When my two older children became capable swimmers and no longer needed me to hover over them in the water, I created a new parenting rule for myself. I decided I would wear a swimsuit whenever I accompanied them to the pool or the lake, even if I didn’t plan to get into the water. Being prepared to play the role of lifeguard was a way to hedge my bets and ward off the unthinkable.
One morning, I broke my own rule. We had traveled from Minnesota to Phoenix so my husband could attend a work conference and we could soak up some sun. When seven-year-old Louisa and five-year-old Sebastian made their request—could they “please, please go to the pool” for a quick swim before lunch?—I was already dressed. It seemed like a hassle to put on my faded swimsuit, only to change back into regular clothes an hour later. Besides, their three-year-old brother, Elias, was due for a nap and wouldn’t be going in the water.
So I didn’t change.
I had on a new outfit that I planned to wear to dinner that evening: a white lacy shirt and a pair of green linen capris. Both items were dry-clean only. It was the nicest “smart casual” outfit I owned.
I walked the kids to the pool. Louisa and Sebastian had the main outdoor pool entirely to themselves. In an adjoining pool dedicated to lap swimming and marked off by a floating rope, a lone elderly man traveled back and forth with measured, practiced strokes. He scowled at our arrival and kept swimming.
Elias fell asleep on a towel-covered chair, and I continued to watch Louisa and Sebastian joyously splash around in the shallow end, demonstrating strokes they had learned in swimming lessons.
All seemed to be well. Until it wasn’t.
The kids had slowly drifted from the shallow three-foot area toward the five-foot depths of the pool. That’s when Louisa decided to give her younger brother a piggyback ride.
To a trained mother’s ear, the difference between the squeal of laughter and a squeal of fright is small but significant. Alerted to the potential danger, I scrutinized Louisa’s face from across the pool. An expression of consternation turned to panic as she strained to keep her head above the water. She could no longer touch the bottom of the pool, and the weight of her brother had become too much for her to bear. Sebastian, too, was having trouble keeping his head above the water, and he wrapped his arms more tightly around his sister’s neck.
I stared at them for a second—five seconds? Was it as many as 10?—while the world around me stopped. The intense rays of the Arizona sun reflected off the surface of the chlorinated pool. Puffy white clouds dotted the sky overhead. The green fronds of the palm trees that surrounded the pool were still; there was no breeze. My youngest child was dozing. How could anything bad happen in this place of beauty and serenity? Was I hallucinating?
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted movement. The crabby old man was swimming a few feet from my struggling children. He appeared to be looking straight at them and could have easily reached out to pluck them from the water.
But he didn’t even pause; he stayed on his side of the rope and kept swimming. Damn him. Why didn’t he help? Did he not comprehend the danger they were in, or did he simply not care?
Jolted out of my stupor by anger and fear, I kicked off my sandals and jumped into the water, fully clothed. I reached the kids within seconds. I snatched Sebastian off Louisa’s back and hoisted him over my right shoulder, then scooped up Louisa with my left arm. I drew them both in close and carried them, dripping, out of danger.
Later, when the kids and I were dressed in dry clothes, we told my husband all about the adventure. We laughed about it, knowing its happy ending, and the kids enjoyed retelling the story of how “Mama jumped into the pool with all her clothes on!”
I felt like a superhero. I was also keenly aware it could have ended differently.
My three kids are young adults now, and they are experienced swimmers who no longer require my presence at the pool. But I haven’t given up the lifeguard role entirely.
From the edge of the metaphorical pool, I continue to shout words of encouragement and caution as they test their independence in new ways. Whenever they approach deeper waters, I hold my breath. Usually they navigate their way back to solid ground without my help. And on those occasions when they find themselves struggling for air, I am prepared to jump in and do what it takes to keep them afloat.
It is a job both epic and ordinary, being a mom who loves her children to the depths of her being. It is totally worth the plunge.
Joy Riggs is the mom of three teenagers. She blogs about her family’s adventures in making and appreciating music at My Musical Family.