[Trigger warning: This essay talks about a woman’s experience with drowning.]

You hear about dry drowning, land drowning, delayed drowning. You’re told that you can never be overly cautious with your children around a pool, ocean or any body of water. You read of children drowning in a neighbor’s pool; they just wander when adults are distracted and the worst happens.

But sometimes, you experience it first hand. And in that moment life changes.

Related: A drowning investigator’s plea to parents about water safety goes viral

It was the 4th of July last year and in typical retail management fashion, I got to celebrate by working. I woke up at 3:30 that morning, made coffee for breakfast and spent the next 12 hours directing people towards Tiki torches and charcoal while grilling hot dogs and burgers for the store associates. I was feeling my independence in true corporate retail style.

My husband’s birthday is July 5th. At some point, he began claiming the national holiday as his own national birthday celebration, as well as the week (and sometimes the month) as an extended self-celebratory period. I love him a lot and he definitely deserves to be celebrated for all that he does and is for our family.

Once I ended my shift, I drove straight to the home of my in-laws to join in the celebration. It was everything one would want in a summer celebration. Loud music, lounge chairs by the pool, ribs on the grill and a rodeo of flamingo riding (think bull riding but on a float in a pool).

I relaxed and baked in the sun while keeping a close eye on the kiddos and playing family photographer. As a fairly inadequate swimmer myself, little ones around the pool always make me worry. My 5-year-old was dancing by the pool and showing off his ability to swim without floaties. So much simultaneous pride and stress comes from watching him paddle around unassisted and happy as a clam.

Related: Are puddle jumpers safe in the pool? What parents need to know

Then came the time for everyone to get out of the pool and get ready to sing Happy Birthday and have cake. I never got in the water because, let’s face it, this mother-of-two body isn’t pool ready yet so I stayed in my chair by the pool, scrolling through my pictures and editing them as everyone else went to dry off a bit. I was thankful for the quiet and the ability to truly relax without worrying about kids in the water. The pool is secured with a pool fence that goes around the entire perimeter of the pool and the only access is one safety-latched gate that just happened to be propped open.

My next memory in this sequence of events will forever stay with me. My 5-year-old said, “Little brother is swimming!” and I looked up to see my 2-year-old looking up at me from underneath the surface of the water, squinting his eyes against water and sun, kicking his feet and reaching his outstretched arms towards me.

Never in my life have I felt so much fear as I jumped in and pulled him out. He immediately started crying, thank God. I held him close to me and didn’t want to let him go.

I had failed him. I had risked his safety by scrolling on my cell phone. Someone had taken his floaty off and he had wandered back into the pool and just sank right off of the step. How long was he under water? Did he feel panic like I did? Did he feel like I had abandoned him?

I wanted to leave the party. I cried. I was shaken.

I had almost lost my baby boy, right in front of me because of negligence. Children are ever-curious creatures, always exploring and discovering and seeking to learn more and it’s my responsibility as a mother to let him have the space to do that in order to learn and grow but to also protect him from the serious dangers that can come from exploring the unknown.

We cannot protect our children from every hurt and heartbreak and I understand that those experiences help them to better navigate the world we live in. I’m fortunate that I didn’t have to experience the loss of a child to gain a better understanding of my duties as a parent. The risk alone, the feelings of fear, panic, and disappointment in myself as protector, will never be forgotten.

When we got home later that day, I talked to both of my kids about drowning, wearing floaties, and never going near water without an adult watching. I’m grateful for my older son speaking up about his little brother being in the water. Do you know what he told me later on?

“I’m so proud of him. He was swimming.”

Related: 5 water safety tips to share with all your kids’ caregivers this summer

My heart broke with sadness and swelled with pride all at the same time. I cried and I squeezed him, grateful for his pride in his little brother because if it hadn’t been for that, I might have lost him that day.

As parents, I think most of us go into this whole child-raising thing scared and clueless until we start to make mistakes and learn from them and find out that children are fairly resilient and a lot smarter than we give them credit for. We need to share our experiences because, guaranteed, there will be someone out there impacted in such a way that it could be just what saves a life.

Speak up. Share. Overshare. It might make a difference for a mama out there.

 A version of this post was published June 7, 2019. It has been updated.