By Beth Price
I used to think I wouldn’t be that mom who would run her kid’s stuff to school because he irresponsibly left it on the kitchen counter. I thought I wouldn’t be that mom who absent-mindedly forgot appointments, or delivered her children late to rehearsals and practices. I didn’t think I would be that mom who would argue with her kids about something as trivial as the way they wanted to wear their hair. And I never, ever thought that I would be that mom whose child would die while in her care, because she wasn’t watching him closely enough in the moment that mattered most.
Seth was our third child, eighteen months younger than his sister Chloe and five years younger than his brother Jacob. He was our first who had colic, who wouldn’t sleep, who thought poop made excellent brown modeling clay. He couldn’t say his ‘r’s (as in wat-ee for water, show-ee for shower, ca-ee for car). He seemed unusually adept at running and climbing for a child so young, often leaving his older brother and sister in the dust. He was also our last baby, and was given all the spoiling and coddling that traditionally goes along with that place in the family. With his white-blond buzz cut and eyes the color of the sky, more than one stranger had stopped us to say how beautiful he was. We were all madly in love with him. Of all the accidents that are common in children, drowning was the one I thought could never happen to any of mine. After all, watched children don’t drown. How sure I had been of the bullet-proof nature of my parenting. How I had judged others who had made the same mistake that I would soon make myself.
When Seth escaped our fenced back yard one summer evening when he was two, it took him no time at all to find the neighbor’s swimming pool. We noticed his absence right away and began the search, called 911. Then, finally, my husband Steve found him. Steve is a physician, and was a good first responder. He felt a faint pulse briefly, but Seth’s heart had gone into a fatal arrhythmia. His blue eyes turned to blackness and I knew our baby was gone.
That evening, we were visited by a police detective and a social worker. They questioned Steve and me individually about what had happened. Seth’s death certificate stated the cause of death was accidental drowning. But five weeks later, we received a report from our local department of family and children listing each of us as perpetrators: me, Steve, and Seth’s brother and sister. The social worker concluded that Seth’s death occurred because of a lack of supervision by his mother. There, on the report, was the word “negligent,” written about me.
In the weeks that followed, I began to imagine everyone staring at me, judging me as that terrible mom who let her little boy drown. I began to doubt my ability even to put together a decent lunch for my older son, as leaving the house to get groceries seemed to be an insurmountable hurdle. Another problem was that Seth’s bedroom was right next to ours. For a while, we couldn’t go into it or even look inside it. When I finally ventured in, I never wanted to leave. His smell still clung to his things—his blanket, his pillow, his shoes.
Grief crept into every system of my body. Physical symptoms of chest tightness, shortness of breath, and stomach pain accompanied the mental anguish. I felt tired all the time, but instead of sleeping my mind ran an endless loop of video replaying the events of that day. Bargaining with God did nothing to change the outcome. Take me instead, I would beg. But each time it was the same: I was still here and Seth was gone.
During at least the first year after Seth died, social situations were awkward at best. People didn’t know what to say to us, so often they avoided us completely. Those brave enough to come around would fill the silence with words. Some of the words were meant to comfort but didn’t. “He’s in a better place,” may even have been true, but we were selfish. We wanted him here with us. Most of the words were meant to distract; talk of the weather, sports, celebrity gossip. All we really wanted to talk about was Seth and how much we missed him. We wanted to tell and retell the story of what had happened. Maybe if we said it out loud enough times, it would finally begin to sink in. We wanted people just to listen to us and not offer platitudes or quote scripture.
Occasionally a word or two would slip out that revealed something more of what was lurking beneath the surface: blame, judgment. One example: a neighbor reminded us (as if we could have forgotten) that Seth had run away from us across the street twice in the days preceding his death. Escaping had become his strongest ambition. On those two occasions, we had been right behind him realizing immediately what had happened. He was stealthier on the third attempt, waiting for that perfect moment when the entire family had let down their guard. The neighbor said, “Just think of it this way: you were there for him 97 out of 100 times,” marking down our score once for each of the escapes he had made. The fact is, we were there for him 100 out of 100 times, just too late that last time.
Learning to cope with the judgment of others like neighbors and social workers has been only half the battle. After a while, you learn to disregard the opinions of those whose agenda includes anything other than moving forward toward healing. As it turns out, the real difficulty has been in accepting my own part in Seth’s death and learning to forgive myself.
After group therapy, many tears, anti-depressant medications, and the support of family and friends, ever so slowly we all began to feel better. We could make small talk. Laughter came more easily. Our friends tell us it took about three years for them to recognize us again.
Though there were no charges filed against me, I am culpable in the death of my son because I was careless. While Seth’s death was never deemed a crime, there is judgment and there is indeed a punishment.
It’s true: I am that mom whose child died in a drowning accident. I am also that mom who knows bad things happen to the very best of moms.
While others may judge me, I am that mom who has learned to extend grace to other mothers like me who need it. I am that mom who, together with my husband, has held this family together through crisis. I am that mom who loves her children beyond all reason and takes nothing for granted. I am that mom who perseveres no matter what, drawing from the strength gained by enduring what I thought I never could.
28 replies on “That Mom”
I am glad you had Seth to love and raise while he was here on this earth. I am glad you and your family found your way back after he was gone.
Thank you for writing this piece.
Thank you for conveying the trauma of the death of your son. I plan to put a lock on my swimming pool fence after reading your story. I wonder if the neighbor with the unsecured pool felt in any way responsible? Reading your story as a parent was humbling and stunning.
We have a little girl who did not walk until 2 years and 3 mos because of foot pronation and low tone in her lower extremities. She is also not a big eater and is petite and sensitive. I have experienced some ignorant judgements and inquiries about my caretaking over the course of 4 years. I was never going to be the mom who fed their child candy but, lo and behold, there I am horrifying other moms with candy and high calorie snacks. I am tired of explaining to dissaproving mothers that she simply needs the calories and all children are *not* alike in their dietary requirements.
I would stoop apologetically and struggle to keep my fear and shameful feelings at bay as other moms watched my daughter scooting around the park like a baby gorilla at 2 years old. I wanted to scream at everyone that it has nothing to do with helping her too much or her being an only child or her manipulating us or watching too much TV or us being older parents who didn’t engage her physically as needed. I have one dear friend who confidently told me that my daughter’s fear of going down steep stairs on foot was her “playing me” for help. I understand the absurd things people offer.
We could all stand to listen more to life as it is. People want to have explanations for everything and so we often furnish one, however unfitting or cruel it might be. I think we do this so that we can feel that life is under more control than it often is or can *ever* be. It’s hard for us to sit with raw pain or uncertainty. Sometimes things just do not go as expected, irrespective of us. You really got that across in your piece. The piece made me want to get back to meditation practice also. Thanks so much for opening up for viewing this incredibly painful event in your life.
Thank you for being brave enough to share your story with strangers. Yours is a moving account that made me hug my children extra long over breakfast, double check the lock on our own pool, and be grateful for the things I’ve been spared. Your story will stay with me for a long time. Again, thank you for letting us all know a little bit of Seth.
We have a child-safety fenced pool in our backyard. At least once a year one of my non-swimming children has managed to break past multipe lines of defense and has gone under. Yes, I was there in time to pull them out, but only by the grace of God. Every mother and every child has close calls. We could all be ‘that mom.’ I’m so sorry that this happened to you and your precious little boy.
Courage. That’s all I can say. Courage to write about the darkest moment of one’s life. I am raising four daughters and as I age I become more paranoid each day, it seems, regarding their safety. I also chant when I let them go on their own, that bad things happen and I can’t save them from everything. They are alive all over the age of 15 not because I was a good mother but because we were lucky. There have been many close calls, lots of what-ifs, because they are living. Little boys run and climb and hide and jump and sometimes that takes them too far from our hands no matter how closely we were watching.
Thank you for being brave. Thank you for knowing that all you can do is to keep trying … for all of us. Thank you for realizing that “negligent” is a word that someone, who has no idea, can use as a label, to make things tidy and the questions answered.
There is so much bravery and grace in this essay. Thank you for writing it. We are all that mom.
i am so sorry. this hurt to read. <3
Thank you for sharing this. This was beautifully written and moving to read.
Thanks for reminding us that what people experiencing grief often need is a witness, someone willing to let them encounter it in their own way, sans judgment.
Thank you for your courage in writing Seth’s story. I lost my son, Sean, in 1991. I know what it takes to finally pick your head back up and try to live again. One aspect of the experience you describe especially well is the excruciating guilt. I felt as if I was going insane with guilt. It took more emotional energy than I ever could have imagined, more time, more tears than I thought I had, to work my way through the guilt to find some semblance of self-forgiveness. You show incredible patience with those whose words, meant to be helpful or comforting, reopen barely healed wounds. I understood they meant well too. I wasn’t always able to hold my tongue, however.
Anyway. Thank you for writing this and for sharing Seth with us. It is no small gift. Peace to you and your family.
I used to feel that way too, like I’d never be THAT kind of mom.
I don’t know when that changed, but suddenly I’m not as judgemental as I used to be.
Bad things happen to the best of us and no one can say for sure why or “that won’t ever happen to me”, b/cuz it can.
I’m sorry you lost your son and I’m sorry people judged you when you most needed their support, but I’m glad that you were able to pull through this.
I know that pain will never completely go away and there’s nothing I can say that will change that, so I won’t even try.
To quote one of my favorite movies: We are intrepid, we carry on.
Stunning, and so brave.
I doubt that there’s a mother alive who hasn’t lost track of her child at one time or another. After that, it’s a question of luck. Most of us are lucky. I can’t imagine judging those who are not. My heart goes out to you and I’ll remember to try to shut up and listen when I have a friend who is grieving.
So moving to read about the loss of your son and the way you have tried to cope.
I’m so sorry for your loss. I think any mother that doesn’t realize that this too could be her story is fooling herself. Thank you for your bravery in sharing this. Seth has a wonderful family.
A beautiful, relevant and breath-catching piece. We have no judgment, just love and respect for you.
thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this most precious piece of you with us. keep writing! brava.
and I just looked at your bio–congratulations on your twins! what a beautiful affirmation of life.
So brave. As another commenter said, people look for blame and explanation so that they themselves can continue to feel bulletproof and perfect.
Thank you everyone for all of the encouraging feedback.
Ellen, I wanted to say that I can relate to your feelings about your daughter and the ignorant judgments and inquiries. We draw quite a few stares when we venture out into the world with our brood. One of our twins has Down syndrome and it is amazing the judgments people tend to make about children with disabilities and about how they should be parented. Just today I was informed by a well-meaning relative that I shouldn’t scold him for misbehaving because he is retarded, afterall, and we shouldn’t expect anything from him.
In answer to your other question, no, the pool owners did not sense their own responsibility in the accident. In fact, their pool was unfenced, uncovered, and unattended much of the time according to their neighbors who had a young son with autism. They had begged these people to fence their pool and even offered to pay half the cost. It was only after Seth’s death that their insurance company insisted that they fence the pool. However, Seth just shouldn’t have been in their yard. As much as I resented their not making any attempts to secure their pool in a neighborhood crawling with little kids, I did not ultimately blame them for what happened.
Tara, I am so sorry about the loss of your son, Sean. I agree that the guilt is one of the hardest hurdles. Also, I didn’t always hold my tongue either!
Wendi, I appreciated you comment about the label of negligence. The day I received that report was probably the lowest point. I understood even then that everyone just needed someone to blame. People could not accept that these things just happen; it had to be someone’s fault. And though my husband and I were both home at the time of each of Seth’s escapes, somehow the blame all fell squarely on me, at least by this one, random, childless social worker. Still, seeing that word in print written about me and feeling in the darkest little corner of my heart that it was true…that was crushing.
What an extraordinarily brave and beautiful column. Thank you for writing this.
The truth is, any mother or caretaker of a toddler knows just how easy it is for disaster to strike at any moment. All mothers understand that total control of safety is impossible and actually an integral part of the experience of caretaking. It’s a constant weight that makes us dream of forgetting our kids in their carseats, wakes us up at night to check for breathing, sinks us into total, immediate despair when that red shirt is no longer visible in the grocery aisle, crushes us when tiny legs wobble and collapse on cement when we are an arm’s length away and completely useless. We can prevent some accidents but not all. Period.
All those parents who judge an accident like this as negligence are really voicing their relief that they were spared exposure and disaster from their own moments of loss of control and happenstance. Everyone is vulnerable and we all know it damn well.
The neighbor and the social worker in this story will learn their own lessons about the troubled relationship between protection and control, if they haven’t already.
This was a wildly brave and honest account. Thank you so much for telling it.
I admire you for sharing this powerful reminder of how precious life is. Just yesterday I let me two girls ages 2 and 6 play out front and I was watching from the window. But I turned away to straighten up the coffee table and when I returned a man was walking by and it appeared that he said something to my oldest. I went and stood in the doorway and he kept walking, but later that evening my daughter told me that the man said, “Tell your mother I said hello.” Now I do not know that man and I have spent countless hours wondering what would’ve happened if I had not turned my attention back to my girls at that very moment. I am usually a pretty laid back mom, fighting the urge to keep my children right by my side at all times, but every now and then something like your tragedy or the strange man walking down my suburban street cause a lump to get lodged in my throat. I find myself becoming the warden and the safety inspector.
Thank you for providing this honest and painful memory with all of us mama bears.
Please accept my condolences and gratitude for writing so honestly about your pain and grief. It put things in a good perspective for me. We all could be “that mom”…in so many ways. I feel like I worry constantly about my babes, even the big 11 yo one…sometimes their lives are really out of our hands, no matter how strongly we want to hold them… i think that all we can do is enjoy every precious moment we do have. Accidents do happen, bad people do exist and life changes constantly. I am sure that the callousness displayed by the social worker, neighbors and well-meaning friends is a blurry reflection of the fear we all have that it could happen to us too. As long as there is someone else to point fingers at, we have a little more hope in our own lives. I grieve for families who lose a child. I cannot imagine judging their pain.
Beth, this is one of the most honest, heartbreaking things I’ve ever read. Thank you for your courage and vulnerability. There isn’t a single mom who has been able to keep an eye on her child at all times. This could happen to any one of us. Thank you for your moving insights about grief, heartbreak, vigilance, love, and moving forward through the pain.
In this piece, as in your life, you’ve become grace, maturity, compassion, and forgiveness. Excellent writing, too, sister.
I’m late! But I’m here! And I wanted to commend you for this powerful and honest essay. It’s such an excellent reminder that we can only support each other as mothers; it’s the only thing we can offer.
Oh Beth, I had no idea you posted here. What a wonderful and yet difficult read. Hugs.