No, Moms, You Don't Have to Wear a Bathing Suit. Just Be a Really Good You.
So, it's that time of year when all the "Moms, Get out There in Your Bathing Suit" blogs start to circulate on social media. A couple of titles I’ve read this morning?
"Dear Moms, This is Why You're Going to Put on Your Damn Swimsuit."
"Why You, Dear Mom, Should Rock Your Bikini."
"Moms, Put on That Swimsuit."
"Put on Your Damn Swimsuit."
There’s kind of a formula to most of these posts. First, we get a confession about post-baby weight, stretch marks, belly flab. Then we get a confession about what female insecurity feels like in a Victoria’s Secret world. Finally, the post ends with a call to arms for moms across the nation to wear the “damn swimsuit” and get out there and play with their kids.
I get why women write these posts. We live in an Instagram world obsessed with tight little gym bods, and regular folks (like me) need to psych ourselves up to slip into our own skin. Some of my closest friends feel emboldened after reading those posts--they read them and walk away motivated to be better moms. I’m glad to know this writing helps some people.
But "Get-Your-Swimsuit-On" posts don't motivate me. In fact, they exhaust me. The very last thing I need to hear while crawling across the finish line of the school year is a commission to prove a point to my kids, to myself, or to the world.
When these bloggers suggest that I'm shirking my maternal responsibility when I don't wear a swimsuit while playing in the water with my kids, I feel weary. When they suggest that I’m selfish if I’m not parading my mostly-naked body in front of complete strangers, I feel burdened. When they exhort me to fight sexism by stripping down (?!) so that my young sonwill realize that women should be okay with being mostly-naked in front of strangers--I wonder who signed me up for that job first place.
I don’t need a cause on vacation. I need rest.
I need to make sand castles and play in the water, but I don’t need to do those things while attempting to fulfill some sort of civic duty during the ten days a year I finally get to crash. And whether it’s right or wrong, I crash best in quick-dry shorts, a floppy hat, and a swingy, SPF shirt.
That’s not about modesty so much as it is about how I feel most comfortable around strangers. I normally wear clothes in front of people I don’t know, so come vacation, I can’t suddenly pretend like wearing almost nothing in front of a crowd isn’t weird for me. (“Hi there! I don’t know you. These are my raw nekked thighs.”)
Now I don’t sit at the beach judging other women who wear swimsuits. Sometimes I wear my swimsuit, too. But other days, I don’t want to spend emotional energy trying to be okay with feeling exposed out in public, so I wear something else. Om those days, the very last thing I need is General Blog Mom calling me to bare arms (and bare legs, and bare everything else) for some higher good.
Giving all these writers the benefit of the doubt, I thing they are probably trying to help withdrawn moms engage with their kids instead of allowing insecurity to keep them from connecting. That’s probably a much needed battle cry. But in the midst of this encouragement, a couple of clarifications would be helpful for moms like me.
1. If play is the focus, play is the focus. So, wear what makes it easy for you to play.
My friend, Tim, had a wise insight about the futility of exhorting women in traditional swimsuits to play like men:
“This is like telling our 3-year-old that she should 'run like the boys,' then putting cute little flowered sandals on her feet. Sure, she can run - but she falls literally every single time. Then we feel guilty that her brother got to go to church in his Keens. Trying to be better about this. You can't call a little girl prissy when you're dressing her in prissy shoes, or a Mom too reserved when she can't be comfortable in what she's wearing.”
Perfect example. If you are wearing something that makes you feel restricted, change into something that makes you feel like playing. If you are comfortable in a bikini, that’s great. But if you aren’t, you don’t have to feel strange about feeling strange for being exposed.
You don't have to pressure yourself to do something that is uncomfortable. Just switch to an outfit that makes you feel naturally relaxed. Wear something you can get wet, something that won’t chafe. This isn’t a performance, it’s a holiday.
2. You don’t have to shoulder the responsibility of fighting the global body image war during your little family vacation.
We live in an impossible world, girls. There’s so much pressure all around us to look a certain way. But that’s a huge, huge issue, and we don’t have to carry the entire weight of it on our vacations. We have zero moral obligation to crusade against sexism in the public sphere during the precious little time we are supposed to be relaxing with our kids. We can fight to change the world on the other 355 days of the year. And most of us do. That's why we need vacations.
3. It’s okay to show up for vacation as the most generous form of who you truly are.
I’m not talking about doing whatever is easiest here. I’m not saying you should be a lazy, selfish, disengaged, coward. I'm saying there is a value to being authentic in the passions of the personality God gave you.
I grew up with a wonderful mom who almost never "played" with us in the ocean. She didn't do beach games, and she almost never got her hair wet in the pool. She hated being splashed. When she did swim, she swam laps with real strokes. She didn't frolic.
However, every year she did tons of vacation prep for us. She always had healthy and good food ready for us in the condo, she researched places for us to visit, and she did a billion acts of service during the week that made our vacations fun. She found wildlife preserves, and she helped us comb the beach for shells, insects, and crabs. She found historical sites and took us on tours.
She was *herself* on vacation, which was great! Her personality didn't enjoy being rowdy or reckless, and I wouldn't have wanted her to strain to become what she wasn't. That would have felt artificial and uncomfortable for us as kids.
Besides, she worked hard all year, and it was good for the kids to see her rest on those rare moments when she finally did take it easy. Dad made sure that we respected Mom’s need for rejuvenation, too, which was a great way of teaching us to honor her. When we had more energy than Mom did, Dad took over. I loved seeing him love her that way, and it was fun to have him to ourselves during those moments.
As someone who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, it strikes me that today’s family vacations seem incredibly kid-centric. Sure, we did kid-focused things on our vacations, but we also learned to have fun with Mom and with Dad in their different ways, and we learned to respect both boisterous and subdued forms of relaxation. I’m so glad I had that diversity instead of a performance context in which Mom felt a need to change her entire personality so that I could have an idealized beach experience. It was much better for me to have the real her.
I didn’t need Mom to jump through any sort of recreational hoops to be a "better" parent than she was. I needed her to model authenticity. By doing this, she taught us that we could be our best real selves, too.
During those moments when she sat back and watched us while Dad played with us, we had fun looking over and seeing her laughing at us and taking pictures. I never once resented her for doing that. It was sweet to just be together, all of us feeling space to be ourselves.
What did Mom do when she was herself? Well, one year she helped us scrounge up crabbing gear. Then she bought an electric popcorn popper to boil water (don’t try that; you might die) so that we could cook them. She was always in "Let's figure this out" mode. She was the scientist. The artist. The explorer.
On vacations she brought Peterson identification guide books, and glue and wood for shell crafts. After we got cleaned up from the ocean, she sat quietly with us at dusk to help us arrange the treasures we had found while Dad watched TV.
I remember her attention to our watercolors. She noticed color, line, nuance.
I remember moving logs with her to look for little bugs, and kneeling down to listen to the suckle and pop of the coquinas.
I remember how she would get up before all of us in the mornings to watch the sunrise. I never wanted to go with her, but the fact that she loved beauty enough to chase it made a huge impression on me. Her love of solitude was formative for me--it gave me permission to be okay with being sober and alone. I would need that example in years to come.
Dad was wonderful on vacation in his own right, but he would have never done the specific stuff Mom did because Mom's way of doing things wasn't Dad's way. He was a blast when he played Nerf football with us, splashed us in the pool, taught us to swim, taught us to fish. But I needed both his strengths and Mom's strengths to make a vacation experience complete.
I didn't need Mom to be Dad. I just needed Mom to be Mom.
Anyway, maybe those “Mom, get your damn swimsuit on” blog posts motivate and help you. If they do, just throw all this out and ignore me.
But if you are like me, I hope you will also feel permission to get comfortable in your own skin this summer. If your skin is more comfortable in swim shorts and a UPF shirt, you aren’t failing at motherhood. If you legitimately don’t like splash wars in the pool, that’s okay. You don’t have to spend ten days forcing yourself to be who you aren’t.
Get out of your comfort zone and do something crazy-memorable-uncharacteristically-nuts now and then, but please don’t feel badly about teaching your kids how to love a nature preserve when pool time is over. God made you with your personality and your interests for a reason. He gave you kids who need the best of your wiring.
If you can find some space in the chaos to listen, I think He will show you how to unpack yourself most generously to your kids on vacation. Because if you have trusted Jesus, you are God's little girl, you know. When He made you (and then remade you), He created something wonderful. Who you already are is worth enjoying, and the “blog-shoulds,” shouldn’t ever trump what is most beautiful about your innate, God-given inclinations. Wear your swimsuit or don’t. But a vacation shouldn’t ask you to become someone you weren’t ever made to be.