevitably under the surface) or when you can smile and wave underwater at each other, it is utterly blissful. It's particularly important to try and hold on to that bliss when one is engaged in possibly the most difficult task a human adult ever has to engage in: the putting on, to a reluctant four-year-old, of a verruca sock.
Then you turn around, the baby on the front cover of Nevermind has graduated and your own wouldn't go swimming with you if you paid them. But nothing would give you more pleasure. And boy do you curse yourself for not cherishing every second.