At first, we came to our local YMCA seeking swim instruction.

Once our kids finally agreed to ditch water wings and get their heads wet without making a federal case about it, we wanted to build on that confidence ASAP. Price was a factor. A month’s worth of swimming lessons at the Y cost about as much as pizza night.

A bonus: Like most Ys, this one offered reliable child care while I exercised. Like, actually exercised. No more squeezing miles and yoga classes into life’s random corners, or loading up the bike trailer with books, stuffed buddies, snacks, water bottles, a potty chair, oh, and both kids, to push it during a run to the park and back. My heart leapt at the promise of untethered treadmill miles, even a long, warm communal shower in flip-flops, while exactly no one called me “Mom.”

Our family slipped in among gray-haired morning regulars, afternoon basketballers, cardio-committed, aspiring swimmers, and parents texting poolside in the steamy, chlorinated air. Together, we were a distillation of the southeast metro working-class community, across age, color, and BMI. We united for low-cost personal betterment.

The facility itself isn’t anything fancy. It’s one of the smaller, older Ys, with a pool, gym, and fitness area—no twisty waterslide, lobby fireplace, or rooftop deck. But it’s almost never too busy to get a treadmill, the kid-care staff teaches crafts and old-school card games, and you can connect with a trainer you don’t want to A) punch, or B) hide from.

Greater than the physical building is the humanity that unfolds inside as we stretch, sweat, and shower alongside our neighbors. I once overheard a front-desk worker’s canned, “How are you today?” elicit an unconvincing, “So-so.” She asked if he needed a hug. His yes was believable. She emerged from behind the desk to deliver a solid embrace that gave me hope for us all.

Then there’s the night that I left the locker room near closing after a really long day. My second child—the littlest one, whom I tucked into that thousand-pound bike trailer—had started kindergarten, and the weary days spent cobbling together work and kid time were gone. Happily, yes, but sadly, too. Even with post-workout endorphins pumping, I felt heavy with loss, overwhelmed with possibility, and confused at how it was still so hard, somehow, to fit everything into one day.

A grandfatherly man walking toward me said, “You look pretty tired.”

“Yeah,” I managed, shifting my gym bag. “I am.”
He looked me in the eye and said, “Well, I’m proud of you.”

I didn’t realize those words were something I needed to hear until the lump swelled in my throat. Life can seem so hard, and then so gentle sometimes, too. It helps to have a place where your needs feel met, whether that means getting regular exercise, a little empathy, a few minutes in the sauna with your book, or watching your kid do the front crawl all the way across the pool. Finally.