Ah summer

The Most Pure Mom Bliss Happens At The Community Pool

After all, there's nothing quite like summer.

kids at the community pool in the summer
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We see the orange slide first. Giant and serpentine, rising above the horizon and gleaming hotly, a day-glo advertisement for sunshine and fun. The beacon of summer. Beyond the slide, we know there promises a large zero-entry pool with a miniature water playground plunked at its base, a lap pool divided into seven lanes, and an aquatic basketball court where the teen boys throw their best shots, glancing over their shoulders to see if any of the bikini-clad girls have noticed.

At the community pool, the order of events is clear: we scan our passes, roam until we find a shaded spot, and apply heaps of sunscreen before running into the water, that beautiful oasis. And then it begins: the diving, the splashing, the hours of pretending to be sea creatures, living by the rhythms of water.

My daughter has her own language at the pool. She shouts “Mapparoo!” every time she catches one of her plastic diving squids. She breaks the surface, soggy-haired, brandishing the squid by the tentacles, as if she were Jacques Cousteau. No one knows where she got that word, and when we ask, she just shrugs. Another mystery of summer. We shrug too. As long as we have sunscreen and snacks, anything goes.

Sometimes, I see my daughter’s classmates and our neighbors roaming around. They wave, splashing water from their fingertips as they do. We share snacks and pleasantries. For my part, after a few minutes in the water, I give my husband and child a blown kiss, then make my way back to the shade, where I root out my paperback and a seltzer from our pool bag, and beam over my page at the scene unfolding in front of me.

Around me are my mom-doppelgangers, wearing tankinis and sarongs, ruched vintage-style suits that have not been introduced to the water all summer, billowing dresses that caress their knees. They lounge in the sun with dark glasses pulled over their eyes. Some are reading, like me. Others resting on their bellies like sphinxes. Occasionally, they’ll turn when a child yells, “Look at me, Mommy!” clapping wildly at whatever feat they’ve just witnessed. But mostly, the kids are left to the surveillance of the dozen lifeguards roaming the perimeter of the pool, friends, and dads. At the pool, the balance of emotional labor and caretaking seems more equally divided. For once, moms aren’t called to be at-attention the way they are in so many other parts of their lives. They can settle back a little more.

Perhaps it’s the water, which makes us all so relaxed. With its gates and open design, the pool is created in such a way to mimic safety and order. Or maybe the ease is a product of time and experience. The moms of babies and toddlers, I notice, still clutch their babies close, shadowing them as they dip tentative toes into the water. But the moms of older kids, the ones who’ve mastered swimming, allow a little more freedom. My husband tells me that in the early eighties, his mom used to drop him off at the community pool when it opened, tucking a few dollars in his hand for the concession stand. His friends, all part of the swim team, met him there and they would stay for hours, until dinnertime called and parents began pulling their sedans up at the entrance, honking for their kids.

Since my daughter is relatively young and a new swimmer, I won’t drop her off at the pool for a long, long time; nor would I feel comfortable sitting on a lounge chair if her dad wasn’t with her. But hearing his story does offer something to me that I’ve only rarely experienced — the pleasure of community. We never had a community pool growing up — at least, not one that we could afford passes to. I never learned to swim, really, though I can keep myself afloat and dog paddle like a toddler. But at least, living in Florida, we had a beach to go to. This isn’t the reality for many families, especially in landlocked areas, which makes me realize that though I’ve been laboring under the assumption that community pools are public, their access is not at all equal.

During a particularly brutal heatwave in our city, when a good portion of households were powerless — literally, without electricity or air conditioning for days — I saw pools opening their doors for free entry. They became so crowded that the pool administrators had to deny access, for fear of vaulting past occupancy regulations. At our pool, it costs $8 per day to attend if you are a resident — more, if you happen to live outside the small perimeter of our township. For my immigrant family growing up, this would have been an unimaginable cost for our household.

For years, community pools were steeped in racism. The community pool, and the peace it promises, is a privilege. If I consider why public pools were designed in the first place, and what they have meant to me and my family, I think about safety and ease. Relaxation. The chance to enjoy the bracing succor of cool water in a hot summer. In a season that has drained us all, the pool gives something back. A promise, no matter how fleeting. And who wouldn’t agree that all parents need a space to sit in the sun, experiencing a hint of safety, of hope, for their families.

Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins.