Learning To Swim Without Lane Lines

Leigh M. O'Brien

© Copyright 2023 by Leigh M. O'Brien

Photo by Marcus Ng on Unsplash
Photo by Marcus Ng on Unsplash
I stood, legs shaking, heart pounding, toes gripping the edge of the tall diving board. I waited and waited and waited – until I could wait no more. Finally, eyes shut tight, I threw myself off the end into the deep, dark, unknowable pool below. I shot to the surface hours later as my daughter fought her way into the world, and I became a mother for the first time. Baby held tightly against my chest, I struck out for the far side of the pool with sure strokes, secure in the knowledge that the lane lines would guide me to where I wanted to go.

Little did I know…

Without a doubt and with no expectation that it would be so, the most important day of my life was the day my daughter was born. Virtually all first-time mothers say this, but having Lacey changed me in ways I could not begin to understand that day. I was aware of all the things that everyone said would change: no more uninterrupted sleep, no more form-fitting clothing because no more flat stomach, no time for my husband, no time for me. But I couldn’t imagine that my understanding of how children develop, how mother-daughter relationships can grow and change, how genetics work, how the world works – would be wrapped up tightly in the swaddled bundle that was my infant daughter.

But let me back up a little. As a later-in-life (although nowadays 39 doesn’t seem so very late) and more-than-a-little-anxious mother-to-be, I did all the “right” things during my pregnancy: I stopped drinking alcohol and ingesting caffeine two months before I even started trying to get pregnant and took all the recommended vitamins; I ate right, exercised moderately, and gained the prescribed amount of weight; etcetera, etcetera.

My husband Rob and I attended child-birth classes, I saw the ob-gyn – part of a highly regarded group practice – at the recommended times, because of my age I got an amniocentesis test, we fixed up the nursery to be bright and cheerful but not too “girly,” I bought educational, non-gender-specific toys, and I read everything about babies I could get my hands on. (When I asked Rob if he wanted to read one of the books I had gotten about babies and child rearing, he responded, you’re doing enough reading for both of us. Hmmm.) In sum, I typified the over-educated, over-prepared parent it’s all too easy to make fun of.

As the baby kept growing, I kept trekking to the ob-gyn, and then, toward the end, to the teaching hospital where she was to be born. They would check her and check me, hoping for some movement, some change, but her due date came and went. Finally, at the last visit, the nurse said, “I think we should induce labor. She’s running out of space. Someone told me to contact my husband and ask him to bring my overnight bag, and they took me to the ‘birthing room’ I had requested. The nurses took my vitals and the doctor on call, a member of the ob-gyn practice I had never met, came to start the Pitocin. He did a cursory check, then jauntily told the nurses, call me when you can see her eyes, and hurried out the door.

If all was well, why, then, did the beeping monitor, which never seemed to be in the right place, indicate fetal distress? Why did the nurse mutter over and over, come on baby; come on baby? Why was the idea of a Caesarian floated? Why did I have to be moved from the quiet, dimly lit ‘birthing room’ to the bright, sterile operating room with a neo-natal team on standby? Why did my beautiful baby come out blue and not breathing? Why were her APGAR scores so low?

All these questions were put aside when Lacey was finally brought to me to begin nursing – which she did with no trouble at all. And once we brought her home, other than a brief bout of jaundice, a few rectal suppositories to get things moving, and saggy new-baby skin, she seemed just fine. She ate well, had no illnesses, made eye contact, and babbled; in short, did all the things healthy newborns are supposed to do. We named her after my mother’s maternal grandmother, Lydia Lacey Bunnell Mowry. In fact, her name has been used in my grandmother’s family since at least the 1600s when that part of my family came to North America; there’s even a Laceyville near where my grandmother grew up. But that long, strong “motherline” was not a talisman against life’s slings and arrows.

Lacey seemed quieter than other babies. She didn’t interact with the world quite as much or as intently. Compared to other children her age she seemed to be a little slower to develop, not quite so clever or talented. I loved her without reservation, but couldn’t help wondering if something was “wrong.” At her two-year checkup, her (first) pediatrician, not the world’s most sensitive doctor, proclaimed her “iffy,” and we began to seriously consider whether she needed to be evaluated. To make a long story a little shorter, around her third birthday – which was also, perhaps not so coincidentally, when her father moved out – testing revealed that she had numerous delays and challenges. I was, of course, distraught and began the on-going process of trying to figure out what was going on with her and why.

The first thought, suggested by my divorce lawyer, was that there had been medical neglect or malpractice during her birth that had led to her “problems.” I also worried that I had not done the right things during pregnancy – there was that 15-minute hot tub soak, after all – or that I was too old or that I should have asked the blasé and frequently absent delivery-room doctor for a Caesarian instead of insisting on a vaginal birth. This testing and worrying and guessing went on for many years until I finally gave in and accepted that she is who she is.

These revelations have inevitably led me to questions of free will and personal responsibility. I have come to believe that the world is often not a very fair place. As someone who was born White, middle-class, and able-bodied, that is, with most of the attributes that set a person living in the Western world on course for a promising life, my awareness of the crapshoot that spells a life trajectory might never had occurred to me had it not been for my daughter’s birth and life. I probably would have continued on my merry way believing, as so many favored folks do, that I have made my way in life solely by my own hard work, my fortitude, my good character. That’s the easy thing to believe when you’re “successful.” That’s the comfortable thing to think when you don’t want to acknowledge privilege and its converse, disadvantage.

Who Lacey is no longer allows me that option. I have been forced to confront the knowledge that no matter how much I love her, no matter how hard I try, no matter how hard she tries, she will always be who she is. And, and…that’s a good thing. She is now 15 and is a lovely young woman. She’s an excellent reader, a decent singer, a social butterfly, and a caring person. She loves ice skating, dancing, music, animals, and her mother, thank God. Yes, she will probably always struggle with math concepts. Yes, she is often a little slower than others to get a joke or to respond appropriately. She will likely never be a scholar, never understand social cues as well as most others do, never find life easy. But this does not mean she’s not a worthy human being. She deserves love and accolades and successes as we all do. If she is seen – and treated – as a person who is able, strong, and rich in potential, rather than a person who is disabled, who is “less than,” she will shine, and the world will be a better place for her being in it.

My life was changed on the day my daughter was born in ways too numerous to count and too all-encompassing to fully describe. I have had to learn to swim without the guidance of lane lines, and I am grateful.


From my earliest days, I’ve been a prodigious reader and hence have informally learned how to write to capture the reader’s attention (I hope). I’ve also been interested in – and very much enjoyed – teaching since I was first asked to teach swimming lessons at the pool where my siblings and I spent most of our childhood summers. After I finished my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, both in Education, I became a preschool teacher and administrator before returning to college to earn a doctorate focused on why teachers in various settings teach as they do. I then spent 30 years in post-secondary education where I had the opportunity – and the obligation – to write and publish so that I could gain tenure and be promoted.
I also took writing classes on and off for years. Now, I’m using my retirement, in part, to move past academic writing to both fiction and non-fiction writing. I’ve been working on a memoir, for example, hoping it will soon be the right time to find an agent and see if I can get the book published, and three short pieces of mine are under review for a literary publication from our local library.

I have 28 refereed academic publications (several co-authored), one co-edited book, six book chapters, and numerous book and article reviews, as well as a few other publications to my name.

While I’ve submitted non-academic work occasionally and have had several pieces published online and one poem published in a college collection, I haven’t been as “successful” as I had hoped to be. This is now my focus; the story above is the prologue for the memoir I have been working on for years and which is (finally!) almost finished.

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