what you’re missing

Ed note: I submitted the following to Huff Po a while back. I was told that it was being held for use as a feature, but I have no idea when it might be published. Since I suck at waiting, I’m posting it here in the meantime. When / if it turns up there, I’ll come back and add the link.



Playing in the pool with Katie

Maine, 2010


Here I am at the pool, dangling my feet over the edge, watching. I’m here because I’m keeping a close eye on my girl, who is playing in the water, but I can’t help but see your kids too. Your charmingly brutish, barrel-chested four-year-old son, running around the pool deck, squeezed into his life jacket like an adorable little sausage. Your giggling six-year-old daughter, chasing princess sinkers with the new best friend she met three minutes ago. Your two-year-old, bending over to watch a stream of pee as it makes its way down his leg and onto the concrete pool deck below.

And I look for you.

When I eventually spot you, you’re but a few feet, yet miles away — chatting with friends, catching up on gossip, swapping recipes, scrolling through emails, reading.

I know that our vigilance levels are, by design and necessity, very, very different. My daughter is autistic. She has epilepsy. That means a lot of things of course, but for the sake of this conversation, it means that she has trouble communicating with others and interacting socially and that she could, without warning, have a seizure, which clearly could be deadly in the water. So I don’t typically get to be off-duty when she’s around other kids, and I sure as hell don’t get to sit back and devour the latest beach read when I bring her to the pool.

Which means that my experience is always going to be different from yours — and I get that. And it’s okay. It really is. As much as I’d be lying if I said that I don’t relish the idea of relaxing poolside, I really like hanging out with my kid. She’s all kinds of awesome and we have a great time together. And, besides, I hate to break it to you, but I heard that the ending of that book sucks anyway.

But truthfully, none of that is the point. I’m writing to tell you what I see over here. And why, even though you don’t have to maintain the same level of vigilance that I do, if you keep opting to tune out and shut down, leaving the job of parenting to the teenaged life guards scanning the surface of the pool, you’ll miss an awful lot.

You’ll miss him running into trouble and not knowing what to do. You’ll miss her panicking when the lifeguard asks her not to jump so close to the steps. You’ll miss him, unintentionally or otherwise, treating other kids like crap without anyone there to rein him in.

You’ll miss him ignoring the life guards as they try to tell him that he’s being unsafe — or worse, doing something that is making others unsafe. You’ll miss her rolling her eyes at them as they walk away, and them rolling their eyes in return, but not at her — at your absence, whispering under their breath, “Where the hell are this kid’s parents?”

You’ll miss him meeting up with my kid in the water, wondering what to make of her odd entreaties to play. You’ll miss how much he could benefit from your guidance in that moment, from your example to treat all people he encounters with generosity and respect.

You’ll miss him getting teased by that bigger kid on line behind him for the diving board. You’ll miss her deciding that shit rolls downhill and cutting in front of the little girl in front of her who’s been waiting patiently for her turn. You’ll miss him splashing everyone in a four-foot radius because no one is there to remind him to be aware of his surroundings.

You’ll miss him mustering the courage to go down the big slide — a first that will be never be a first again.

You’ll miss him navigating without a net while you read your book and laugh with your friends and check your email.

You’ll miss your two-year-old toddling straight into the deep end while you laugh as you say with a shrug that you exaggerate for your appreciative audience, “Oh for heaven’s sake; I lost my kid again!”

Forgive me for not laughing with you. You see, for many parents of autistic and/or epileptic children, losing sight of them around water is a paralyzing fear. And your kid is two. So I guess I just don’t get the joke.

I apologize if this sounds judgemental. I swear it’s not my intention. You see, I’ve just got a different view from where I’m sitting, and I thought that you’d want to know how much you’re missing over there.

Opportunities to teach and guide. To celebrate and encourage. To draw boundaries and foster respect.

Trust me. Put down the book once in a while. Leave the conversation with the other moms for another time. Check your email when you get home. Join me here at the edge of the pool, where the kids are.

Not just near them, with them.

You might just be amazed by what you see.

28 thoughts on “what you’re missing

  1. You are absolutely right. They are not present in their children’s lives and are also missing out on their own lives.

    Love you,

  2. Couldn’t have said it better. Too many people don’t watch their kids enough near the water. I have 2 kids on the spectrum, and one of whom has behaviours of concern (my 3 year old son)… so me watching him is also for the safety of OTHER kids, not just his. I hate it when other kids laugh at him flapping, or stimming, or being a typical kid with autism. Or he’ll walk up to them and stare at their feet, because he wants to play but doesn’t know how to ask. And if I tell their kids off, I get told I should “keep my son at home so no one has to see him”. Makes me sooooo angry.

  3. I love and appreciate your candor. I don’t know if this was on a weekend or during the week, stay at home moms or what, but my mama always had to work and she put every last second she had when she was home, every last drop of energy she had, into my brothers and myself. She used to fall asleep kneeling at my bedside, so tired but trying to stay awake to listen to meet talk about my day ;0)

    I always wondered why others’ moms who got to be around did what you describe above. Maybe it’s just because they can, they get excesses of time with their kids so they don’t need to make use of it all (I.e. perhaps they feel they can…disrespectful behavior of their kids aside, of course).

    Anyways, I always wished my mom could be around like the other girls’ and it took me a long time to appreciate that I got to have a mama like you seem to be, one that pays attention, pays care. For that reason, I especially appreciate your commitment as a parent to be there for your daughter, emotionally, not just physically. It’s a refreshing view, I think a lot of kids could benefit from such care. Props to you ;0) Your daughter’s lucky to have you.

  4. As a mom and special ed teacher (and former life guard) I am always watching at the pool – chatting with my friends but with one eye on the pool … While my girls are great swimmers its the teachable moments that I am really looking for … And treating everyone with kindness is always the lesson of the day. Most days I have it easy. Yesterday – when my daughter was stretching her eyes like my other daughters Chinese friend – not so much. A quick arm squeeze and a private stern conversation in the ladies seemed to nip it in the bud but time will tell. Thank you for opening my other eye.

  5. Very well said. As a parent of special needs child the awareness is always high when out. Typical or not parents need to spend more time with kids. You’re always bonding at sometime or another.

  6. There’s a balance of watchfulness and allowing independence that all of us parents have to find and it really is different for each child. I know I can let my older daughter roam around the park with friends out of my sight for long stretches both because of her age and her personality. My younger one, though perhaps old enough to ramble is not ready for that much independence. She has difficulty relating with peers, becomes anxious in certain situations, and can outright panic over what to others might feel like a normal kid moment. Sometimes I have to take a deep breath and back off and let her try but my eyes are always on her.
    What I appreciate most abut your post is that you did not rush to judgement but offered your perspective. I have had great conversations with my friends as we try to help each other find the protective Momma balance. Having a glimpse at their view helps me focus my own. Thanks for adding your view.

  7. My son is in his 20’s and he too has autism and seizures, the worst kind. Anyhow, he loves the water, but whenever we go to the beach or elsewhere, he wears a life jacket. It is safer, and people may wonder what is wrong with him, but having a seizure in the water and not being able to get him out before damage is done is just not worth it. He’s a grown-up, and we have an above-ground pool, now and someone is always outside with him, even with the life jacket. Best wishes, it is hard, but you only have today. Tomorrow is promised to no one. God bless.

  8. I was recently told I am a “helicopter mom”. Um. I have autistic triplets. What exactly do you think goes along with that? My eyes have been opened. But what started as hyper vigilance has turned into the celebration of spending time with my kids (along with, well, hyper vigilance for safety’s sake.) Being an ENGAGED parent.Thank you for writing this. I don’t look at it as judgmental—it truly just makes me sad that with all the ways we can engage with and teach our children, sometimes it seems that parents aren’t grabbing onto those moments.

    • I have been called a helicopter mom too! I do not have special needs children but I feel that it is our responsibility to be aware (not aggressively controlling), but aware of our little ones and be ever present. I have twins that have definitely put my endurance to the test… but autistic triplets, you are a special mom! I agree about being an engaged parent… no matter the number of children or their needs.

  9. “Opportunities to teach and guide.” I struggle with this with other teachers. I can’t stand seeing these opportunities pass in the classroom and on the playground. Pay attention!

  10. I could never imagine taking my eyes off either of my kids near water. One Autistic. One NT. Doesn’t matter. They are still little, and it’s my responsibility to ensure their safety and happiness.

  11. I just experienced this at a park. Slightly different, but very similar. Moms who are escaping in their side conversations do miss so much that is going on right in front of them.

  12. I love loved this. Just because my kids are not autistic or with special needs, does not give me a right to stop being present in their lives. I always feel a little weird when I’m in the pool with my kids now that they are swimming by themselves. I look around and see the moms chatting or sunbathing and I think, “Is that what I should be doing?” But I don’t, because these moments with my boys are precious and fleeting. I’m afraid to miss them because I missed so many of them when I worked full-time and didn’t have so many of these moments I’m fortunate to have now. Don’t get me wrong, I like to “check out” once in a while and look on my phone or play a game because my stress level has peaked, but I’m pretty sure that is a survival instinct for a mom who knows she needs to chill for a second so she doesn’t blow her top. Hope Huff Po posts this!

  13. Love this!!! When my guy was young and undiagnosed, I often wondered when is the magic age when I can sit and read a book while he plays. He’s now 16 and that magic age has not come but I swear it’s closer! The up side is that I will always know where my 16 year old is. “Those parents” in this piece will be the ones driving around at midnight looking for their 16 year olds who are hanging out doing God knows what, behind the Pizza joint. I am happy with my way! I wouldn’t change a thing!

  14. Amen. And what a wonderful reminder that the life God has prepared for me is full of blessings if I choose to see them as blessings. I used to (occasionally and silently) resent the fact that I’ve been called upon to be a “supermom” to two autistic pre-schoolers… but as time marches on, and I see the joy and beauty of being more connected, appreciating developments, being extremely thoughtful about how I parent, model and teach, and celebrating the small things, I know I am only blessed with my two lovelies.

    I’ll have many years to play scramble on my phone when they have gone off to college. 🙂

  15. I love you, and I agree with large parts of what you say (no two year old is able enough to wander around unnoticed into the deep end of the water), but as I’m sure you would ask others not to judge you, I ask that you don’t judge me. Because it is my choice–a well-thought-out, well-researched, well-considered choice–to give my kid(s) the opportunity to navigate their world without me at times and in situations where I feel it’s appropriate. I’ve watched them like a hawk when I’ve needed to…and what I’ve seen has told me that I do NOT have to watch them like a hawk right this minute, at this pool. (That’s actually not true for me with my ASD son around water, but where you say pool, I’m thinking weekly music in the park outings with my friends where the kids run off to the playground that I cannot even see from where I sit, and what you’re saying about the pool is true of me at the park, my one oh-so-treasured time of the week to sit with my girlfriends and my/their husbands and talk while our kids play on the swings, so…I’m extrapolating.)

    I know I’m missing some pretty amazing stuff, but for ME (just me, no one else), I think the gift of independence is worth the sacrifice of the pride and joy I’d get by watching them try that new slide for the first time. (Besides, they come running to me after, shouting, “Guess what I did!” And the joy on their faces is pretty wonderful then, even though I wasn’t there for the moment itself.) And just so you know, I’m not asking anyone else to parent them; I’m simply letting them make mistakes and learn from them, get dirty without me cautioning them to be careful of their new shirt, try something maybe a wee bit dangerous without me stopping them.

    Also, they are with other kids; my son isn’t at that playground alone. And trust me. When my kid steps out of line, someone tells me about it. (Usually, that someone is my other kid…ah, the joys of tattling on a sibling. But just as often it’s my friend’s son, or my other friend’s daughter, or even a random child or, when they were younger, another parent. And then we work through the conflict…or we all agree to leave one another alone.) My son has learned more about social interaction from those Sundays in the park without constant adult supervision than he EVER learned from the OT-laden social-skills groups of his past and present. (Or, to be fair, he probably learned tons from the social-skills groups; it’s just that he get to USE what he learned in the park in a ‘real world’ setting and without constant support and correction from a grownup.)

    There are probably TONS of parents who are just ignoring their kids when they shouldn’t be. But it’s hard to tell them apart from people like me. I may look like I’m just a terrible parent, but I’m not. (Or at least I don’t believe I am.) Just as I completely understand why you need to be so present with Brooke–and am more than a little jealous of what you’re getting to experience with her as you float there together–please understand that my parenting is deliberate and well-thought-out, too. It works for me. It works for my kid. I’m not missing opportunities to guide: this IS me guiding. Give me the benefit of the doubt.

    • Fair enough.

      And there absolutely, positively are times when we all do the same – I’d argue (agreeing with you!) that it’s just as important to give our children room to fail so that they can learn to succeed when that’s appropriate as it is to guide them through step by step when that is.

      This post came from these experiences happening as I described them; they weren’t made up. So a woman who never knows where her toddlers are at any given time at our pool complex (which consists of 5 pools in total on two different levels) literally laughing to a crowd of parents that she lost her two year old (again) and a little girl shoving in front of another kid with no parent ever checking in and the kid standing there peeing – those are the stories that led me to write the post.

      And as I said, and really meant, it wasn’t meant to be judgmental, but to simply say, “there’s a lot going on over here that’s worth seeing and experiencing with your kids” to those who don’t *appear* to realize that. But I have no doubt that given all the thought you’ve put into it, you’re doing exactly what works for you and your kids and that’s precisely as it should be. Unless you’re two year-old is headed for the deep end without supervision, I’m not judging, promise. 😉

      Thank you for sharing your perspective.

    • Letting my son go off by himself is the most difficult guiding I do. But I cant see how else he can enter into an authentic relationship with himself. He needs the space to find out who he is and who he wants to be in the world – not just in our house, and not just as our son. But it terrifies me.

  16. Amazingly Written….I have felt this way Orrins WHOLE life 😀 I stop to soak up everything….I’m proud to say I havent missed much either. I would much rather hang out with my kids than any other adults 😀 Thanks for putting it into words.
    Stacy 😀

  17. I agree with so much of what you had to say – all of it, really – and so appreciate the detail and thought put into your post. I, too, have been the one at the pool wondering where in the hell the other parents are, how they’re not noticing that their kid has taken the pool noodle to the spray ground when the sign clearly says “No Pool Noodles Allowed”, or why no one is reprimanding the kid who is deliberately splashing everyone in sight, or that there’s one poor kiddo who keeps looking back at his dad, who’s never taking his eyes off of his iPhone, hoping maybe he’ll watch him dive in. I definitely agree that there’s so much to be seen, to be learned, to be enjoyed, by actually *being* with your kids and noticing, listening, watching.

    I also agree with TC, above, that there is a balance — and I am for sure one of those moms who deliberately allows her kids to explore and navigate the world around them, and their friendships, without me present. I’ve always felt that two of the greatest “gifts” (said with heavy air quotes) I can give my daughters (who, to be fair, are not autistic) are a sense of confidence and competence — a belief in themselves and their abilities, a sense that they’re capable and strong and intelligent. That cannot come from my watching their every move from mere feet away; they have to do for themselves. This, obviously, does not apply to two year-olds getting “lost” at a vast pool complex 😉 but to more general settings, like the park that TC described.

    Finally, however, I have also been amongst those talking moms (and dads), the ones who ARE ignoring our children (although, so far, never negligently, and certainly not for long)… and I’m not sorry for it. Sometimes, those moments at the pool — yes, I have literally done this at a pool, while my daughters swam off by themselves (they’re very good swimmers) — are the only ones I’ll get all day to have a conversation with a treasured friend, or maybe even an acquaintance, and at the time, those moments spent talking to another adult are more valuable to me than watching my children go down the slide for the first time. Maybe that makes me a horrible parent… But I also think it makes me human – and, in some ways, perversely, maybe a better parent.

    See… it’s been a rough summer, emotionally. A beloved family member has terminal cancer, and his illness has been extremely difficult for (my husband and) me. I’ve been struggling. But I am doing everything in my power to not let my daughters’ summer be affected by my grief and exhaustion. When we are doing things together (not going to a pool 😉 but perhaps playing a game or going on a hike or making slime or baking cookies), I am *there* — fully, completely engaged. When we’re not doing things together but we’re with or near one another (say, they’re making a fort while I fold laundry), I make a conscious effort to be cheerful and positive (although we’re honest, too), so I don’t scare or worry them. It’s a fine balance, and it’s exhausting, both emotionally and physically.

    And so, when I have a rare moment to see friends at the pool or the park or the playground, I absolutely hold on with both hands and revel in conversation. Maybe I’m talking about cancer, or maybe I’m talking about “So You Think You Can Dance,” but it’s a release and a stress-reliever that I *NEED* to be functional as a human being and as a parent. As much as I love them, I cannot discuss hospice care with my 6 and 8 year-olds, and they definitely don’t understand the fine nuances between a caramel macchiato and a french vanilla latte. When I don’t have those moments to engage in grown-up conversation, I become… frazzled. Too much frazzle, and I begin to break down. It’s not pretty. So, oddly (and sure, maybe I’m just saying this defensively), I think that those lost-in-conversation moments actually enable me to be a better parent, because I can refresh. I think I’m a much happier, healthier mama when I’ve had a few minutes to talk with a friend.

    Those conversations happen even when cancer isn’t on my mind — they happen simply because I need adult interaction. It’s not that I don’t want to share my daughters’ accomplishments, nor that I don’t want to guide them or watch them or be with them… but, at that moment, chatting with a girlfriend trumps playing Marco Polo. Very soon, my conversation will end, and I’ll be shouting “Fish out of water!” with the rest of them. But, for the time being, while they’re splashing about in the pool, I’ll talk with my friend. You can bet that I’ll know where my girls are, and that if they’re running on the pool deck, I’ll tell them to slow down before the lifeguard even sees them… but I’ll be having that conversation. I know I might miss stuff, but my kids will miss out on having a healthy, functional mama if I don’t.

    (Jeez, I’m sorry this is so long! It’s been a rough week; can you tell your post touched a nerve?! Ack. Love your writing; love this blog. Thank you. 🙂 )

    • Yep! 🙂 (And sorry to hear about your rough summer. Also? I adore SYTYCD. Just saying. I watch almost zero TV on a regular basis, but SYTYCD and Downton Abbey are must sees.)

  18. I’m 22, and my mom still watches me when I swim (although now that I am an actual, independent adult, she’ll at least watch from the kitchen instead of keeping a constant eye on me).

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