I am currently hiding in the upstairs guest room at my sister-in-law’s beautiful house in Southern California, trying to block out the screams of my 5-year-old as he begs to get out of the pool. He is having a swim lesson, his fourth one in as many days, and the instructor is trying to convince him to put his face in the water. It’s taking every ounce of will I have not to run down there and scoop him out of the water. I can hear my 2-year-old asking my husband, “Why Theo crying?”
Theo does not want to put his face in the water. He is happy to swim-float while wearing his Puddle Jumper, but he does not want to go under. He tells me that he will do it when he’s a grown-up.
The reason we’re doing these lessons is because last year, in the very pool where he now pleads for mercy, Theo lowered himself into the water while no one was looking and promptly sank to the bottom. The experience has haunted him, and me, ever since.
We visit my sister-in-law and her husband in Southern California every year. They have a resort-like house with a gorgeous pool, and staying with them is a mini-vacation. Ever since Theo was old enough to walk, we drilled him about water safety. We told him that he must never go near the pool unless he is with an adult; he is not allowed to even go outside without a grown-up. And we are vigilant. “Where are the kids?” I ask about 20 times a day, when one of them has wandered out of sight. I automatically glance toward the pool, bracing myself for the worst.
Last year’s incident happened in the middle of a family gathering. There were a lot of adults outside at the time, including my husband, who had turned away for a moment to get Theo’s Puddle Jumper. I had stepped inside for a minute, and when I opened the sliding glass door to go back out to the pool I saw Theo under the water, his eyes bulging in terror. My husband jumped in and pulled him out. The whole thing lasted maybe three seconds.
I wrapped a towel around Theo as he wailed. Eventually, his cries slowed to a whimpering chant: “Oh Mommy, oh Mommy, oh Mommy.” After he calmed down a bit, I went inside, locked myself in the bathroom, and sobbed. Then I pulled on my bathing suit and took him back into the pool; I wanted to show him that he would be OK, that he could be safe in the water. He clung to my neck and allowed me to walk him around the pool for a while.
Later, I tucked Theo into his bed and lay down next to him. He eventually fell asleep, but I stayed there, watching him, trying to reassure myself that it had turned out alright. When I closed my eyes I saw him in the water, his body vertical and his wide-open eyes staring out from under the surface. It was the exact pose I’d seen in the drowning videos that make the rounds on Facebook at the start of every summer. But then I’d open my eyes and see him sleeping next to me, his eyebrows still scrunched in worry, and remind myself: We were there, and my husband pulled him out, and he’s OK.
When we returned home that year, I enrolled Theo in swim lessons right away. At the first one, he screamed and begged to get out of the pool while kids half his age slipped through the water like little seals. Afterward, I told him I was proud of him. I didn’t remind him that we would be returning the following week (and six more after that). He endured the lessons—he was sweet on his swim instructor, who was a dead ringer for Alicia Vikander—but he refused to put his face in the water. At the end of the final lesson, he declared that he would never take another swim lesson again.
And he didn’t, until this week.
“Do you know what the definition of bravery is?” I asked him at breakfast a couple of days ago, while we were waiting for the swim instructor to arrive. He was pulling at his lip and he whined whenever I strayed from his side. “It’s feeling scared of something but doing it anyway.” He looked at me and said, “Like facing my fears?”
To his eternal credit, Theo put on his bathing suit and walked stoically out to the pool when it was time for his lesson. I watched from inside as the instructor put Theo’s swim goggles on. Then I went upstairs.
My husband and I debate whether we are doing the right thing. Are we worsening his fear of the water by forcing him to do this, or is he becoming stronger by facing his fears? Will he “thank us someday,” or are we providing yet more fodder for his future therapy?
To parent is to live with constant fear: of the choking hazard, the fall down the stairs, the slip into the pool, the split second when we’re not looking. I know that my worries will change, and probably grow, as my children do. My husband and I won’t always be there to help them. When I stop to think about all the dangers that lurk out there in the world, threatening these two little people I love so much—from physical harm to emotional wounds—I wonder how I can possibly bear it. Every day is an act of bravery.
Like all parents, all I can do is give them the tools to help themselves in preparation for those times when I won’t be there. But for now I’ll be watching—or hiding out nearby—and doing my best to be brave.
A small victory: Theo put his face in the water. (He would insist that I tell you he did it FIVE times.) When my brother-in-law asked how his lesson went, he told him, “Great!”