Normal for the summer, you say? Normal for most, except for me. The past ten years or so, since marriage and kids, I traded in my free-as-a-bird, tan-at-all-costs mentality left over from my childhood and teen years for a tan-leads-to-skin-cancer-and-premature-aging-and-wrinkles-pass-me-the-SPF50-for-God’s-sake one. Add to that a diagnosis of sunlight-triggered rosacea that has resulted in regular trips to the dermatologist, at which the doctor has more than once firmly prescribed the religious use of sunscreen and avoidance of sunlight, and a mild hermit-like lifestyle that makes it easy to shun any and all outdoor activity. Despite all this, I acquired a glowing caramel color that would make the Coppertone girl turn an envy-tinged green.
The biggest problem with all of this is not only that I will most certainly pay for my sunbathing sins with premature aging, more pronounced redness, ever-expanding freckling, and wrinkles that guarantee me a place in the lost youth club. No creamy smooth visage for me, although it was probably the many years of sun abuse and slathering on coconut oil, lying in tanning beds and on rooftops surrounded by sheets of aluminum foil from noon to three several times a week when I was in my teens and twenties that did it, and not just this past summer. It’s not that I’ve taken two steps back from the ten years since where I wore floppy hats and managed to avoid the sun using umbrellas at the beach and used daily moisturizer with sunscreen and opted for the cool library with the kids during hot sunny days instead of the local swimming pool. It’s that I have likely contributed to a bad habit in my daughter.
My daughter, 8-year-old lovely that she is, is also a very gifted tanner. Her skin, with rich olive tones that practically invite the sun in for café au lait, browns so easily that she had tan lines at age two months simply from us carrying her from car to house to grocery store to mall in her infant carrier during the summer. While she was wearing SPF 60 baby sunscreen. Since my children were babies, I made sure they had a thick layer of sunscreen protecting their skin while outdoors, and only once or twice do I remember sunburn. Only on my pale, freckly son, of course. My daughter has never, ever had a sunburn. Only a deep, dark, tropical tan. This recent summer was no exception. We slathered on the sunscreen every day, and she tanned. And tanned. And tanned. We gaped and ooohed and aaahed over the capacity of depth of color that her skin could reach at the end of each sun-filled day, and she proudly stood as majestic and dignified as a peacock at the zoo accustomed to the attention of camera-snapping onlookers. She took in the praises and comments that we hurled at her like roses, gathered them up in her arms and tucked them away safely into her burgeoning self-image. I barely pulled myself away from my inane complimenting of her UV-radiated skin to realize that I was creating a miniature sun goddess, not unlike myself when I was hardly older than her. I remembered the comments, the compliments, the oohs and ahhs I received as a child in summers, when I swam every day and never used sunscreen. My skin, like hers, carmelized the instant the sun kissed it. Fast forward thirty years, and I see my future in wrinkle creams and chemical peels to remedy the damage I’ve done. I don’t want that for my child, but I’m afraid now that she sees the mystical power her browned skin holds over others, her fate will follow mine.
Normally when we experience the jarring realization that we have failed our kids, it’s the kind of failing that is easy to measure, or in my case, hear. I’m a yeller. When my kids (or husband, for that matter) really make me mad, often for something minor but grating to my jangly nerves, usually in the form of oft-repeated questions or constant in-fighting, I respond in a cathartic yet increasing volume and pitch that to me serves to get my point across but to them is the indication that it’s time to take their shenanigans elsewhere. It’s not a prized quality, this propensity to shout. The guilt that overcomes me is instant and despairing, and I always ask for forgiveness, apologizing for breaking their hearts and mine, inwardly vowing to pay for therapy in their damaged adulthood. We limp on our injured ways, my gratification-slash-disappointment resulting from successfully expressing to my family how they pain me and apologizing for the pain I’ve caused ringing in my ears, as well as their dented psyches from the knowledge that not only is mommy a flawed human being who makes mistakes, but that she has the power to make them feel very terrible. The gratification is a false one, for in the corners of my mind I know that there is a very good chance that someday they will also be yellers, and I am teaching them this skill. The “I learned it by watching you” line from those anti-drug PSAs in the 80’s has never rung so true in my head than when I walk from my children after a particularly Mommy Dearest moment, or now, when I see my sun-bronzed daughter preen like a Miss America contestant during the inexplicable evening gown portion of the pageant.
What to do about this? How do I undo what I’ve done so cheerfully, so admiringly, so completely in the form of praise for something that comes so absolutely effortless to her? How do I reverse this teaching that being tan is desirable? Furthermore, when I look at myself in the mirror, how can I tell myself that it’s not? I’m hardly a fan of the “do what I say, not what I do” philosophy, though it may be pretty appropriate at the point, as my tan fades but is most certainly hanging on. Graphic photos of prematurely aged skin and a dermatological lecture sound a little extreme for an 8-year-old’s education on the importance of taking care of yourself, but as her parent, I am responsible for leading her on the high road of skin care and conscientious sun exposure. I guess I will start by apologizing and asking for forgiveness for my transgressions yet again, and hope that she listens long enough to understand that, while we are both bronzed goddesses, that isn’t necessarily the life either of us should want.