Sink or Swim: The Battle With Our Kids' Fears

My girl talks focus and determination all week, and damn, it makes me proud.
10/17/2012 08:44 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

I'm on the sidelines. There's a familiar knot in my stomach the size of what feels like a hard unripened avocado. I remember this emotional space now. But it's not my turn. Zoe now stands at the edge of the pool with her 4-year-old compadres, waiting to jump in the deep end, kick board in hands. And today, she's shaking like a proverbial leaf.

Weeks ago before a brief six-week swim lesson hiatus, my daughter Zoe had no trouble jumping in the pool with joy and just enough "look what I just did!" pride. I didn't worry about breaking her skill-building stride over the course of a mere few week absence from the pool. She has developed trust in her instructors and herself with the notion that we all achieve from climbing our walls of insecurity: pure and enveloping self-confidence.

Now, nearly frozen with fear at the edge of the pool, Zoe shivers and shakes her head. As I watch her back and forth negotiations with her instructors, her trepid talk moving from whine to cry, I notice the emotional pit in my own belly feels stronger than how I remember my childhood growing pains.

Ugh, can Zoe sense my angst? They're so intuitive, our little mini-mes. Of course she can feel it.

Despite both instructors encouragement and the dangling carrot of "free time for good listeners and triers of their bests, Zoe holds her ground for the remaining 20 minutes and refuses to jump. The other bunnies get the free time carrot. Zoe watches her friends play in the shallow end as she stands against the wall watching the clock tick until it's time to dry off and head home.

I don't even need to start the conversation. Safely burritoed in her towel, Zoe offers, "They won't catch me and I'll go under too long and drown, Mama."

I dig into my gut on this one, because I know one big thing: There would be so many more jumps ahead -- both at the pool, and every damn day of her life. This is a pop quiz compared to the road tests ahead.

I tell Zoe it was okay to be afraid, because, it is great to feel fear. She blinks, confused and still whimpering. It's hard to explain how to use fear to reach your goal to a 4-year-old. Plan B? Straight up comfort. Her instructors and I would be there to protect her in the pool. Once she got one jump under her belt, the second would be easier, better, and the third, fourth and so on, even more awesome. She thinks about this concept for the whole day, periodically asking questions for assurance. By bedtime, Zoe is amped for a do-over.

My girl talks focus and determination all week, and damn, it makes me proud. But I still hadn't completed my job. I had failed her that first week back at the pool. The energy I exhaled poolside was pure fear and anxiety that didn't serve her at all. I wanted a do -over too.

I also know that Saturday morning could bring a different 4-year-old girl, one not so rah-rah about getting back in the water.

Sure enough, Saturday morning brings back a few nerves. Zoe's not a big hand-holder anymore, but crossing the street to the pool club, she reaches for me. I need to think fast and offer up a preschool Xanux-esque adage to ease her anxiety.

"Zoe, if you start to get worried, look over at me. I'll give you a thumbs up, smile, jump, cheer and make silly faces to remind you that you're okay. I promise you that."

It doesn't sound like much, but I knew for this 4-year-old, always ready for Mommy to act the goofball on cue, it was everything she needed. My best self would be there, no fear, no worry, just present with love and laughter.

Again. Edge of the pool. Take two. Here we go, I think, or maybe I say it aloud. I exhale, smile ... She looks up and over at me. She's smiling too. JUMP. SPLASH. YES!

"Mom! Mom! I did it!" Zoe shouts from the pool, swimming on her back proudly with the kick board, having just stuck her landing in her instructor's arms. But she doesn't have to shout so loudly. I am already on my feet, thumbs-upping, doing possibly an Irish jig and totally earning the stunned looks from parents busy on their iPhones. Yeah, I'm "one of those moms" today. Yes! Si Se Puede!

The instructor looks over after his one-armed kid catch with a huge grin. "You guys will be just fine," he says with a wink. Apparently, he had been watching too.

I grin back at him, exhaling with pure joy. I'll mask the next moment when fear over "what's next?" sweeps over me. But I'll use it. It will keep me swimming in the deep end for her ... and coming up for air each time with gusto.