How I learned to stop worrying and love the beach

The great Atlantic waves crashed wildly onto the beach. The swells were huge and powerful, perfect arcs of ocean blue capped with white. They pounded the shore in fast and furious succession, and I knew it would be terrifying and absolutely exhilarating to swim in those waves. If you know how to swim.
He had been digging happily in the sand a few feet from me just 20 seconds ago. The discarded pail lay empty and alone on its side. From beneath the shade of my umbrella I scanned the beach. The relentlessly pounding waves were suddenly no match for my racing heart. Where was he?
There! Toddling on his chubby legs toward the crashing ocean, a green shovel and steely determination his only shields against the elements. He loved the water, but nobody really knows how to swim when they’re 2.
I had to reach him before he reached the water. Even the edge of one those waves would yank more than just the green shovel out to sea.
“Sea sea sea!” I heard him gurgle as he steamrolled his way clumsily toward the ocean.
“Where you going, Cookie?” I gasped as I grabbed his hand and slowed his gait to match mine. “Let’s go together to the sea, OK? Hold Mommy’s hand.”
Those few days in South Carolina were one of our first “vacations” as parents. It was a fun time away: We splashed in the wild waves together (I never let him out my sight again), built sandcastles and ate ice cream before dinner.
It was also exhausting. His sleep schedules were off because we were on a different coast. The foods he loved were not so easily available. He wanted to eat this. He wanted to do that. He wanted to go there. No, stay here. In those first-time mom days, I believed it was my job to fulfill his every whim. And the demands, tantrums, whining and nagging do not know they’re supposed to take a vacation too!
Over the next eight years his two brothers and sister completed our family, and everyone learned how to swim and keep themselves safe around all kinds of water. The vacations we’ve taken have become more fun and more tiring in equal measure. We have played together in the snow, searched for sand dollars on the beach, watched the sun rise over mountains and sink into the ocean … all magical moments that we will remember forever.
But someone always seems to be sulking. Or whining. Someone is hungry, or missing a shoe, or running toward the ocean by themselves. Everyone wakes up too early and stays up too late, and I am always too involved in making sure they eat right, sleep well, stay safe and have fun. There are moments I almost long for the vacation to end so we can return home to our familiar routines and foods.
Feeling more like a stern family manager and not at all like a mom who wants to have fun with her kids, not too long ago I decided something had to give. And it may as well be me.
Most recently, I took my family to the beach with these sage words on parenting from the Talmud swirling in my brain: “And there are some who say that he must also teach him how to swim” (Kiddushin 29a).
While swimming is definitely a valuable life skill to teach our children, I realized that what the Talmud is actually offering is the opportunity to let our kids go. We’ve taught them to swim; now let them swim. Let them feel the water and the wind and the sand on their feet even if they don’t like it. Let them be.
That renegade 2-year-old is now a big, strong 14 who can handle whatever the ocean tosses his way without me yanking him back to safety. Even his 6-year-old brother knows his own limits as he plays in the sand and climbs on the rocks. We’re all happiest when I’m not fretting, instructing or planning. This is now my job as a parent, as a mom who wants to have fun with her family on vacation: Let them.
That toddler whose hand I grasped firmly in mine so many years ago now sprints toward the wild waves and dives headfirst into the deep blue. When he comes up for air, his smile is wide. “Mom! Come in!”

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Nicki Gilbert

Nicki Gilbert is a writer, Alcatraz swimmer and country music lover who lives in Piedmont with her husband, four kids and dachshund puppy. Her blog is RedBoots.me.