Why, now that I’m a parent, does summer break feel so much shorter?
Are summer breaks shorter these days? Or have they always been this short? Is my memory of summer — days that ramble and roll with no particular end in sight — a revisionist lie, a trick of my aging and nostalgia-craving brain? Because that memory is a languid stream of pleasant boredom, a near-cliche mix of comic book hoarding, lunchtime wake-ups, improvised baseball games, and the semi-regular side hustle mowing lawns for Camelot Music money. And in the memory, summer feels bottomless.
In the present, summer lasts nine criminally abrupt weeks, many of which feel spent before they’ve begun. It’s mid-July and we’re talking to fence-neighbors about teacher preferences and bus schedules, all of us feeling the end closing in. With just a little effort, you can almost see the gathering of autumn clouds. Somebody changed summer.
But did they? Are summers shorter? The short answer: Erm, no.
They’re generally eight to 10 weeks long, depending on the number of breaks sprinkled throughout the school year. But we have what feels like a lot of them: fall break for a week, spring break for a week-plus, three days at Thanksgiving, two weeks at Christmas and two confoundingly useless days off in February, the planet’s least appealing vacation month for 6,000 years and running. And an informal poll of people eating cereal in my kitchen indicates that we’d happily trade those October and (heavy sigh) February breaks for increased time at the pool.
Your stats on all this will be different, of course, depending on which of the country’s 9 million school calendars you follow. If you’re one of the more than 3,700 schools on a balanced calendar, with breaks distributed throughout the year, you may have only a two-week sunshine hiccup during the summer. (You could kill an otherwise useful day sampling social, educational, and financial arguments for and against modified calendars, and a second one endeavoring to find a consensus on a ‘‘normal’’ schedule. In short, you’ll learn people like to argue a lot and come away otherwise unsatisfied.)
Balanced-calendar proponents make good arguments about summer slides, competitive disadvantages, and the difficulties that working families face in securing summertime child care. We’ve dealt with all of them. We’ve also dealt with burnout and overscheduling and the steady drip of scholastic and extracurricular pressures and, of course, infinitely prolonged and miserable Midwestern winters. Which brings me to this hot take: It is not unpleasing, on the whole, to occasionally have to basically deal with nothing more than the steady drip of ice cream.
If I am sentimental about summer, it’s because summer where I am — in Indiana — is a frustrating magic trick. It just shows up one day, quite out of nowhere, generally two or three weeks before spring. It doesn’t arrive so much as barge in the front door with its startlingly instant sun and Caribbean humidity. Frankly, it’s a mess. Indiana is the borderline personality disorder of state weather systems. Someone last year posted an image of a forecast that contained, in a single week, every possible weather icon. (America: ‘‘No state can have every type of weather in a week.’’ Indiana: ‘‘Hold my beer.”)
So once summer arrives, we pounce on it, in the hungry way that you do when you know something is temporary, even though you know it ruins the gift you’ve been given. Summer is not for pouncing. Summer is for . . . the opposite of pouncing, whatever that is. I would look it up, but it’s summer — such research seems like a lot of work, and I am drinking sweet tea.
And with this eager pouncing, this blessed season of nothing, already shorter than we’d like, becomes as hopelessly overscheduled as the cold, wet rest of the year, crammed with camps and day trips and treks to gyms and playgrounds 20 minutes from the house. Sleepy days and long nights, and here I am, trying to figure out if I can use them to possibly drive around some more. Days off from school, and I spend half the time scheduling them and the other half wishing they were empty. One morning you wake up and summer, which once stretched for miles, is more than half gone. It’s hard not to feel cheated.
Were summers longer when I was a kid? Nah. They were the same, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve adopted an evocative, convenient, and largely invented memory of it, all sleep and sunshine and bad hair-metal CDs. (To be fair: Also some pretty good hair-metal CDs, and yes I’m looking at you, Skid Row.) It’s not a real memory. But it’s the one I wish for my kids. The calendar will resume soon enough, as it always does. For now, for these precious weeks, I guess, I want them to feel that time moves differently in summer, and it’s sometimes OK to allow yourself more of it.