It’s been an incredible summer. Probably our best one yet. We’ve made unforgettable, fun memories with our kids and – at times – run them so ragged they’ve begged to go to bed (yes, really).
Trips to Lake Michigan beaches, a minor league baseball game, countless family bike rides, water balloon fights, fun with bubbles and sidewalk chalk, monster truck show, campfires, fireworks, the zoo, splash pads… and it goes on and on.
Then there was that day friends invited us to visit them at a lake house they had rented for the week.
On the way out the door, our 4-year-old asked, ‘Since we’re going to a lake, can we take our fishing poles?’
‘Great idea!’ my husband exclaimed.
Another promise we’d made to our boys that we’d be able to cross off the list… take them fishing.
The weather was perfect and the lake – stunning. It was a smaller lake in Southwest Michigan on one of the last days in June. At first, the boys stood on the dock and the tied down pontoon, flinging the rubber “pretend” fish at the end of their lines into the water and excitedly reeling them back in to their Mickey Mouse and Spider Man poles from Wal-Mart.
Then my husband went digging with them and found worms. The friends we were visiting found hooks in the garage at their rental. We were in business! Their first fish, EVER, took the bait just a few minutes later. What an awesome moment of giggles, squeals and excitement. It was even funnier to watch my husband try to take the fish off the hook (he may or may not have needed assistance from a paper towel).
After dinner, the boys asked for a boat ride.
‘Sure!’ said our friend – a paramedic and firefighter on the same department as my husband.
When we got on board, we realized we were one life jacket short. Our 4-year-old didn’t have one. He’s had swimming lessons but isn’t a ‘swimmer’ yet. He hasn’t been on a boat since he was a baby.
‘Up to you…’ said our friend, set to start up the boat.
My husband looked at me and we both shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘We’re good!’
We took off.
We didn’t go fast – just an evening cruise on a practically empty lake. The kids had the best time. Our 3-year-old said he didn’t want to wear his life jacket so we told him fine, he could take it off. The baby got uncomfortable pretty quickly, so I took hers off too. She stood at the front end of the boat screaming 'AAAAAAAHHHHHH!' into the wind like she was Rose on the movie Titanic.
It’s fine. I thought to myself. Three adults to three kids. The adults are all strong swimmers… nothing’s going to happen.
The kids loved it and their huge smiles said everything we needed to know. We finished our trip around the lake, said our goodbyes and went home.
I posted a picture on social media that night from our magical evening at the lake, but in the back of my mind I knew I shouldn’t post any of the kids on the boat ride without life jackets. So I didn’t.
As exhausted as I was that night, I couldn’t sleep. Around 3 a.m. I realized why. I knew better. WE knew better. As a TV reporter I’d covered stories about accidental toddler drownings while boating. My husband has worked drowning scenes. What were we thinking… letting our babies get on a moving boat in a deep lake without wearing life jackets? It’s not the part about breaking the law that bothered me, but instead the fact that it’s my job to protect and keep them safe. Our job. And we failed them.
The scenarios raced through my mind. A rogue wave and the baby could have bounced out through the gate or the side. She would have sunk like a rock and we never would have found her in time. Our boys could maybe flail around for 30 seconds… IF they weren’t knocked unconscious first. What were we thinking?
The next morning, I told my husband we needed to chat.
‘We can’t ever let that happen again,’ I said. ‘Ever. In fact, I can’t believe we let it happen in the first place.’
He agreed and pointed out how, on the car ride home that evening, we’d shared our disgust about a mother arrested for leaving her baby in a locked, hot car; but what we’d done was arguably just as bad.
The guilt and what-ifs have continued to haunt me. We always buckle their seat belts, make sure their food isn’t too hot, keep the baby gate to our downstairs locked, make them wear bicycle helmets, apply sunscreen religiously. We’ve always done everything in our power to keep them safe, but that night – that 15 minutes of their lives – we knowingly did not.
Bottom line: nothing bad did happen. We bought the extra life jacket we needed and promised each other it will never happen again. My husband even took the boys back for another boat ride that same week. With life jackets.
Turns out, this parenting thing is a whole bunch of constant winging it and trying to make the best decisions for ourselves and our families. But sometimes we slip. And then learn from it.
So please learn from our mistake. Always make your littles wear life jackets (the law in Indiana says children under 13 years of age must wear a personal flotation device except when the child is below deck in an enclosed cabin or the vessel is docked or at anchor. In Michigan, children less than 6 years of age must wear a Type I or Type II personal flotation device when riding in the open deck area of a boat).
It’s a choice you don’t get back and one you’ll never regret.
I'm a mom to 3 beautiful, spirited, elementary school-aged humans, I'm addicted to running + strength training, I have no filter & I work full time in the corporate world. But behind the scenes of all that is where it really gets interesting...