All the Things I Wish I’d Said (About Water Safety)

This is the second in a series of posts about water safety. To read the post I wrote right after the accident, click here. To learn more about water safety, check out this post.

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You know how sometimes you find yourself in a situation where you’re kind of blindsided, where you see something or you hear something and you don’t know what to say or do in the moment? And then afterwards, you think of all the things you wish you said?

That happens to me a lot. I’m not confrontational. I’m a people pleaser. I don’t want people to be unhappy or uncomfortable and have me be at the root of it all. I once joked that if my life were a Sara Bareilles song, it would be, “Say what you want to say…in an email…and then live in panic while you wait for them to respond and wish that you never said anything…” If I hate my meal at a restaurant, I will probably not say anything. If you hurt my feelings, I probably won’t tell you. I’m a terrible delegator because I don’t want to ask anyone to do a job I would hate to do. I would pretty much make the worst boss ever.

I’ve thought for a long time, a long, long time about writing this. I’ve put it off because it gives me anxiety, because I don’t feel like I’m ready, and then I write a Scoop post about fonts or something. But it keeps kind of resurfacing in my brain, consuming my thoughts, until I do something about it. So I’m doing something about it. And, to be honest, I feel a tiny bit sick to my stomach about it.

You know how everybody has their thing? You’ve got your car seat safety friends and you’ve got your Internet safety friends and you’ve got your bike helmet friends and you’ve got your screentime-is-evil friends, and sometimes you have all of them rolled into one person. Well, guys, I’m your water safety friend.

I shared the story of my son’s near drowning in October of 2012 here. Even though I posted right after the accident, I don’t regret it. Sharing was therapeutic, and the many, many words of kindness, most of which I never responded to, mean the world to me. So if I never thanked you personally, I’m so sorry.

But I was in a very raw place. I couldn’t say things the way I think they need to be said because I couldn’t say those words.

Grief is a funny thing. Even though we didn’t lose him, we came awfully close and I went to a really dark place. I don’t think that made sense to most people, even myself, because he was okay. It was like it happened and then it was over, but it wasn’t really over, you know? I spent a lot of time on the internet googling drowning. What happens. How long does it take. I call it grief porn, because even though I knew it was something that was exploiting my emotions and probably not good for me, I felt drawn to experiencing and re-experiencing all those emotions until I was tapped out.

I became angry, not really at anyone or anything, just intensely, rage-fully angry. It was like that was the only emotion my mind could process, so I did it at full-throttle.

I stopped feeling anything (besides anger) for a good year. In a desperate attempt to feel something, I watched Toy Story 3, which sent me over the edge for a good three weeks when it came out in theaters, and I left shrugging my shoulders.

I became convinced, completely neurotic, that something bad was going to happen, particularly to my youngest. Every time I put him down for a nap or left him with a babysitter, every time we got in the car, I thought that was it. I became totally and completely (and irrationally) paralyzed with fear. I seriously bathed him in a baby bather until he was 9 months old and practically walking out of it.

Finally realizing I needed help, I went to a counselor, who diagnosed me with PTSD. She was very nice and I liked her a lot, but then Clark started having panic attacks (everyone who told me that it would be way harder on me and that he would bounce right back have never met the most intense child on Earth) and I felt like I needed to focus on him. Whether or not that was the right decision, I’m not sure (actually, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the right decision, but I felt like I only had so much time and so many emotional resources), but we focused on getting him through that rough patch.

So now? We’re mostly good. We all have our moments, and sometimes something as simple as a smell or a song can trigger those overwhelming feelings of anxiety. But we’re good. A very wise social worker in the hospital told us that he absolutely had to get back in the water, not just because it’s a crucial life skill but because if we didn’t, it would be this monster that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

clark swimming copy

So he’s taken several rounds of swimming lessons and it’s become something that he loves. Usually.

clark at lake copy

So why am I telling you guys all of this? For a couple of reasons. I want people to know that even though he’s okay, it didn’t come without incredible emotional implications like guilt, fear, anxiety, anger, and isolation. I want people to know that things could have very easily gone in another direction, that we were exceptionally blessed/lucky/whatever, and that most people who come that close don’t make it, at least not without devastating side effects. I want to talk about what it was like, what it was really like, and I want to say all those things I wish I would have said, in hopes that we can save another family from an experience like ours.


I think most people have seen the “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning” article. I shared it when I shared Clark’s story before. If you haven’t read it, you really should. If you have read it, it’s worth looking over again.


What about afterwards? Because just as easily, you could say “a drowning rescue doesn’t look like a drowning rescue.” Sara and I have both said that if more people had seen what it is actually like, they would be infinitely more cautious with their kids around water.

If you guys watch Mad Men, you might remember a scene in the most recent season where Don is at a party and is partaking of late-1960’s-ish substances that he shouldn’t be. In a hallucination, he walks up to the side of the pool and sees himself floating face-down with his arms extended. Then someone jumps in and rescues him and pulls him out of the water and although things clearly are not good, his coloring is Jon Hamm-ish beautiful and they lay him at the side of the pool and smack him a few times and he coughs up some water and then puts on a robe and goes and sits in a chair.

don draper drowning

That’s not how it happens.

When my daughter told me that Clark was under the water, I asked her if he was playing or if he was in trouble and she told me she thought he was in trouble. When we turned around, he was on the floor of the pool, face-down, with his arms extended, just like you see in pictures. It still haunts me.

At the side of the pool, Clark was purple, from his nose all the way down through his chest. Once Sara’s husband resuscitated him, he didn’t just expel pool water. There were a lot of hysterical, extreme emotions, not just from us, but from many in the pool area, whether or not they knew us. It was ugly, it was intense and terrifying and messy and nothing like TV or movies.

some facts about drowning

  • Drowning is the #1 killer for kids between 1-4, #2 behind car accidents for kids between 5-9, and #3 behind car accidents and suicide (!) for kids between 10-14.
  • Drowning is silent and generally involves very little motion because the body is thrown into survival mode. No yelling or splashing or thrashing.
  • Slipping under the water can happen in just a few seconds. The body loses consciousness without oxygen in 1-2 minutes, sometimes sooner depending on how hard the person was exerting themselves.
  • Small children can drown in an inch of water.
  • Even kids who have been good swimmers in controlled environments (like Clark) can panic when things suddenly don’t go as planned.

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When Clark slipped under the water, I was looking up directions on a map on my phone. I got sidetracked by a funny text. Wanna know how long that took me? I timed myself. About a minute. So I timed myself doing other stuff. Going to the bathroom? 3 minutes. Making my bed? 3 minutes. Unloading the dishwasher? 7 minutes. Watching a kid swim across the pool and back? 2 minutes. Reading and answering a simple email? 4 minutes. Talking to my sister on the phone? 12 minutes. Comforting my daughter who got confused about sleepover dates? 5 minutes. Then try holding your breath and you’ll see how desperately quick that time goes by.

I have a dear friend who lost her son to drowning and she compares kids and water to kids and heavy equipment like chainsaws–you would never, ever take your eyes off your kids around stuff like that, and you never can with water.

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Last summer, on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, I saw all sorts of stuff pop up about pools and lakes and water and I wished I’d had the guts at the time to say something, but I didn’t. Not to make anyone feel bad; I truly don’t want anyone to feel bad or like I’m judging them because I’m not; I just want people to think, really think, about how dangerous the water can be (along with being fun and necessary, which is part of why drowning is such a prevalent problem). If our experience can prevent this from happening again even once, I’ll take it.

  • I wish I’d said that arm floaties, noodles, air rafts, and anything other than an actual US Coast Guard-approved life jacket are not safe and create a false sense of security. Unless kids are great swimmers and are just using them for fun, these things shouldn’t be used.
  • I wish, when people said they sent their younger kids to the pool with their 12-year-old that they would realize that a 12-year-old isn’t physically or emotionally capable of caring for many small children near the water.
  • I wish I had said that lifeguards are there to administer emergency assistance and not to babysit.
  • I cringe when I see pictures of adorable summer toes and a great summer book and a refreshing summer drink while kids play in the pool without their parents.
  • I cringe when people talk about singlehandedly bringing their 5 kids and someone else’s brood to the pool by themselves. You’ve got two eyes that point in the same direction and two arms; until some of those kids are old enough to pass a life-saving course, there are not nearly enough people there.
  • I am totally uncomfortable with summer day camps for younger kids that involve swimming as an activity (I’m not talking about swimming camps where kids are learning swimming skills, but just where they go play in the pool. There was a drowning like this in my area a few years back with a teenager who was not a strong swimmer.)
  • If I could go back and tell my pre-near-drowning self something, it would be to ask what the heck I was doing holding a three-month-old baby with my feet in the water while my kids swam in the pool. What would I have done if no one else had been there? My sheer presence would not have saved anyone. Where would I have put the baby? What would I have actually done?
  • I’m not afraid to say that unless it was a one-on-one swimming lesson, I am not at a point where I am comfortable with any of my kids being in the water without me being right there.

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I ask that you decide to comment to keep things nice. I’m not writing this from a mean or judgy place, I’m writing it from the most tender recesses of my heart. Likewise, if you have something mean to say to me about our experience, even though it’s been a year and a half, it will still hurt and I will still probably delete it, not to be an evil censoring overlord or to have you only say nice things to me to make me feel better about myself but just, well, because.

But first and foremost, as we get closer to summer, as you guys start your family vacations and beach trips and lake trips and pool parties, I hope you guys will take this to heart. I hope you’ll stand up and be vocal when you see people being unsafe near water. I hope you’ll take charge and designate someone to watch the pool at a party if it hasn’t been done. I hope you’ll get in the water with your kids, regardless about how you feel about yourself in a bathing suit or how tired you are. If you can’t give 100% for whatever reason, save the pool for another day. I hope you’ll teach your kids these things so when you aren’t there, they’ll know, too.

I love you guys. I really do. I feel like so many of you are my friends, so thank you for all your continued love and support. Here’s to a fun, happy, and safe spring and summer!


woman in denim shirt holding a salad bowl
Meet The Author

Sara Wells

Sara Wells co-founded Our Best Bites in 2008. She is the author of three Bestselling Cook Books, Best Bites: 150 Family Favorite RecipesSavoring the Seasons with Our Best Bites, and 400 Calories or Less from Our Best Bites. Sara’s work has been featured in many local and national news outlets and publications such as Parenting MagazineBetter Homes & GardensFine CookingThe Rachel Ray Show and the New York Times.

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Questions & Reviews

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I’m going to make my husband read it because he’s more casual with the kids and the pool than I want him to be. And it was absolutely the right thing to get your child back into the water. When I was four I was pulled under by a wave at the beach. It happened with my grandparents who never told my mom so she didn’t know why I was suddenly terrified of baths. I’m in my thirties and I still have to fight not To panic when I get in a swimming pool. Maybe if there’d been a focus on getting me back in the water, I wouldn’t still struggle with it as an adult.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m not in the age group where I am around kids and water. But I’m sure someday I will be a grandmother and I need to be reminded. My brother and his wife live in an area where water is part of daily life and I’m definitely going to send this post to him. I’m sure he thinks his kids are fine in the boat with their life preservers on but things can still happen.

  3. Thank you for this post. I completely understand what you are saying about the feelings after the accident. Last year my son fell out of a third story window. By a miracle, he was perfectly fine. No broken bones, concussion, anything. For months I felt guilty because it had happened, scared to leave him out of my sight, and terrified with the what ifs. Like you, everyone kept saying that he was all right so I should be fine. You don’t go through something like that and come out the same. Thank you for letting me know that someone else had felt that way.

    And thank you for putting the information about drowning and water safety out there. We all need a reminder in this distracted world to focus on our kids and their safety.

  4. Our family -all three generations – will be going to the shore for our first family vacation which includes a 3-year-old and a very active 2-year-old. I love to read and had envisioned days full of good novels to read basking on the beach while mom and dad watched kids. Your story has made this grandmother vow to leave the books on the bedstand and just enjoy the sight of two of God’s most precious gifts. Thank you for this most important reminder! God bless you!

  5. Thank you for being brave and sharing this important reminder! I’m sharing it with my friends because we forget sometimes and get too relaxed!

  6. I get the fear. I had a near drowning experience at a church activity as a young girl, and thank goodness for a leader listening to the spirit or I would have been trapped and dead. This experience shapes the way I act and watch at any church/family/friends swimming event. I get such anxiety trying to count each head every ten seconds.

  7. I appreciate this so very much! It was brave of you to put yourself out there and I took these words to heart. We live in Southern California and spend May-September in the pool. I’m ashamed at how lax I have been in the past and this is just the kick in the pants I needed! I’m sorry you had to go through such a terrible time but your wisdom will now make a difference for so many. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  8. Great post, Kate. Alaska is a scary place for water because there aren’t many pools, so kids tend to not know how to swim, or to not practice once they know. But there are TONS of lakes, and I am always so worried that my kids are not water safe enough. Thank you for the timely reminder.

  9. So true what you said about the chainsaw. It definitely made me think! I watch my kids like a hawk when they’re using a sharp knife, and that wouldn’t even kill them if they were to “slip.” I will do better…thank you for sharing what you wish you had said. I’m glad to hear things are getting better, for you and for Clark (BTW, he is one handsome boy!).

  10. For real? I can’t believe that anybody could even find a mean thing to comment here. This is perfect and necessary. Thank you for the reminders. This will make me a better mom.

  11. Thank you for this. I am due with my first child in early September, and this is all hugely important stuff for me to read and remember. (And also it made me cry…yay hormones!)

  12. Thank you for this reminder. My family used to get so irritated with my grandfather, who seemed obsessive when it came to swimming. He taught all of us at a very young age. More importantly, he was very very strict – NO SWIMMING unless he was there. No swimming at parties, beaches, pools unless he was there. AND he was THERE. He wasn’t doing anything but watching us. I wish I told him thank you then. But thank YOU for this reminder. My kids and I will spend a lot of time in the water this summer – and I will be 100% committed to their safety!

  13. I’m so glad your son is okay, and that you’re doing okay now. This was a very brave post, and I thank you for writing it.

    When my son was born (after many years of hope and struggle), I knew that I had the potential to be the most neurotic mom ever. Instead, I looked at what things were the scariest/potentially most lethal, and focused most of my safety concerns on those: cars and water. I don’t think, with either of those, given how quickly things can go terribly wrong, that you can be too cautious.

    Your tips and warnings are good and sensible, and I have no doubt that your use of this space to share your experience and recommendations will help keep more kids safe. All the best to you and your family.

  14. Thank you for this post. I have always been very cautious around water, especially with my kids. I have always been a little ashamed or our embarrassed at what people might think of my worry. But now I feel completely justified. Sorry you had to go through that, but thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  15. I reciently have taken a deep breath and stopped micro parenting my oldest at the pool. I think I’ll go back to being the over protective parent. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sure it’s not easy to talk about.

  16. Thank you so much for these posts! I’m sure it must be so difficult to share your experience, but I think you are doing a wonderful thing by reminding everyone about water safety. When I was in nursing school, I took care of a little boy who had nearly drowned in a small backyard pond, and I’ve never forgotten the experience and how heartbreaking it was for his family. My children don’t go in water unless Mom or Dad are going in with them, and bath times are 100% supervised. So many of my friends think, “Well, I did this as a kid and I’m fine, so why worry about it?” and it just makes my heart ache to think of the risks they are taking. Thanks again for sharing your message!

  17. Oh thank you for this. Last summer my daughter almost drowned. She was around nearly 20 adults and right next to my son and no one noticed. Thank God I looked over. I still have anxiety and want to throw up whenever I think of it. Water terrifies me. And while this post brought up all those feelings. I’m thankful for it. Because I pray more people are aware of just how easy it is, without having to go through it. And yes! To the bathtubs. Just as scary!!!

  18. Thank you for posting this. We have a cabin on a lake, and we’ve been much too lax. I really, really appreciate your advice. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  19. Thank you for your words. Great words as we head into summer. I have two small kids and plan on taking them to the pool. You words have reminded me to stay alert and be smart

  20. Thank you for this. I have a 2-1/2 year old daughter that I began having a false sense of security with in the bath while I “just ran to get something” for example. My husband voiced his concern about it and we discussed. For some reason I was still somewhat unconvinced that it wasn’t safe, probably because I had not done enough research. I see now how uneducated I was. Thank you.

  21. You know Kate-I wish we lived closer to each other. We could be friends. Almost the same thing happened to me 9 months before you, and I think I went all kinds of crazy too. I was and still am more anxious about a lot of things–and strangely, almost all of them have nothing to do with swimming. Things that I was never anxious about before. I’ve learned to manage them pretty well, but I can never go back to how I was before, and I miss that. If you’ve never been through it, you would think that you would just feel grateful and blessed that you still have your child, but I struggled with depression for quite a while afterwards. So, to make a long story short, I echo what Kate says. Life is much easier if trauma never happens in the first place. And Kate–I feel ya!

    1. Alicia, I remember your comment from before, and it’s always one I meant to respond to. Hugs!!

  22. Amazing. Seriously. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Lots of love to you!!

  23. I live in the Phoenix area and we have a large number of child drownings every year in backyard pools. We built our current house when my oldest was just 1 yr old, he’s 10 now. All of our friends and family couldn’t believe we weren’t putting a pool in. Everyone thought we would regret it. But I have 3 kids and can send them out to the backyard and not have to worry about them climbing a pool fence and going swimming on their own. My parents live 20 minutes away and they have a pool. For that peace of mind, I will happily drive that 20 minutes to go swimming. Best decision I ever made. And you better believe that my husband and I watch our kids like hawks around my parents pool!

    Thank you for this post.

  24. We are putting a pool in our backyard as we speak. We are a big swimming family and my kids are little fish, like not afraid of water at all-which is nerve wracking. I really had no idea that drowning could be silent like you described. I consider myself an overly cautious mother, and I did have a plan for pool safety in our backyard. But since reading several of your blog posts, I have been on a mission. I have installed locks on all our doors that go outside that the kids cannot reach. Both my smaller kids are signed up for swim lessons. One already can swim but she’s going to get a review. My older son and myself are signing up for CPR classes in May. These are just a few of the things on my list that I’m planning on doing. And you can bet that I will leave my book in the house. It scares me that I read at the pool last summer, even though I felt like I was safely watching them. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your post!!! I have a totally different outlook now. And your post could very well save a life this summer.

    1. It would be great if you can afford to put a cover on the pool that runs on tracks along the sides – it can support your kids’ weight if they go on top of it and there’s no way to drown if they accidentally get out in the backyard. Happy swimming!

  25. Thank you for your insight and thoughtful words. My kids drowning is one of my biggest fears (like reoccurring nightmare fear) and I have not had a near-drowning like you. I can only imagine what anxiety that experience caused.

    I appreciate the safety refresher and will be more diligent in protecting my children this summer!

  26. I am a hardcore water safety advocate so I hear ya girl. Way to be brave and put this out there. Mad respect for you. I have one child and she’s one and until she’s a strong swimmer (she will be since I am and we will live near a pool her whole life, basically) I’ll be right there next to her. I have taught countless children and adults how to swim and I can honestly say it is a life skill, just like driving. Most adults I’ve taught to swim had a scary near drowning experience in their youth and they were just trying to tackle their gripping fear as an adult. I agree that it’s important your son try to face his fear now. When he’s 34 and not afraid to swim with his kids, he will thank you.

    A few more safety things:
    -someone can drown in even an inch of water. It doesn’t have to be deep to drown in it.
    -pool parties: hire a lifeguard for heaven’s sake! It’s worth the $30 to pay someone else to watch the pool because trust me, you won’t be looking at the pool while you’re hosting a party.
    -get your kids in swim lessons, even if you don’t live in CA or somewhere warm. It’s a life skill!
    Anyway, it’s just nice to have other water safety peeps out there! Stay tough girl!

  27. Thank you for writing this. It’s a great reminder about water safety. I especially liked the information on how long tasks takes, it was quite surprising.

  28. Thank you so much for the water safety reminder. I honestly think of you and what you went through with your precious son when I take my kids to the pool. Swimming season has already started here in Arizona and I appreciate this thoughtful post. The timing is perfect. Here’s to a happy and SAFE summer.

  29. Thank you for being such an advocate of water safety! So many people are blase about water safety or think their small children can be not watched as much because they have babies or toddlers and they think their somewhat older children are “fine” with less supervision. We need more people like you getting the message out! The same goes not just for pools but for bathtubs!

    There’s nothing “mean or judgy” about safety. Facts are facts and everyone can benefit from knowledge and reminders. I can’t imagine what your family has been through, but I admire you for making a difference spreading the word about the importance of water safety! THANK YOU!!!

    1. Absolutely!! Bathtubs for sure! I used to be SO blase about the bathtub.

  30. Kate,

    Thank you for this. It is really important. As a young adult I did some lifeguarding at my high school pool. Over the course of my lifeguarding, I pulled about 9 kids out of the water. Guess where their parents were? Most were within arms-reach, and had no idea their child was drowning right next to them. OF COURSE the parents felt horrible when they realized what a near miss their child had had, and so close. Years have passed, and as a mother of a largish family, and not the life-guard, I can candidly admit it is hard to keep my eyes on my entire brood, all at once. It’s just so easy to be distracted, even though I know better, and have been in that life-guard chair. Your story is so important to help emphasize the degree of vigilance needed. I’m so happy for you that your story has a happy ending.