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My Fear of Water Is Ruining Summer

Photograph by Getty Images

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.

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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 drowned.”

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.

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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.

Image via Getty

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