What I learned about parenting as a teenage lifeguard

Written by: Julia Pelly

I’ve always been one of those people who knew they wanted kids. As a preschooler, I took excellent care of my bitty baby, feeding, rocking, and changing her as if she were real. As a tween, I took the American Red Cross babysitting course and spent most of my time at family gatherings playing with my toddler-aged cousins. As a high schooler, I babysat, took classes on child development, and thought a lot about what life would be like when I had a baby of my own one day. I also began working at my neighborhood pool, a job that gave me the perfect bird’s eye view of all sorts of families. 

As a lifeguard, I loved watching the children learn to blow bubbles and the older kids try out their newest dives, but, the people I enjoyed watching most were the mothers. As I baked in the hot sun, I’d take note of the different sorts of moms and think about what kind of mother I wanted to be.  

There were the stylish moms that always seemed to have the cutest cover-ups and kids in matching swim gear. And there were the prepared moms who came with healthy lunches packed, sunscreen labeled, and wet bags for their kids’ swimsuits. There were strict moms and more lenient moms and moms who played with their kids in the water and moms who never put a toe in the water and moms who seemed to, somehow, nurse a baby, entertain a toddler, and rate their older children’s dives on a scale of one to ten all at the same time. 

The moms, who all seemed to have different parenting philosophies, ways of interacting with their kids, and overall worldviews, all clearly loved their kids. But they didn’t all seem to be able to relax or enjoy themselves or their kids at the pool. One afternoon, after noticing how some families just seemed more relaxed than others, I complimented one of my favorite moms, (one seemed to be running a little late and whose kids lost shoes and swim trunks often overflowed the lost and found) on how much fun it was to watch her kids play and how it seemed like they were always having a great time as a family. Her response, as simple as it was, stuck with me. “Well, yea, this is supposed to be fun!” 

I’m not sure if she meant “this” as “going to the pool” or “summer time” or the much broader “raising kids,” but I took her message to heart. And over the next several months and years as I watched families spend their time at the pool I took note, most of all, of whether they were having fun. I also promised myself that, when I was a mom, I would prioritize fun too. 

I had my first baby just a few weeks after I turned 24. Over the following years, I added three more. And while I can’t say that I’ve had fun every minute of every day, I’m proud to say that I do keep fun top of mind when it comes to big decisions and how we live in the little moments. 

We choose fun when we sing our babies silly songs, when we dance and laugh our way through a very-much-not-gourmet dinner, and when we fill the kids’ rooms with balloons on their birthdays. 

We also choose fun in ways that are probably a little less conventional too, and that sometimes don’t align with what a lot of families around us are doing. We choose not to enroll our kids in multiple activities and keep their after-school hours totally unscheduled, we opt our children out of homework in favor of family time, and we choose stay-cations and simple road trips rather than elaborate travel because, with 4 kids under 8, it’s just no fun to force everyone onto an airplane. 

We’re also willing to pull the plug on things that are supposed to be fun but that simply aren’t. Over the years we’ve learned we’re just not a board game family, we don’t have fun at restaurants, and there’s no shame in cutting a hike short in favor of cloud-spotting in the field next to the parking lot. 

When I haul my four kids to the pool now, I often wonder what teenage me would have thought about the mom me that exists now. I’m not always stylish, and I don’t always have a healthy lunch packed. I often breeze in with an overflowing stroller packed to the gills with mismatched towels and half-inflated blow-up toys and our items do, often, end up in the lost and found. I love to get in the water, hate the way my kids beg for snack bar quarters, and do my best to keep an eye and a hand on everyone that needs it. Most of all, though, I remember that this is supposed to be fun. 

Fun doesn’t always mean easy; sometimes I work up a sweat just getting everyone into their swim diapers, and I’ve made more than a few trips across the pool deck with a hollering kid over my shoulder, but the work and labor of raising a family doesn’t have to be done in fits of frustration and exasperation- it’s supposed to be fun too.

I’m so glad that the mom at the pool when I was a teen shared her wisdom with me long before I had my own kids. Thanks to her, I remember to dive into everyday life looking for all the fun and joy that’s supposed to be there. 

Read more by Julia Pelly

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