Sadie Swims: A Lesson in Overcoming Your Fears

Written by Daniella Kahane, WIN Executive Director and CEO

This past summer I was engaged in one of the toughest negotiations I have experienced to date.  No, it was not sitting around a boardroom table, or in front of a zoom screen — it occurred while standing waist-deep in a swimming pool, waiting for my daughter to swim off the steps.  

The standoff was with my five-year-old, Sienna, who was struggling with her fear of the water.  She was comfortable swimming, provided she was wearing floaties and her face was in no danger of touching the water’s surface.  But without the security of the floaties, she refused to go into the water, her body tensing up in a panic, the look of terror in her eyes palpable.  

So there we were for the sixth day in a row, engaged in a power struggle, with me trying to coax her into the water without her floaties, and she refused to do so, gripping onto me for dear life if she didn’t have her floaties on, terrified and panicking, as if I was placing her directly into harm’s way.   

In these moments, I felt flooded with conflicting emotions – empathy for her fear, frustration with her resistance, impatience with her and myself, and something more sinister, the well-known feeling everyone knows at times but wants to avoid… the feeling of failure: both as a mother, but also as a former swimming teacher who successfully taught dozens of children how to swim.  Why could I not teach my own daughter?

She should be swimming already.  Her cousin her age is swimming.  Her big sister was swimming by this age… why can’t she just do it?  Why can’t I teach her? What’s wrong with me? Why is she so scared anyways?  Why is she allowing her fear to control her?”  and so on and so forth swirled the critical thoughts in my head.  Feeling my own internal distress rising, I dunked under the water and swam a few laps, attempting to clear my head and shake out the “shoulds.” 

Something about being in the water has always been healing for me. Swimming often brings clarity to a situation or a problem I am trying to solve.  And in those laps, I realized that Sienna and I were both engaged in a parallel process of sorts, her wanting to hide from her fear of the water, obviously feeling safer literally and emotionally on dry land, and me wanting to deny her fear because it was frustrating for me to endure, believing that if she just thought rationally about this – kicked her legs and pulled her arms, she could be swimming.  I mean, she’d been doing it for years with a floaty, why couldn’t she just try it without one?  

I reminded myself of something that my mother, who is a child psychologist, often says:  if we want to raise our children with kind inner voices, we need to start noticing our own harsh inner voices and change the way we speak to ourselves.   And so instead of the judgemental loop I was in, I tried stepped out and told myself that “every child develops and crosses milestones at their own pace… Sienna will get there when she is ready… and I am not a failure because I haven’t been able to teach her yet.”   

And then there was something else: a lesson I have learned and continue to learn from facing my own fears… that the only way to get through it is to acknowledge it, to feel it, and to give that fear the oxygen it needs to breathe, to exist. 

We live in a culture where often it is easier to plow through life, denying our unwanted emotions, loading positive affirmations on top of negative feelings, or just ignoring bad news, or something we are scared of because to confront it feels too daunting, too big of a task to add to our already over saddled, overburdened and overtaxed plates. 

But if I have learned anything from life’s challenges, ignoring or denying those emotions just makes them grow bigger, and rarely leads us to the place we want to go.  This type of emotional bulldozing can leave us feeling stuck and exhausted, like the person who has to walk an extra mile to get home from work because they are trying to avoid something or someone that sits on the direct route.  Yes, you end up avoiding that thing, but at what cost?  For my daughter Sienna it was holding her back from learning how to swim.  For some of us, it’s keeping us stuck in dead-end jobs, or unhealthy relationships.  Whatever it is, our fears often prevent us from asking or trying, and can feel like they are keeping us safe.  But when is “safe” preventing us from growing?  The only way through the fear is by seeing the ‘bully’ that it can be and confronting the bully as we would a friend, making space for it in our realities. 

I had to confront my own limitations as a mommy, my own feelings of failure, of the “shoemakers kids going without shoes” so to speak, in order to step out of the power struggle, to allow Sienna to reach the milestone through her own readiness, and instead focus on what was in my control.  In this case, I chose to channel my frustrations into writing a children’s book: Sadie Swims, where Sadie learns that it is through embracing her fear of the water, listening to it, seeing it, engaging with it, that she can take that first step in, and then the second, and the third.  She can feel her fear and do it anyway, not by drowning out the voice of fear, but by listening to it…  So while I didn’t get what I wanted at that moment in the pool that day, I realized I was able to accomplish what I needed both in finding an outlet for my desire to help Sienna swim, but also in giving her the space and the psychological permission to feel her fear instead of trying to belittle it or make it okay for her. 

A few weeks later Sienna was swimming across the pool, and without her floaties and when I asked her how she did it, she said “I realized I could be scared and brave at the same time Mommy.”