Each summer, we spend a week on a lake in northern Missouri with my in-laws. And every year, around day two of the trip, somebody drags out the large, red inner tube that’s been dubbed “Big Mabel” and attaches it to the pontoon. Personally, I’m not a fan of tubing, but I usually accompany our daughters when they want to participate. And this was the first year we let our 7-year-old daughter go tubing without me sitting next to her, with a death grip on her leg. As a former lifeguard, anything that requires being pulled behind a boat is high on my danger radar. And as a mom, watching her tube is far outside my comfort zone. It’s one of the rare moments in parenthood where I can see her, but have no way of communicating with her aside from a few hand signals.
So when a rogue wave popped up in front of the tube, sending her flying, I felt sick. We circled back to pick her up and found her floating there in her life jacket, panicked and sobbing. My brother-in-law jumped in to grab her and help her up into the boat. I pulled her up onto the boat and wrapped her into the biggest hug I could.
She continued sobbing. “That was so scary!” she said. “I thought you forgot I was there!”
My best friend’s dad is a retired child psychologist, and I occasionally reach out to him when I need advice. Every time I’ve talked to him, his advice essentially boils down to this: If you are okay, your child will pick up on that, and they will be okay too. If you are freaked out, your child will freak out too. I immediately forgot all about this advice, and reflected right back to her, clearly rattled myself:
“That was really scary! You flew off the tube!” I hugged her tightly and forgot completely about helping her move on.
After it became clear the crying would not let up anytime soon, my brother-in-law provided her with a different perspective. Rather than dwelling on the fear of the moment, he told her that she had done exactly what she was supposed to: she stayed put and raised her arm in the air so we could see her better. It was scary, yes, but she’d done everything right. Eventually my mother-in-law invited her up to the front of the boat to dance. Soon everyone was sharing their tubing wipeout stories, and my daughter was giggling with still teary eyes.
Five minutes later, she wove to where I was sitting and whispered, “I want another turn at tubing.”
Truth be told, when I am a spotter for the tubers — even for adults! — I rarely pass on the thumbs-up “faster” signal to the boat driver. And when she shared her desire to get back on the tube, I wanted to pretend I didn’t hear. But there was another part of me that knew she needed to do it. This wasn’t a moment to overrule her out of protectiveness.
For context, my first moment of parenthood was one of pure terror and complete helplessness. My daughter was born blue. I watched as the medical team attempted to intubate her. Her oxygen saturation dropped precipitously, and it took four attempts for them to get the breathing tube in the right spot. There was no easing into the anxiety of parenthood; I had a crash course in how quickly things could go wrong. Ever since, I’ve tended toward protectiveness.
So I watched apprehensively as she climbed back onto the tube, this time with Grandma and her older cousin to keep her safe. I think it’s safe to say I was more anxious than she was. She started out stone-faced, clinging tightly to the handles. Because she was tubing, being dragged several yards behind a loud boat, I couldn’t pester her with worried questions like I normally would. I had to trust the “I’m having fun” hand signal we created before she hopped on.
There was nothing I could do to help, and I didn’t like that part at all. But my heart felt like it was going to burst (because I was so proud, and also scared sh*tless) when she pulled herself up into a standing position on the tube, mischievously grinning as she pretended to surf. She recovered, and I was a bystander.
In a weird way, the tubing wipeout was a blessing in disguise, a monumental moment in our relationship as mother and daughter. Yeah, it was terrifying, and I hated it. But I also learned the rewarding feeling of watching my child get back up by herself. And I realized it isn’t fair for me to steal those opportunities from her.
It was a lesson in letting go — a reminder that it’s not my job to live her life for her, but instead, to teach her she is fully capable of living in an imperfect world. It’s not my job to protect her from every little bump in the road or wave in the lake. It’s my job to teach her when to take risks, and how to get back up when necessary. To remind her that everyone falls down and that there is so much joy, strength, and pride, in the getting-back-up part of life.
Laura Onstot writes to maintain her sanity after transitioning from a career as a research nurse to stay-at-home motherhood. In her spare time, she can be found sleeping on the couch while she lets her kids binge-watch TV. She blogs at Nomad’s Land, or you can follow her on Twitter @LauraOnstot.