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I Only Looked Away for a Second

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On one particular day — one that will play like a movie in slow motion in my brain, over and over for years to come — nothing was out of the ordinary.

We had staked our claim in the shade, then moved over to the edge of the baby pool to splash and play. I sat on the edge as my 2-year-old ran around the foot-and-a-half deep water, playing with tugboats, planes, and plastic toy cups.

It wasn’t long before friends joined us. Moms sat next to me on the side of the pool as the kiddos jumped and splashed in the shallow water. We sat chatting as our kids played in front of us, catching up on summer plans, discussing different types of swim floaties, and regaling our latest toddler tales.

I’ll point out right here before I go any further that none of the moms in our group were checking our phones, reading magazines, or lounging back getting a tan.

And that’s when it happened.

I looked at my son, who had been standing a mere few feet in front of me, and immediately realized he wasn’t standing there playing Ring Around the Rosie anymore.

He was face up under water, looking up for me in an absolute panic.

I saw what was happening and immediately jumped up and over, but as my body reacted, my brain suddenly couldn’t process what was happening right in front of me. I’d already leapt into action when suddenly I froze. It was like my brain said it was all a big mistake. That wasn’t my child — or any child — staring up at me from underneath the water.

Luckily, my friend wasn’t so dense or frozen. She too had immediately sprung up with lightening-like reflexes and hurtled herself towards my son, landing completely sideways in the water as she reached for his arm and yanked him up out of the water.

I’d recovered from my second-too-long moment of frozen panic and was right there as she flung him out of the water and right into my arms. He was coughing, crying, and screaming in panic. I’ve never in my entire life been so happy to hear a child crying and sputtering and making a scene. It meant he was breathing. He was OK.

I gripped him tightly in my arms, relieved that nothing worse had happened.

A lifeguard had been ready to jump the fence to the baby pool when he saw my friend had already saved the day, but he came to check on us nonetheless. I was freaking out, relieved, and somewhat embarrassed all at the same time, yet I was trying not to let that translate through the tight grip I had on my son as I brought him into a chair to snuggle with me and calm down.

I wanted to tell everyone that was staring at us, “I was watching! I was there! I saw!”

And yet it still happened. Right in front of my face, my son slipped under water and didn’t know how to get back up.

I already paid great attention while I was at the pool. I told my husband we’d be there so he’d know why I wasn’t my usual responsive self to his texts or calls. I didn’t consider pool days “leisure” time; they were active times of play with my son. I never read a book or left him unattended or even walked to the other side of the pool while he was near the water.

Yet it still happened.

Ever since, I’ve been crazy-paranoid-vigilant in the watch I keep over not only my son, but all the kids in the baby pool. We all think we’re being safe around water or that nothing bad would ever happen to us, but I learned first hand that this isn’t true. Something can always happen and we can never be safe enough.

That’s why whether it’s a pool, lake, or ocean, I’ve decided that time spent near water is a time when my cell phone is put away and silenced. Serious conversations with my friends are put aside. Manners are given a pass. My friends now know I’m listening even though I don’t make eye contact with them while we’re talking at the pool. Rules are explained and repeated over and over with my son, every single time.

Kids don’t need to be made afraid, but they need to know that water can be dangerous and how best to prevent accidents. Channel your inner lifeguard and yell “no running” as much as it takes. Find a friend you trust to watch as carefully as you if you need to make a bathroom run, or else drag the kids with you.

Make little ones hold your hand even if they don’t want to and use floatation devices when appropriate. Sign your kids up for swim lessons. They’re not just for kids who want to be on the swim team later, and they’re even designed for infants. Look for classes that start with teaching the basics of floating, turning over, and blowing bubbles.

Now every time we go to the pool or near any kind of water, I review safety strategies with my 3-year-old son. I remind him …

  • Anytime he doesn’t know what to do or is scared in the water, to look for the sky and roll over on his back.
  • That he knows how to find the edge of the pool and that it’s always a safe place to grab on to.
  • That he knows how to blow bubbles and close his mouth so water doesn’t get in.

And of course, I remind him to stay near me.

Right after the incident, I made sure to get him back in the water (even though it terrified me to no end) so he wouldn’t have a fear of water going forward. I signed him up for swim lessons and educated myself on water safety tips. I made sure to sign him up again as a refresher in the beginning of the following summer.

Though I do these things to help keep him safe, I’ll never be near water and not be scared for him. I don’t let it show, but the fear is there. I’m thankful that he’s at an age where I’m still there all the time, just in case, but I know even that isn’t always enough.

So as you’re enjoying your pool days and the splashing and joy it brings your children this summer, learn from my story and be as vigilant and attentive as you can be around kids and water. Because it can happen, even when you think you’re doing everything right.

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