As a mostly stay-at-home-mom with two kids in school, I have mixed feelings about summer vacation. I adore my kids, and love spending time with them. They are three of the most funny, creative and energetic people in earth. But during the hours and hours of unstructured free time at home from mid-June to the beginning of September, a mystical fog descends upon our home, and it has a bewitching influence. The symptoms of the fog-induced behavior include excessive whining, heightened sibling rivalry, loss of creativity and constant requests for snacks. I’ve had a front row seat to this summer show for a few years now, and I’ve noticed a progression of emotions in myself and other moms as June rolls around.
The Five Stages of Summer Vacation Acceptance*
(*Any similarity to the five stages of grief are merely coincidental.)
Denial occurs after spring break in the weeks leading up to summer vacation. By April, mothers have become very accustomed to the routine of dropping off one or more children at the local school in the morning and trusting their well-being to other professional adults for 3-7 hours. During this time we accomplish many tasks, from caring for younger siblings to running errands, working part-time, preparing meals, making necessary phone calls, cleaning houses and checking our Instagram feed. We fully realize that ALL of these tasks are much more difficult when the children are home all day long, but we are not yet ready to face reality. We barely acknowledge that this structured schedule will abruptly come to an end in mere weeks. We definitely do not think about mothers who work full-time AND do all of these tasks or the homeschooling mothers. We’re in denial.
In late May, denial gives way for excitement. We have one or two really warm days in a row, and the kids play together happily in the sprinkler for hours, while we sit on the porch watching with a smile on our face and an iced coffee in our hands. They really are great kids. Maybe we find our plastic popsicle mold and have visions of making fresh, healthy all-fruit popsicles for our wonderful kids and their friends. The evenings get longer and warmer, and deck furniture comes out of hibernation. When the first wonderful backyard dinner from the grill fills my nostrils with happy smells, I am really coming around to the whole “summer” idea. It’s gonna be awesome.
The stage of excitement is spurred on not merely by the positive aspects of summer, but also by the increasingly annoying aspects of the daily school grind. Everyone is staying up later during those warm evenings, so getting the whole crew up, fed, dressed and out the door in time for school becomes increasingly difficult. Homework gets forgotten much more often, permission slips get lost and I’m counting down with irritation how many more times I have to fill a little snack baggie with small items that begin with letters of the alphabet, because now we are down to U, Q and X and no one remembers they are due on Wednesday morning until Wednesday morning. We haven’t filled out a second grade reading log since Valentine’s Day, and haven’t bothered to feel guilty about it since Easter. Lazy mornings with nowhere to be and nothing to remember are starting to sound very, very nice. OK, summer, I permit you to approach.
As the inevitable LDOS (last day of school) approaches, we make unspoken deals with our children. In our family, the kids know that I will allow a little more screen time than usual, they’ll get to stay up late playing in the yard and will eat their weight in Otter Pops. I expect that by loosening the reins a bit, we’ll have a rip-roaring great time and all get along. We also begin planning how we will keep busy, which we proclaim is for their benefit, but it’s really to preserve our own sanity. We get the calendars out and mark them up the ying-yang. Swimming lessons, playdates, VBS and sports camps. You name it, we’re signing up for it. The bargaining comes when we have too many empty weeks, but the budget is gone and something FREE comes along. “Soccer camp! You LOVE soccer! It’s so fun! You’ll love it. Please love it. Please try it. I’ll find a friend to go with you. Well, WE’RE DOING IT. Get your shin guards.“
Now, I know what you are thinking. Don’t overschedule your children! Give them lots of free time to just PLAY and be children! They need to build up their imagination and creativity. I know, I read those articles too. That is such a great parenting method IN THEORY. Or maybe it’s perfect for your family. In our family, if we don’t have anything planned at all, by 8:15 am the children are destroying the house and each other. We need a reason to get out of the house each day. Each of these events is a mere 1-2 hours, which leaves PLENTY of unstructured boredom–I mean playtime. Believe me, we’ve tried both and in this family? Some structure > no structure.
Just as we’re starting to really look forward to being with these precious angels all the livelong day, and we’re so excited about the warm weather and laid-back mornings, inevitably we’ll have what I like to call a “summer preview” day. This is often the last early release school day of the year, when the kids and neighbors are all home by 12:30 pm, and I assume they will frolic in the sun with their like-minded playmates. But then, by 12:55, someone has clocked someone else in the face with a light saber, the brand-new sprinkler is broken because of rough play, the bickering and tattling can clearly be heard two streets over and when I offer some ideas for re-direct, the only response I get is constant complaints of boredom and our lack of exciting yard toys. And it’s only 1:15. Summer now scares me.
This loud drama of ONE AFTERNOON sends my blood pressure through the roof, and when I think of repeating this scenario for 91 days, I go into a slight panic. I DO want my kids to learn how to deal with their boredom. I DO want my kids to be forced to be creative. I DO want them to have fun experiences at home and not remember summer as the time mom was such a grouch. But how can I give them freedom and not give myself a stress-induced heart-attack? In my panic, I go to the wise source of parenting knowledge that has all the answers for new millennium moms: Pinterest.
I know I’m not alone in this. We stay up late to scour all pins associated with “summer fun activities” or “summer crafts” or “summer boredom busters.” In a matter of moments we can be convinced that the salvation for summer
chaos will be provided by the perfect backyard activity. All you need is some PVC pipe, pool noodles, windmills, drill bits, a saw, a tarp and a general contractor at your disposal. According to Pinterest, in order to keep my kids occupied, I will also need to be fully stocked with glow sticks, chalk paint, mural-sized butcher paper, mason jars and burlap. And outdoor movie screen and projector with a hanging pallet loveseat would also be helpful. But then it’s midnight, and I’m depressed and go cry myself to sleep, because I know I’ll never get that crap together, and my poor kids will have to suffice with bubbles and an old swing set.
The first few days of summer are usually a little rocky as we adjust to the constant presence of each other. For instance, maybe you take your kids to the library on the first day of summer and after breaking up a huge fight between your kids at the self-check-out machine, you find out you have to go to the big check out desk in the middle of the quiet grown-up section because you owe THIRTY EIGHT DOLLARS in late fees, and as you are trying to quietly check out, your youngest child throws a massive kicking-and-screaming meltdown, pees his pants (even though you were in the restroom with him three minutes earlier) and the librarian tells you he needs to be quiet. (So helpful.) Or maybe that was just me last Friday.
But other things happen too. Maybe a middle child sets up a very creative stuffed-animal kennel in her room, and the other children kindly drop off and pick up multiple animals. Or an older brother plays basketball with a younger brother without being asked and without causing physical injury. Or everyone sits around playing Battleship and no one accuses anyone of cheating. Or we find the perfect u-pick cherry place 10 minutes away or have a rocking playdate. Or free soccer camp turns out to be a huge hit. And somewhere in June, the panic fades and a mostly-contented exhaustion sets in. We accept the summer season and all it has to offer. The sibling rivalry and emotional meltdowns still exist, but we learn to CO-exist for those 14 waking hours. Yes, it’s a LOT more work having three little bodies desiring entertainment and engagement allstinkingday, but it can also be a lot of fun. So we banish the bewitching fog and re-claim our backyards, where bubbles and an old school swing set really are enough.