I am often amazed by my daughter’s ability to be so focused on what she’s doing that she doesn’t hear or notice anything around her. She will forget the world around her and just submerge herself in whatever she’s doing. Imagine that kind of freedom! It is fascinating to watch and frustrating to parent. I ask her to come and eat for example, and she is so engrossed in what she’s doing her usual response is, “Just a minute”. But I know that in a minute she will not remember my request so as sad as I am to interrupt her, I will sometimes insist it happens now.
The first day on the beach in San Diego we lost track of her. She was so involved in her seashell hunting that she wandered too far from us. I was relieved to find her in the distance finally. She was too far to make out her face, but I could tell by the pail in her hand the and dancing and jumping that it was her. I tried to convince myself on the long walk to her, not to be angry with her. She was after all doing such an innocently fun activity and I am jealous of her ability to be so focused on a task that she doesn’t even realize where she is anymore. When I was close enough for her to hear me call her name, she turned around, happy smile on her face, as if I’d been there the whole time and we’d been sharing the splendid experience. I calmly explained she would need to stay closer. As we were walking back we saw her dad coming in the opposite direction and he also gave her a talking to when he got close enough, a little more sternly than I had.
The next day daddy set the boundaries as he pointed. “You need to stay between that flag and the pier.“ An hour or so later, we caught sight of her in the distance (well beyond the flag) dancing away from us joyfully skipping over waves with bucket in hand. She was too far away for us to even yell with the ocean waves crashing nearby. I set off to track her down in a fast walk as my planter fasciitis was too flared up to run. I watched her as I followed and again envied the complete and carefree JOY she pranced about with. She never once looked back as she skipped and danced further away from our safe spot in the sand. Again, I tried to talk myself out of being angry. I envisioned her little brain so focused on her task, on her “work” in that moment. She was not trying to be naughty. There was no malice intent. And again, when I got to her, she spun around with excited glee as if I’d been with her the whole time. She had never once looked back. She had not seen me following her. And yet there was no guilt or shame, only enthusiasm and excitement and sheer happiness.
My anger did get the best of me and I did introduce shame and guilt. We were so far off track by now the discipline monster in me felt there was no excuse. She had never been in danger as I had her in my sights the whole time, and if I’d needed to, I could’ve broken out in a run. She never went into the water. She never talked to a stranger. She hadn’t noticed the people or the water, only the seashells she was hunting.
We made a big deal of it. There were tears. We had to leave the beach. There would be no more sea shell hunting this day. We hammered the point quite continuously in the hopes that she would know the severity of her wrong-doing. “We love you. We want to keep you safe.”
On the third day, daddy was more elaborate with the rules. I rolled my eyes a little at his grand show of it as I was confident she’d learned her lesson. She is in fact a brilliant human.
The beach is exciting for a Colorado family. There are waves, interesting people, sandcastles to build, books to read, body boarding and surfing. Izak buried Nadia up to her neck in the sand then went back into the ocean for more fun. It was shortly after that I noticed the beautiful life guard running into the water in his direction, diving headfirst into the waves with her buoy. He seemed fine to me so I was still sitting in my chair… almost giggling that he was getting a talking to by “official authorities” since he is such a rule follower. Turns out there was a riptide and the nice woman was explaining that for his safety he should not swim right there. Or at least not that far out. (Didn’t seem too far out to me, but she’s the expert so I took note!)
The next thing I remember was Ali asking me, “Where’s Nadia?” It’s a common question so I actually didn’t even look up the first time. “Seriously, where’s Nadia?” This time it was like a slap across the face. I looked up. We took a few precious moments to scan the beach in all directions. We didn’t see her. He went one way, I went the other. There’s zero reason to call out at the beach. The waves make so much noise your eyes work better than your voice. The thoughts racing through my mind were horrific as I tried to stay calm. “There’s NO WAY she would do this again!” This was the most horrific thought of all, because that meant she’d gone into the ocean. I couldn’t see her getting taken. There were a lot of people on the beach, but not too many. She’s feisty, strong and loud. I just didn’t see that as a probable threat. My real fear was that she’d gone into the ocean to rinse off from being buried in the sand.
After frantic searching in each direction we were crushed to meet back at our starting spot, both empty handed. We both took off toward the life guard tower without a word, but I quickly peeled off to continue the search. There was no need for us both to go there. By this time we’d pulled Izak out of the ocean to help with the search. He headed toward the pier and I went in the opposite direction.
Plantar fasciitis be damned, I was running now, in my bikini, crying real tears and looking distraught, I’m sure. I did not notice anyone looking at me. I only prayed while I ran. I begged God. “Please! Please God!” kept spilling out between sobs then.
Ali was soon in a truck with a life guard headed toward some report they’d “found a girl”. He asked if she was ok, and there was no answer from the radio.
Meanwhile, I had collapsed somewhere down the beach in the opposite direction. Some complete stranger was bent down over me and helped me to my feet. He was with me when I saw Ali coming toward me. I screamed at him with my eyes to give me some sign that he’d found her and from that great distance he waved his arms toward himself in a manner that made my knees buckle again, this time in relief. The man standing next to me still didn’t know what the heck was going on and he wouldn’t know for a while as I could not speak through my gasps of relief. “Thank you GOD!” He helped me up again and I thanked him and tried to explain that everything was ok now.
Her explanation was that Izak had said he would go find sea shells with her. She’d gone back to get her bucket and when she turned around she didn’t see him. Although he was in the water right near her, her eyes were set on the adventure she was about to have with her brother, so off she ran in search of him.
It is not helpful to have a history of the unthinkable happening to our family, on more than one occasion. We’ve experienced loss, before we had children, of close, young family members. You realize statistics don’t mean anything when you’re one of them, that you are not exempt just because the “chances are slim”, and it opens your mind up to the most awful possibilities. I do tend to assume the worst. It is not a trait or habit I’m proud of, and I did try so hard to talk myself out of the panic on that beach. I kept telling myself that this is just a scare. There will be a logical explanation. But until I knew for sure, I had no breath.
I begged God in those minutes for another chance. I would do better. We would train her brain better. I would teach her to think in a way that I could keep her safe. We talk all the time here about how the brain works and that hers is a lot like mine was when I was her age. And happy news, the brain CAN be trained! We CAN change our thinking and our habits and our tendencies, if we want to. The problem is, she has very little desire to do so yet. I mean she has, and she does and she will continue to grow and change and develop but so far, she likes who she is! It was no skin off her back that we were terrified. It’s not her problem!
We must have hugged her a thousand times that afternoon. We would both say out of the blue, sometimes through tears, “I’m so happy you’re here with us right now!”
The thing is, I don’t want to teach her to be less present. I don’t want to take away her superpower of being so hyper-focused and adventurous. I don’t WANT to have to teach her to continuously interrupt her fun to ask herself, “What am I supposed to be doing right now?” I will send her to clean her room and go check on her 20 minutes later and she is playing with legos in a VERY messy room. She’ll walk into the pantry to get her vitamins, forget why she went there, and end up in the living room doing straddle press to handstands. She’ll walk through the door to leave the house and not close the door behind her. She’s 9! We’re LEAVING the HOUSE in a very crime-ridden neighborhood! She left the hose on for 2 days before we realized it. She left our filtered water fountain on full blast all night long. The list goes on…. and on.
The real issue is, I don’t have the patience or focus to follow her around all the time making sure she’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing… so I suffer the consequences. I repeat myself. I yell. Things don’t get done. There are tears.
Ali and I always say “We’re not raising kids. We’re raising adults.” We struggle between keeping them safe and letting them fail. Nadia in particular will climb anything, to an unsafe height, continuously. People will gasp and point and I will look and say, “Nadia, get down.” I’ve actually tried to do the math sometimes before saying it, “How MUCH damage would be done if she fell from that height?” In the end, it is usually best for every worried mother on the premises for her to just climb her little fanny back down to a reasonable level.
Here’s the point friends… I am failing, repeatedly, every single day… so badly that her life is in danger because of it. And I am struggling between letting her be her, and not squashing that amazing spirit, but also not losing my mind in the process. Parenting is hard. I’m reading the books. I’m taking the breaths. I’m really, REALLY enjoying learning who my kids are. I’m loving helping THEM notice their amazingness too. In the end, my best most important job, is to be eye to eye with these small humans, and truthfully, whole-heartedly, COMPLETELY reassure them that they are loved, they belong, I understand, and I LIKE who they are. And to encourage them to do the same for themselves.
I am thankful God continues to give me another day to try again. I apologize often and have warned them both… “It doesn’t matter how MUCH or how WELL I love you. You are going to have reason for therapy when you grow up. I am just going to continue to do the best that I can.”