I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful sunny day at the beach. It was the beach my family had vacationed at every year for decades, my second home. I was probably 12 or 13 years old and my dad and I were walking out of the water back towards the beach, after a gnarly wave riding session on my oh so cool boogie board. As we entered the surfy portion of the ocean, where the waves start to break and the water is about knee deep, I felt something move underneath my feet. The next thing I remember is, what I claim to be a massive, 12 foot wide sting ray, making its way up from the ocean floor where I had so suddenly disturbed its slumber. I. Freaked. At 12 years old, I managed to jump up on my dad and scale his body as if he was a life saving ladder being thrown to me. I kid you not, I probably ended up completely on top of shoulders, screaming my head off and scaring the tar out of him in the process. I was completely unharmed and terrified out of my little freaking mind. And as silly as that story is to tell now, that moment forever changed the way that I viewed the ocean.
I wasn’t uneducated before “the incident”. I knew that sea creatures lived in the ocean. I just assumed that they all lived far out in the depths. In the 10 plus years that I spent summers boogie boarding, jumping waves and playing in the surf, I had never encountered anything besides the occasional crab pinch, so the fact that these sea creatures were so present in my every day territory, rocked my world. And it changed it. I started going into the ocean less. Oh, don’t worry, my “get back on the horse” dad made dang sure that I stepped back into that ocean before we left that week but I was completely petrified the whole time. And as I grew older each summer and it became more socially acceptable for me to spend my teenage years laying on the beach instead of playing in the surf, I began spending less and less time in the ocean. Which brings us to present day where you will rarely catch me in the ocean above my shins. And you can bet if I am in the water, my eyes aren’t leaving the ocean’s surface, always scanning for where the next sea creature might pop up.
Levi, though, loves the ocean. This summer in particular he has become quite the water lover and has spent every waking moment that I would allow in a body of water of some sort. Last week my family rented a beach house to celebrate the grandkids last week of summer freedom and we spent the whole week at the beach. Levi was having the time of his life doing all the things that I used to love, riding the waves, jumping the waves with my dad and making drip castles at the water’s edge. And my eyes and mind were on high alert the entire time. I know that even though he has watched every documentary possible on sea life and even though we have spent a good bit of his toddler/preschooler life roaming the streets of Sea World, that he hasn’t had his moment yet, where he realizes the truth about the ocean. He hasn’t learned about rip currents and undertow and most importantly (to me), about the creatures that live and rest under his feet where he frolics and plays. There were so many times last week when I wanted to call him back out the water. I wanted to give him another year of the freedom that comes with ignorance. I worried about what I knew to be true about the ocean and its fickle relationship with us mere humans. This was all intensified in me when my sister in law spotted a small shark in the surf one morning. (This is a truly hilarious story that you should have me tell you one day. It involves my pregnant sister in law jumping up from her beach chair, flailing her arms, running Baywatch style towards the ocean, all the while screaming “SHARK! GET OUT OF THE WATER!” at the top of her lungs. The shark in question would later be identified as a baby shark, but a shark nonetheless.)
Anyways, after the shark spotting, I was even more nervous about letting Levi get in the water. But as I sat there on the beach, watching him have the time of his life with my dad in the ocean, I started having a conversation in my head with my husband. Greg had to work off and on throughout the week so he was back and forth from the beach all week. I started thinking through what our conversation would look like if I were to tell him how worried I was about Levi in the water…with unknown creatures. Greg spent most of his high school life and beyond surfing and is much more comfortable in the ocean than I am. He has seen his share of sharks and other sea life and he knows when to head in and when to live and let live. As I argued with surfer Greg in my head I came to a moment where Greg said exactly what I needed to hear:
“Reagan, I’m pretty sure you’re letting your slightly irrational and panicky fears dictate how Levi gets to live his life right now.”
And surfer Greg in my head was right. Levi will most likely have his own moment with the ocean when he realizes it’s not always fun and games. And it will be his decision to decide how he wants to live his life after the revelation. He might be a little more cautious like me and stick to swimming pools or he might be more well rounded and adventurous like his dad and educate himself on how to make good decisions around the water. Regardless, while Greg and I most certainly have permission and even the responsibility to tell Levi our stories and give him our opinions, sometimes I have to remember as a mom that with some life decisions, they are just that: my opinion shaped by my stories, my fears, my successes, my failures, etc.
I find more and more with each passing day that parenting is a constant tight rope of giving your children enough information, fact and opinion to make well educated decisions and then letting those choices run their course. Don’t get me wrong. Teaching Levi about riptides and how to swim out of one and respect the undertow, those are life saving skills that as he gets older and his love affair with the ocean continues, Greg and I will be dang sure he knows about. But the smaller choices he makes, like how he deals with up close and personal nature encounters or how he handles changing schools or making new friends or maybe even one day moving far away from family and friends, those are the situations where I have to be careful to not let my own personal hurts, insecurities, fears, etc take over how he gets to handle those same challenges in his own life.
I’m only four years and some change into this parenting gig and I can already tell you that I feel like I fail more than I succeed but I can also tell you that I am trying my very best to watch out for as many pitfalls as I can identify. This particular one, though; this temptation to shelter him and coddle him and protect him from experiencing the valuable life moments that make us who we are, is my biggest pitfall as a parent so far. And it will only be by the grace of God, the perfect counterpart to me that is my husband and probably some wisdom from my counselor, that will keep me from falling into it time and time again. Because, man, those stingrays sure are terrifying.