Feeling Small

We are a small family, small in height, small framed, small feet, we even own a very small cat, but I am trying not to let that stop me standing proud in this nation of giants. I have just Googled it and the Dutch are statistically the tallest nation of people.

I am 1.6m (5ft3) and when I moved here I jokingly said I would never be able to find a boyfriend. I am more or less armpit level to the average Dutch man. Not a tremendous point of attraction. I hung around without prospects until a friend of mine who is herself about 6ft tall mentioned that she had met a small guy on a course she had been doing and would I like to go on a date? (He is dutch, so he must be stunted I guess)

So the deciding factor that brought P and I together was entirely practical. Our size. Two stumpy little half-pinters surrounded by Herculean giants. We eyeball each other perfectly. Useful for those sideways sneers crucial to any long term relationship. And here we are 12 years later bringing down the statistical average with our two runty offspring.

I am taking my daughter to her swimming lesson. She is not the youngest in the class but she looks very slight compared to the more daring and robust kids around her. I know she’s very nervous about swimming lessons, it’s only her third week and I try all the parenting tricks of positive reinforcement.

“I can’t believe you’re already going to swimming lessons and you’re not even 5 yet!”

The first week there she burst into tears as soon as she touched the water. She’s scared of getting her head wet.

Then she got lost on her way to the toilet.

This week I have prepared her to be ‘big’ and ‘brave’. I have told her that it’s only water and it won’t hurt her. She needs to join in as much as she can. I have also drilled into her that I will be waiting in dressing room number 4.

“Look. Here we are. Here’s the number 4 on the door, see? I will wait here next to the door when you get out. I will hang your towel here, so you know exactly where I’ll be.”

She trots off in her little blue swimming costume with the pink heart pattern.

I’m supposed to watch from the side for the first few minutes and then leave them alone to get on with the lessons.

A is sitting lined up at the side of the pool. The teenage help-teachers have got a clip-board out. What is going on? I see A. She’s in tears already and she hasn’t even got into the water yet.

When they’re all in, I wave to her reassuringly and I beckon one of the teachers over to ask what had happened. She’s an older woman of about 55 and she seems to be one of the supervising teachers.

“Oh it was just because we didn’t call her name out. She was worried because she thought she was in the wrong group, but it’s fine, I found her name on the list.”

Great so she’s a natural panicker and they’re making it worse by getting the names mixed up. I know she’s not the type to speak up. I am wondering if this is all a bit much for such a little girl.

“What is your experience here?” I ask.

“She’s cried every lesson so far. Do you think it’s advisable to carry on or is it better to stop and wait for a while?”

I get a pretty standard brisk Dutch answer.

“No this is normal. She’ll get used to it. I’ll keep an eye on her for you”

And I leave, wondering if there’s something wrong in me to have produced this wimpy child or whether I should rush in there, fish her out of the pool and protect her from the ‘let’s all be normal and not make a fuss’ attitude.

I need to be back in that changing room in about 40 minutes, so I don’t have a lot of time. The library is just across the road so I decide to take S in there to look at some books. On the way he falls down the stairs outside the swimming pool and gets covered in grit, so when I get into the library I look for the toilet to rinse him down.

I find it but it’s locked.

I approach the information desk and wait in line. S is smearing black gritty dirt on my anorak.

There is a grey haired woman behind the desk. She’s probably in her early 60’s. I ask her if I can have the key for the toilet.

Before I have finished my sentence she raises her eyebrows and then closes and opens her eyes very slowly at me.

She repeats my words. “Ahem. I NEED TO HAVE THE KEY TO THE TOILET?”

“OH. I am sorry.. I meant…can I have the key to the toilet? Sorry, sorry, I’m not Dutch…”

I am really faltering, trying to get the words out.

“My son has dirty hands and I need to wash them?…”

I am going red in the face. I am being publicly chastised in front of two teenage girls who are standing next to me at the desk.

“Yes. You can have the key to the toilet, but we don’t say it like that. We would say, may I have the key please? or could I please use the toilet?”

She hands over the key and I nod meekly, eyes down to the floor like a shy 5 year old.

I don’t know what has come over me. I have lived in Holland for years and I have never made this kind of obvious error before. I don’t know why I said “I need”! I feel so small and embarrassed. I am a white woman in a predominantly white culture so people don’t often make assumptions about me, but I suddenly catch a glimpse of how it might feel to be talked down to more regularly, just as I’m sure a lot of other immigrants to western countries are.

As I stand at the sink washing S’s hands I am flashing the whole conversation through my head and I turn from feeling like a prize dumbo into more quiet outrage.

…High and mighty pompous little woman with nothing better to do in life than arrange books in alphabetical order and guard keys to the toilet!

I hand back the precious key without a word and head back to the pool.

I am waiting in the changing room and then I see several pairs of small wet feet outside the door. Some come in and some walk past. A is not amongst them. I swing the door open and look down the corridor to see her in tears.

She’s saying something to the teacher and pointing.

“I’M HERE” I shout.

She runs up to me sobbing. “I couldn’t….find….you..”

“Dressing room number 4. Remember?”

In all the bustle of other kids and parents she has obviously panicked and she’s not been looking up at the numbers on the doors.

There is something in the way she cries like it’s a relief to be finished with her lesson that decides it for me.

No more having to be big and brave. She’s my little girl and I will decide when she’s ready.


10 Comments on “Feeling Small”

  1. Wonder says:

    This post is bringing up a slew of memories from a childhood steeped in agonizing shyness. I know common rhetoric has it that there’s no sense postponing the inevitable socialization “necessary” to growing up, but some of us are more sensitive than others, and take a little longer to hit our stride with strangers. There’s more to life and connecting with others than learning how to follow instructions in a group, A can learn to swim in a different setting, and she can learn a lot about connecting to others by having a mum who really listens to her and champions her accordingly. Great post!!

    • Thanks for reading Wonder.

      You’re right that being shy can be excruciating for children. Emotion and sensitivity is often seen as weakness. But quite the opposite – I see her as a perceptive intelligent girl and I don’t want to desensitize her.

  2. Too right! Mums always know best – go with your instinct. We too are all a family of pint-sized people (apart from the OH). Both my eldest and youngest child are the smallest in the class – not so bad for a girl but not great for a boy 😦 I think that men like to feel protective and be able to tuck a girl under their shoulder…..that’s what I’ll tell my daughter anyway, not sure about my son!

  3. I loved this post. Perfect timing. Hubby is currently out with our 20 month old and our nearly 5 year old at her swimming lesson. She’s incredibly teary and gets very stressed. We’ve had to promise her this week she wouldn’t have to do backstroke and that we’d look into some private lessons to get her her confidence back. The weird thing is she has been doing swimming lessons practically every week since she was 5 months old, so why she’s suddenly taken to losing her confidence I don’t know. I wish you lots of luck though.

  4. Maggie Melrose says:

    I’m built on a larger scale than the author and (naturally) than A but I’m far from immune to the sense of utter helplessness brought on by an unfamiliar swimming pool. Like A, I am short-sighted. I keep my glasses on until the last minute but inevitably the moment arrives when I must bid them farewell. In the ensuing blur, I fall back on my memory for location and my sense of direction. These, it has to be said, are virtually non-existent. I am famous in my family for being ‘directionally challenged.’

    Budapest was probably the worst.

    Other Half and I visit the famous Gellert Baths, as you do, and – horrors! – we are ushered into two completely different areas, one for men and one for women. I see where other women are getting changed and follow suit. So far, so good. A woman in a white uniform takes my clothes (and glasses), puts them in a cubicle and chalks some strange hieroglyphic on the wooden door.

    I follow the gaggle of other women. Foreign signs, foreign voices. OH is not directionally challenged but without his glasses, he can see even less than me. The blind seeking the blind… I drift from pool to pool – women only, mixed, warm, not so warm – to steam rooms and a room full of tables where burly Eastern European women scrub down their fellow countrywomen with carbolic soap.

    No sign of OH. Will we ever find each other? And I have no idea where I came in. Which raises the question of how I will ever get out again. A, although I am sixty years older than you, I think I have some idea how you feel.

    After an indeterminate amount of time, wandering damply, peering from side to side, I run into OH.
    Pure luck. No judgement involved at all. We forget our troubles, have a great time. Returning eventually to our separate changing halls, I set about recovering my clothes (and glasses). Naturally, I have no memory of which cubicle they disappeared into. I ask various women in white coats to help me find my clothes. One of them speaks English. ‘Which person?’ she asks. ‘Which person took your clothes?’ I didn’t know I was supposed to remember that. I haven’t got a clue.

    • Your strange experience in the spa baths of Budapest does sound peculiar, but luckily it turned out all right in the end and you must have eventually retrieved your glasses to be able to be reading this right now!

  5. fabfortymum says:

    It’s so hard to know what to do for the best for them sometimes. Our Toddler gets quite anxious around large groups of people and they would always look into her face and more or less tell her she was shy. I got really sick of people saying it to her, especially when she started to repeat it anytime something worried her, she would tell me, “I’m shy” I like to think of her as selective about who she associates with!

    I think you’re absolutely right, just follow her lead and do things at her pace. I have definitely chilled myself out about trying to get her to do everything and it seems to be slowly working, her confidence is starting to grow.

  6. I think you’ve absolutely done the right thing. I’m in a similar position with my little dude, one of the groups I take him to, he just becomes so introverted it breaks my heart. Anything where he is supposed to sing or dance with others he completely shuts down. I’ve had to stop taking him because I can’t do it to him anymore, but I’ve had to agonise over what is the best thing to do, keep taking him and hope he “gets over it” or take him out of that situation with the risk of him learning that he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t like…. But pffft, he’s my baby innit 🙂 Great post, lovely.

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