An early sunburn memory: it was one of those first beautiful hot and sunny weekends of pre-summer, in late May or early June. I was eight or nine, and spent the day at the home of a friend, whose family had a pool. We were wet and active all day: on the swing set, in the water, running around the yard; we had a ball. I had no idea that I was burnt until nighttime, when it hurt to peel off my swimsuit. In the days that followed my back and shoulders ached and stung, and I had hot and cold flashes. I remember my teacher spraying Solarcaine on my back at school, sent in with a note by my mother. The teacher sprayed it on my friend, too. I had red hair, and she was blond. We had both been scorched.
This was not the first or last time I would get sunburned as a kid. It was a regular enough occurrence. Yes, there was sunscreen back then. But it was not used as universally as it is now. We brought it to the beach and other height-of-summer activities. But we certainly did not apply it every time we went outside in the spring and summer, as my kids and their peers are used to doing.
I went on to get sunburned many more times before I really learned my lesson. Some of the worst included my first time skiing in Colorado, age 14 (blisters all over my face), a day at the beach in Tel Aviv, age 17 (same, plus burns over my arms, legs, and chest), and a few times in Costa Rica in my twenties, when I simply failed to reapply sunblock often enough for the equatorial sun. (Despite all this, I have been lucky thus far: the dermatologist says my skin is healthy).
Maybe we parents have learned our lesson from the burns of our youth. We hope, armed with both knowledge and fear, that our kids won't get scorched, and they won't get melanoma. We buy sunblock in bulk, we slather it on our kids, and our kids (amazingly) submit to being slathered and re-slathered. (It definitely was not cool to put on sunblock back in my day. Shhh. Don't tell the kids. The stigma seems to have disappeared.) And it seems to work.
In fact, up until recently my red-headed 10-year-old had rarely had so much as pink summer skin, let alone a real sunburn (with the exception of one day last summer in day camp, when I suspect she didn't adequately reapply after swimming).
That was, until last Sunday, when she went bike riding with her sister and dad. When they left our apartment, it was chilly out and she was wearing a sweatshirt over a tank top with crossed straps in the back. It was still only April; we just recently stopped wearing our down coats. I wasn't in sunblock mode, yet! (I, and not their dad, mind you, as sunblock falls squarely in my domain of things-that-must-be-remembered. Alas.) They biked around the southern tip of Manhattan, and played in the Imagination Playground on the way. They had a great time. And when they got home, late in the day, this is what Bella's back looked like:
As I gently rubbed aloe vera into her red skin that evening, I empathized with my mother. She, too, did what she could to soothe me after my sunburn all those years ago. But neither of us could wish the burn away.
I never blamed my mom for my sunburn, and I still don't. She wasn't even there that day at my friend's house. So, why, then, do I feel so guilty about Bella's burn? Because I should have known. (Says the voice in my head.) I should have protected her. Even though I, too, wasn't even with Bella on her bike ride, I still feel the burden of having failed to protect her from that all-too-familiar sun.
It takes constant vigilance to protect our kids from from every possible wrong that can come to them, and from repeating our own mistakes. We live in a safety-obsessed world, where helmets and pads and sunblock have become de-rigeur. Mostly, this is a good thing, as who can argue with protecting kids from head injuries and sunburns? The problem is that when the expectation becomes perfection, we're all doomed to fail. Or, even worse, we fail to try. We keep kids in instead of letting them outside, lest they get hurt. If we worry too much, it takes away our ability to live.
The truth is, we can't protect our kids from everything. Bad things happen. Life happens. So it always was, and so it will be. Bella still had a great time being active and outside on Sunday. Her skin is fine now (aloe vera works wonders), and the incident served as a reminder to get that sunblock down off the top shelf.
Here's to summer.