Gather 'round and listen to the tale of how I, your average working mother with a tendency to over-schedule, over-analyze, and over-stress, changed my life with a single surf lesson. Of how I, a woman constantly seeking balance, found it atop a board. How my cares melted away — but what was important become crystal clear — as I rode atop a ferocious wave, hair glimmering, smile broadening, feet angled just so. I knew all my problems were solved. I would never again procrastinate or fall victim to guilt. I would be a more present mother yet a more creative and focused worker. My friendships would improve. So would the whiteness of my teeth! I would start referring to a handful of almonds as a "great snack."
Yeah, that was not how it went. (Did you already guess?)
The first part is accurate. I — like so many other women with or without kids — struggle with “balance,” a magical idea, and am always searching for a magic bullet to get it. My latest attempt came from an unlikely source: an invitation to try surf lessons courtesy of sandal brand Sanuk. Pro surfers know a thing or two about balance, I reasoned. Sign me up.
And so began the verging-on-nuts expectation I built up on how learning to surf would change my life. It felt like living out a rom-com and a self-help book all at once. I had visions of myself on the board, getting instantaneously more confident, fit, and sun-kissed. I was incredibly hopeful, which you might also call delusional. I’ve never surfed and am notoriously bad at picking up new physical skills. (R.I.P adult tap class of 2013.) Additionally, I have the core strength of a file folder. But let's get back into that victorious tale, shall we?
I kiss my husband and son good bye Friday night and drive down Pacific Coast Highway toward Huntington Beach. Traffic’s practically non-existent; the cool night air is filtering in, and my stereo is blaring the soundtrack from Moana, my son’s hero and our default car entertainment. I didn’t even bother to turn it off when I entered the car alone. “There’s a line where the sky meets the sea — it calls me!” Moana sings. Same! I think, giddily.
The next morning I’ve kicked off my shoes and zipped into my wetsuit, and am now lying on my surfboard in the sand as my coach for the day, Malia Manuel, instructs me on how to pop up. Malia won the U.S. Open of Surfing when she was 14 and has ranked as one of the top 10 surfers in the world. For the past three years, she’s been a Sanuk surf ambassador and Lululemon athlete — someone so excellent at her craft people pay her to do what she loves. She is a wonder. She shows me the moves a few times on land, popping from horizontal to vertical in an instant.
I know these emotions well: unprepared. Goals bigger than my capabilities. Can’t hold it together. Can’t roll with it. Can’t balance.
Together, we’re going to paddle out far beyond where the waves start. Toward the line where the sky meets the sea. Easy, I think. Until it’s not. The waves are strong, and I am knocked over once, then twice, then thrown under. The board flies out from under me, then drags me from the ankle strap through the sand. Saltwater floods my sinuses; my knees skid across the sand, which feels laced with spikes. Every time I reunite with my board, with Malia, I’ve been pushed back toward the shore and what seems like miles to the left of where we began. Sometimes, as I’m trying to hop back on, another wave hits and it happens all over again before I can start in earnest.
I haven’t even started trying to surf yet and I am, without a doubt, failing. It feels so foreign — the unwieldy board, the near-stranger trying to direct me, the unforgiving water whooshing up too quickly — and yet, familiar. Because the physical sensations are different, but I know these emotions well: unprepared. Goals bigger than my capabilities. Can’t hold it together. Can’t roll with it. Can’t balance. They’re the words and phrases that follow me every day as someone trying to raise a human, be a human, and make a living all at the same time.
Malia was 3 when she learned to surf, so it’s second-nature to her. Her parents met surfing and bribed her with Snickers bars to wake up early and hit the water. She sat on her dad’s shoulders the first time she went out on the ocean. “This is not working,” I tell her. “I’m not ready for this.”
She's not buying it. “You can’t really train for surfing,” she tells me. “There’s nothing quite like it, like figuring out your balance between the variables of the wind, the waves, and the sand.” She compares it to doing a burpee on land, only to be pushed over by some mysterious and vengeful person. It might be the saltwater filtering to my brain, but it feels like she’s speaking to me metaphorically. Indeed, you can’t really train for parenting, either, despite what all those anxiety-inducing books may make you think.
So, what do you do when it’s this hard? It’s, of course, not hard for Malia. But she’s recently gotten over an injury that kept her out of the water for months, and is empathetic to my lack of sea legs. “I wait,” she tells me. “I still try to get that one wave, because I know it only takes one wave to change your mood and make it all worth it.”
She’s right — about parenting, at least. The days when I cook dinner that gets thrown on the floor; miss work deadlines; get screamed at during bath extraction; take conference calls while driving home from work, and my son pipes up with a “Hi dada!” to a male client: I want to give up. But I know I can’t, and, yes, a “good wave” does eventually come along. A cuddle from my kid. An especially funny episode of whatever I’m binge-watching. A phone call from a friend with great news. A burst of post-bedtime energy to meet that deadline and actually enjoy the work. Whatever it is. It comes eventually, I guess. And it does make it all worth it, I guess.
As a testament to Malia’s surfing and teaching talents, she finally gets me past the whitewater, and sets me up to ride one wave, which carries me nearly all the way to the shore. Not standing, gloriously, glamorously, but flat on my stomach like a kid. It doesn’t look like I thought it would, it’s not “accomplishing” what I’d set out, but hot damn am I grinning like a maniac. I’m flying straight from the line where the sky meets the sea toward the shore, where I’m going to arrive alive, uninjured, joyful, and accomplished. My wave.
Of course I fly off my board before hitting the shoreline. More sand scratches, more water flush. The publicists who'd organized the trip are there with the manager of the Sanuk surf team and they’re cheering for me. “You were amazing!” they shout. I choose to believe them.
After this halfway victory, I’d find that I developed a slight sunburn around the edges of my wetsuit. Same for my feet — a pale pink outline of the straps of my new sandals. I pad back to the hotel in them — the soles are made from yoga mats, which feels indulgent and supportive after being thrown around by the sea all day.
I’m still wearing them when I come home Saturday night to the most giant hug from my son. And the next day, as my life goes back to normal. I try things, I fail some, I am ambitious in what I take on, even after being knocked down by random events and my own inadequacies. When I get something right, even if it’s not right in the way I’d hoped, I try to appreciate it.
When I pick my son up that day, he traces the scrapes on my knee and asks how I got the boo-boos. “Surfing school” I tell him. “In the ocean.” He smiles at me. “You’re like Moana,” he says, and kisses my knee. There it is. One of those good waves.
Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about or passing on kids, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.