Not long ago, as I was laying out the plan for an upcoming week of camp — drop-off, lunch, snack, pickup, and sunscreen application — my 9-year-old looked at me with a mix of dismay and disgust. “That’s not what summer is supposed to be,” he said. “I’m not supposed to be doing anything.”
“But you have to go to camp,” I said, “because I have to go to work.”
“You shouldn’t go to work,” he said. “That’s not what summer is supposed to be.”
Aw, kid. Like the rest of us, he’s been sold a bill of goods. The marketing hype about summer is partially true: swimming pools, sand on your toes, the ability to walk outside without wearing 8 pounds of cold-weather protective gear. But for the nearly 62 percent of American families with two working parents — at least, those with non-schoolteacher-quantities of vacation time — summer is really about logistics, battles over sunscreen, tick checks, mosquitoes, traffic, and traffic-related panic. Even the glorious things about the season have a dark underbelly: The sun sets later, which messes up bedtime, which messes up mornings.
In short, it’s a season of high anxiety, made that much worse by the difference between expectation and reality.
Summer first gets its claws out in February, when you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, mouthing the word “camp.” So many choices: Nature immersion or STEM enrichment? Imprecise archery by the lake or unlimited friendship bracelets near the swimming pool? Wait too long after Groundhog Day to decide, and you could wind up in wait list purgatory. You ask your child for guidance, but he can barely choose a sandwich at lunch time. So you break out the calendars and spreadsheets, make educated guesses, and put down multiple minimum deposits that will all come due on the same terrifying day in May.
In June, school ends a week later than expected, since optimistic school administrators assume — on a recurring annual basis — that we’ll get through the winter with only two snow days. The teachers wave farewell as they speed off, presumably to some mythical land of sunshine and open-ended days. That evening, an e-mail arrives with a cheery reminder about summer reading. Sure, whatever!
Bright and early the next Monday, you’re forcing the kids awake again; it’s camp time and, as previously mentioned, you still have to go to work. (This year, I discovered that I could ask my Echo Dot to play “Reveille” —“Alexa, volume 10” — and thus be even more annoying than I am.) Summer mornings are harder than school-year mornings, when at least the kids are contained within a set and constant radius. Now, they’re scattered to a different location every week, which, wherever it happens to be, is in the opposite direction of your commute. Also, camp ends impossibly early, forcing you to put the kids in aftercare, when the magic cloud of Fun dissipates and camp assumes its true form as a children’s holding pen. At least they can spend their down time doing their summer reading. Whatever!
Somewhere in the middle will come Vacation, some trip that is the fruit of several months’ worth of planning, hope, and savings, worsened by teeth-gritting envy — an actual scientific phenomenon — of everyone else’s Instagram feed. You know the days within will be equal parts stress and bliss, but the days immediately before and after will be a bureaucratic hellscape of e-mails and to-do lists. You pack at 1 a.m. the day you leave, being sure to include the summer reading.
At some point in the summer, your child becomes wise to the swindle. “Why do I have to wake up?” he mutters to Alexa, or, to you, “Why’d you pick this camp?” You point out that he, in fact, selected this camp, or at least did not exercise his veto. He claims not to remember. You tell him to suck it up and make a friendship bracelet.
And so it goes, until you blink awake one morning to find that it’s the end of August: the crickets are chirping, the evenings bring a foreboding chill, and you have two days left to force your children to cram in 750 pages of summer reading.
There is a myth that summer vacation began because farm kids had to help with the crops. This has been thoroughly debunked; farmers need that labor in the spring and fall. The truth is, summer break was caused by cities. By the late 1800s, urban families were fleeing the hot, un-air-conditioned asphalt jungles for more pastoral locales, and no one wanted to teach to a half-empty classroom. Soon thereafter, our modern school calendar was born.
We have air conditioning now, so I’m not sure what gives. Yes, there’s something luxurious about the possibility of escape, and I’m not suggesting we abandon every speck of summer break. But there ought to be some ways to make summer merge more reasonably with the harried reality of modern parents’ lives. Fewer weeks to fill. More, cheaper camping options, tied to schools. More generous vacation policies at work.
As it is, we muddle through. These days, when I run into fellow parents, we slip into a standard conversation: Yes, summer was great, so great. Yes, we’re shocked that school is about to start. And yes, we’re also secretly thrilled. Summer is too much work.Joanna Weiss is the editor of Experience magazine, published by Northeastern University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday.Sign up here.