Remember those times when you were young and single and you had such high expectations for New Year’s Eve? Or maybe you’re still young and single, and you know there’s a certain amount of pressure to have a great time not just on New Year’s Eve but also on every weekend evening. That’s the kind of pressure I feel now as a mother of two children slogging my way through the latter part of another hot and humid DC summer (yes, DC people, I know the weather has been merciful this week, but it’s the exception to the general rule). Summer is supposed to be fun and carefree, and somehow my role as a parent is to deliver up a lifetime full of wonderful memories, yet real life often gets in the way.
Am I just imagining this pressure? Perhaps, but people send emails with comments such as “have a great summer” or “hope your summer is going well,” and I don’t think anyone has ever told me to “have a great winter.” Nobody ever says “hope your spring is going well” nor does anyone have high expectations of fall. Perhaps such comments come our way because there are some people we see regularly during the school year whom we see less often in the summer, but they have more to do with the distinctness of summer as a time when our lifestyles and preoccupations are supposed to be fundamentally different. Considering that most parents continue to work during the summer, the expectations for non-stop fun and leisure are not entirely realistic, but we are still supposed to be purveyors of fun for the kids if not for ourselves.
What form is fun supposed to take? For most working parents, summer camp is an inevitable element in the fun formula. And this is where things get decidedly un-fun for parents. My kids have each gone to a few different camps this summer, and each time a new camp begins, we must figure out a new routine. I often find myself staying up late on the Sunday night before a new camp, printing out directions to a place I’ve never been and then discovering some odd requirement–such as the need to bring in a second pair of brand new shoes to keep a gym floor in pristine shape. The camps that appeal to my kids are invariably farther away than their schools, and often the camp day is shorter than the school day, so this sometimes means complicated carpool arrangements or fewer work hours for me. I work part-time from home and have a flexible schedule, but this situation requires me to work more at night. Obviously, it’s a bigger challenge for parents who work full-time in an office environment. Most camps have before and after-care, but that just adds to the high cost of summer. And then there are those final “showcases” or “visiting days,” when camps invite parents to see how much fun their kids are having–occasionally right in the middle of the day, when it’s maximally inconvenient. Sometimes, we are supposed to add to the final day fun by sending in sweets. Last Thursday, I baked cookies with my daughter for her camp celebration the following day, and then had to cope with her horrible mood Friday night. She had brought her lunch home uneaten because the counselors had the bright idea of giving the kids all the celebratory sweets before getting any real food into them (obviously, they don’t have kids). Isn’t there such a thing as too much fun–or at least too much sugar?
Even the busiest parents are supposed to make time for family fun. We belong to a pool, and many working parents pack up the whole family each evening after work, camp, etc. and eat dinner by the pool. I appreciate having a regular outlet for fun, but lately the kids have been too worn out from camp to want to head there in the late afternoon or evening. When we made it to the pool on a recent weekend, lightning struck about ten minutes after the kids jumped in the pool and we had to clear the grounds immediately. We know we don’t go to our pool often enough to make the membership a great deal, but I don’t want to turn it into an obligation either. I grew up in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley with a pool in my backyard, and somehow once kids got past the age when they wanted to swim all the time, nobody seemed to feel guilty about not using their pools that cost so many thousands of dollars to build. So, why is it that I feel guilty about not getting our money’s worth from our pool membership? This is just one more example of how summer fun can feel like a burden.
This wouldn’t be a worthy anti-summer rant without mentioning what is probably the source of the greatest pressure: vacations! Am I starting to sound like whiny Andy Rooney? Remember him from 60 Minutes–the guy who complained about one thing, which led to another thing to complain about, which led to another? Well, summer’s like that. I’m thinking about how people ask each other about their summer plans, and share lists of various summer camps their kids are attending, but somewhere in everyone’s schedule, there is supposed to be a vacation. This is probably a sore point for me because I would love the sort of old-fashioned vacation that involves spending the whole summer in a little cottage by the ocean. Somehow, I have the twisted idea that this sort of extended vacation was possible in the past for middle class families–back when dads stayed in the city and took the train out on weekends while moms set up housekeeping in a community full of other children ready to roam free with theirs. Was this something that really existed for many people or was it the bastion of privilege that it is now?
Nowadays, most people take summer vacations of shorter duration–at least one week, often two weeks, and for teachers and lucky people with better vacation time arrangements, it may be three weeks or more. The destinations vary widely. Some families jet off to a new foreign locale every summer while others return to the same beach house year after year. Both of these options appeal to me, but that is not how we have spent our summer vacations. Because we have extended family on the West Coast, we have spent our last three summer vacations visiting. Such trips are fun, and we know how important it is for the kids to spend time with their cousins and grandparents, but it’s probably fair to say this is lower case fun rather than FUN. Does FUN have to be the kind of trip that yields lots of great Facebook photos and a sense of longing or envy in others? For some, that may be Hawaii, while for others that may be the Tuscan countryside or an Outer Banks beach house with an ocean view pool. I try not to spend too much time fantasizing about where I’d like to go, but confess to feeling twinges of envy when I hear about the FUN some parents have when they pack the kids off to sleep-away camps or to stay with relatives for weeks at a time. For now our kids prefer the comforts of home, and I have never heard them complain that we don’t go anywhere exciting during the summer.
While it would be lovely to have the extra vacation time and spare cash for wonderful vacation adventures, I realize that we do have plenty of fun each summer. I’m just not positive there is anything distinctly summery about it. Much of the fun we have in the summer is pretty much the same as the fun we have during the rest of the year. We enjoy some nice meals with friends who tell fun stories and make us laugh, but this happens in the fall, winter, and spring also. We make it to some of DC’s cultural venues, but again those are things we can do at any time of the year. The kids get to play with their friends–just as they do throughout the year. And they get some time to watch movies or engage with technology, things that inspire stinginess in me at any time of the year since my own belief is that reading is a much better use of everyone’s time during any season. And the kids do get a little more time to read during the summer since they don’t have homework. After we return from wherever we do travel, we are delighted to spend time again with our adorable kitties, whose daily fun we enjoy vicariously.
Is summer worth it? I don’t really know because we don’t have a choice. Summer comes and we must adapt. However, I am grateful that my younger daughter, an active and energetic nine year old who gets bored easily, attends a charter school with a modified year-round schedule and a short, seven week summer. My older daughter has a more traditional schedule with a full three months of vacation. We have all heard about how old-fashioned long summer vacations accommodated the needs of agricultural families who brought in the harvest with the help of all family members. Nowadays, parents can pay for the privilege of sending their kids to “farm camp,” but long school breaks are more of a burden than a benefit to working parents. Yet what I cherish most about summer takes me back to this agricultural mode of existence. My favorite things have nothing to do with vacations or swimming pools or any of that. It’s the tomatoes–and the peaches, too–for they offer up the sort of summer fun or pleasure that no other season can deliver. I must remember that they are the reason for the very notion of summer fun, at least insofar as their cultivators had a dependence on child labor. Now, as our children “labor” at their day camps, I wonder how we can regain the sense of purpose there once was surrounding summer vacations.
Back when I was an undergraduate trying to become fluent in French, I spent a summer working on an organic farm in the Tarn region of southern France. That was hard work in hot weather, and although we did take a break in the hottest part of the afternoon, the house was no air conditioned oasis. In fact, remembering my work there makes the burden of summer fun seem light in comparison to weeding prickly fields and shoveling fresh manure. So now that I’ve had my chance to rant, I’ll just try to enjoy my peaches and tomatoes and look forward to the autumn, hoping that my children have enough good memories to sustain them until next year’s round of summer fun.