09/15/2014 10:54 am ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

My Daughter Almost Drowned Today, So We Kept Swimming

Annmarie Kelly-Harbaugh

The ocean scared me today. It tried to take my kid.

Of course, the ocean had some help. My daughter swam out too far. And I was complicit, sitting on the shore, glancing idly from one family member to the next. Her brother stomping a sand castle. Her father surfing a wave. Her sister gnawing on a sandy mango. I squinted absently back toward the water and scanned the horizon for her familiar turquoise swimsuit.

It's been crowded in the ocean these past few days. Hurricane fallout, I'm told. Big waves, big fun. The pro surfer, Laird Hamilton, was here. n between sets, he pulled a man out of the churning waves. Swimmers have been cautioned about the currents. But it's our beach, our break. We always joke that our kids are half fish. I didn't think the warnings applied to us.

What bothers me most is how slow I was to act. I have always assumed there was something innate, some deep maternal instinct that would help me rescue my child if she was ever in danger. I'd karate chop anyone who threatened her. If a carnival ride derailed, I would shield her body with mine. A mother knows how to keep her children safe.

But I didn't. Instead, I sat on the beach and watched as my daughter was swept up by the sea. Waves, big ones, broke over her head. Again and again and again.

At first I was angry. She wasn't using good judgment. Why doesn't she come back? She's out too far.

And then I realized she couldn't. She was stuck. Panicked. With waves crashing all around, she couldn't get back to shore. I heard her voice, so very small, calling for help.

It was the voice that shook me from my stupor, that finally made me act. I ran into the surf and screamed to her father. He was closer. Within 20 seconds -- the longest seconds of my life -- he was there. He hoisted her onto his board and brought her towards me. She was safe. But embarrassed, and crying, and vowing never to go into the water again.

I wanted to honor that, to blanket her with kisses, and walk her far, far away from the hostile sea.

Instead, after she calmed down a little, while she was still sniffling and clingy, I took her hand, and we walked back to the water's edge.

She cringed when the first small wave washed over her foot. She pulled away and stepped back. I understood, but I took her hand again and we eased into the water. Dad came back out, and they caught a couple rollers back to shore. She was smiling when we left. I think bravery comes more naturally to children. I waited until after she was in bed to cry.

We made a bad call today. We let our little girl swim out too far. As a mom, I make lousy calls all of the time. I lose my temper. I fail to listen. I let them eat cake for supper. This was the first time a bad call could have cost me my child's life. I feel ashamed today, but also lucky.

And though I still have the urge to take her as far away as I can, I know tomorrow, we'll go back. We'll tumble in the surf together, we will bounce and laugh in the waves, and reluctantly, oh-so-reluctantly, I will let go of her hand again.