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The Parenting Moment We're All Terrified Of

Photograph by Twenty20

My daughter is terrified of the water. We're talking sheer panic, screaming like someone's trying to drown her, anytime water touches her face (be it in the shower or the pool).

It's bad. And it's been a consistent problem since she was about 1 year old (she's 3 now). So I wasn't totally shocked when I took her in to be evaluated for swimming lessons and was told, "Yeah, we can't take her on yet." But I was desperate when I looked at the instructor and pleaded, "I understand, but what can I do?"

You see, I think it is vitally important that my daughter know how to swim, obviously not tomorrow, but sometime. We live in a state where we are constantly around open bodies of water, and the problem with this fear of hers is that it doesn't stop her from wanting to play around the water—it only kicks in when she's actually in it. So eventually, she needs to learn how to swim. I can't risk her falling in and not knowing what to do.

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But the fear has only gotten worse over time, not better. So what's the solution?

"You need to start bringing her to the pool a few times a week," the instructor told me. "Even if it's just the two of you sitting right there on those steps, she needs to get used to it."

I knew she was right. We had been to the pool a handful of times, always my attempt at "testing" whether her fear had somehow subsided. But I'd never made a concerted effort to get my daughter into the water on a regular basis. Why would I, given that she hated it so much?

But the instructor was right. The only option at this point was repeated exposure. So, for the last two months, my daughter and I have gone to the pool together twice a week. She still freaks out if her face goes anywhere near the water, but at least now I can hold her and walk around the pool without a total meltdown. Sometimes I can even convince her to practice her kicks as I hold her upper body safely out of splashing range.

Baby steps.

I saw a look of panic flash across the face of the lifeguard directly in front of me.

We were doing just that last week when another family joined us in the water. It was toddler swim time on a Tuesday, so typically pretty slow. This mama and I were the only people swimming with our kids. She had one suctioned to her (around 1 year old, I guessed) and her daughter, who seemed to be a year or two older than mine, jumped right in and splashed gleefully about.

I was immediately jealous, if only because I so wished my girl could enjoy the water like that.

We were on the opposite side of the pool when they got in, but this mom pretty quickly started doing exactly what I was doing—walking with her little guy and trying to soothe his fears in the water. She made her way toward us, and I honestly didn't even think anything of it as her daughter remained splashing in the shallow end. That was, until I saw a look of panic flash across the face of the lifeguard directly in front of me.

Everything after that moment happened super fast, but also almost in slow motion. I turned to find the mom just a few feet away from me, her back to her daughter. The little girl was bobbing beneath the water, struggling to get her head above, but was too deep to be able to yell.

My reaction time felt stunted. "Your daughter … " I said, trying to point. The other woman turned slowly, she too seeming almost frozen in the moment. "But, she's just playing … isn't she?" I heard her say.

The lifeguard had made it to the other side of the pool by now and was jumping in as we watched, pulling the little girl out with her.

I should have offered to take this mama's baby. I should have urged her to swim as fast as she could to her girl. But I really did feel stuck right where I was, unsure what to do next.

Only a few seconds went by before the mother finally registered what had happened (right around the same time I thought to react, honestly), and she quickly moved with her son still in her arms toward her daughter. The little girl was crying, but otherwise fine.

The lifeguard truly had saved the day.

For the most part, I tried to keep my own girl faced away from the scene. She's already so afraid of water, I didn't want her processing what had just happened. But as we continued to walk, my heart went to this mama who was now huddled with her two kiddos in the shallow end of the pool.

It can happen so fast, I thought. A stupid decision can turn bad so quickly.

I wasn't judging her, for the record. Instead, I was thinking about all the times I've made stupid decisions myself. All the times things could have turned out so much worse than they did.

We all have those moments. For me, there was the time I removed my daughter's high chair tray and turned to take it to the kitchen, completely forgetting I hadn't buckled her in. She was only about 7 months old, and it wasn't until I heard her land on the floor below that I realized what had happened. Thankfully, she was fine. But I was a mess putting her in that high chair for weeks to come.

Then there was the time, when she was about 2 years old, that I was perusing the bookshelves of my favorite used bookstore. I had thought she was right in front of me, but I was distracted and don't know how long went by before I looked down and realized I couldn't see her. It took me 30 seconds to find her, two rows over, and they were the scariest 30 seconds of my life.

I knew this mama was probably beating herself up, just as I had beat myself up in the past, and I wanted to offer her some small piece of comfort. So slowly, I worked my way to where she and her kids were now sitting.

Her daughter was still shaken when we got over to them. "You are such a brave girl for still swimming!" I said. "That looked scary, but you are tough!" The girl nodded, proud now, and her mama looked at me. "I can't believe I did that." Her voice quivered and almost broke.

"Hey," I said, again to the little girl. "My daughter is sometimes scared of the water too. Do you think you two could play together with those balls right over there?" I pointed to two inflated balls that were floating right by the steps.

We should be kinder to ourselves when these lapses in judgment happen. And to each other.

Tentatively, the two girls allowed us to set them down (in an area where they could stand and the water was no higher than their hips), and hand in hand, they walked toward the balls.

I watched carefully as I said to the mama, "She's OK. It turned out OK."

"I know," she breathed, "I just … how could I have turned my back on her?"

I didn't know what to say, exactly, so I just offered, "It was a mistake. We all make them. And she's OK."

"It's her first time swimming," she admitted. "I don't want her to be scared forever now. That's the only reason we're still in this water. I just want her to know it's OK…"

I was surprised then. The little girl had been so excited playing in the water, it hadn't even occurred to me it was her first time.

"I can't believe I did that," she repeated. "I don't think I can even tell my husband." I looked at her now, just in time to see tears of embarrassment, shame and guilt springing to her eyes.

And that was when it hit me, the pressure we put on ourselves as mothers. The fear we have of being judged, even as we are so harshly judging ourselves.

She made a mistake. A stupid mistake, yes. But a mistake that a million other moms have made.

We get distracted. We get busy. We get tired. Our attentions get pulled. And sometimes, we make mistakes.

It reminded me of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning piece about children left in the backseat of cars. It reminded me how quickly we could all become a piece of Internet lore, a tragic story for the masses to judge, even as we are mourning the greatest loss of our lives.

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This is one of those moments we all experience in motherhood. Maybe it's not a near-drowning incident, but it can be us forgetting to buckle the car seat, letting go of our child's hand in the street or placing a Bumbo with the baby in it on the counter. These lapses in judgment could turn out so bad, but they happen to all of us. We all make these potentially tragic mistakes.

Which is not to say we should stop being vigilant, or that we should cease to look out for each other. Because of course, neither is true. But we should be kinder to ourselves when these lapses in judgment happen. And to each other.

Because it really could happen to any of us.

And sometimes, it's enough to just be able to say, "At least it turned out OK."

It doesn't always. But this time, at least it turned out OK.

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