My son’s swimming teacher has both of her hands around his
waist. “Relax,” she says. “I’ve got you.” My son whimpers and writhes. He wants no part of relaxing on the surface
of the water. “I’m scared,” he
cries. Back and forth they go—she’s
promising she’s got him, he’s insisting he’s scared and wants to get out.
I sit on the edge of the pool, tight with terror that
belongs to another place and time. I’m
sure the teacher wishes I would take my anxious face and handwringing somewhere
else during the lesson. But she knows I
won’t. I can’t. It’s too scary to trust my children with
anyone else around water. In 1987, the
summer before I started high school, one of my closest friend’s dad drowned
while we were on the beach during a Hawaiian vacation. It was a horrific and traumatizing event that
marked the end of my innocence and the beginning of a lifelong water phobia
that has escalated since motherhood.
I was praying I wouldn’t pass my own trauma to my
children. Turns out, I’m not in control
of what they pick up from me. When I see
my son squirming with fear about “the deep end” and hear him begging to get out
and sit on the edge, I feel a confusing mixture of sadness that I’ve ruined
something that most children love, and failure that I couldn’t keep my PTSD to
myself. Believe me, I tried, but anytime
we went somewhere with a pool, I morphed into a hawk, refusing to take my eyes
off my children and constantly shooing them away from the pool.
I realize it’s time for me to deal with my past in a deeper way.
When our nanny asks to take them to the
wading pools during the summer, I make up excuse after excuse to keep them
away. This summer I vow to tell her the
truth: “Water terrifies me because I was once in an accident where someone
I thought that swimming lessons would help me relax. After all, they are to ensure my kids’
safety. We can’t avoid water for the
rest of their lives, nor can I expect to always
be there when they are swimming. During
the lessons, I try to stay in my chair and keep my mouth shut so my kids can
have their own relationship to the water. I’m getting better about not screaming when they dive for the rings and
it feels (to me) that they are underwater for too long.
Sometimes I apologize for being so afraid. And I am
sorry. But when I sit on the edge of the
pool, my heart racing as if the scary scenarios in my head are about to happen,
I know that the real injury to my children isn’t that I am afraid for them. It’s that I’ve taught them that fear is more
real than trust; that tragedy is more likely than simply having a nice day at
the pool. It’s a burden that I never
wanted to carry as a kid, but it was foisted on me. Now that I see my son carrying it too, I
realize it’s time for me to deal with my past in a deeper way. I need to find a way to manage my fears more
productively and keep them from spilling onto my children.
And the real injury to myself is staying stuck my water
terror instead of moving beyond it to something like healthy respect for its
potential danger. There has to be a
better way than holding my breath and willing away the dark thoughts that
plague me. I’m actively searching for that better way, because both I and my kids deserve it.