Looking at my 2-year-old son sleeping soundly in the backseat this past weekend, sand stuck to his tiny barefoot toes and dribbles of chocolate ice cream still dotting his chin, I can’t help but smile.
Behind me sits his sister—5—wet blond hair matted to her headband, her little belly poking out of her rash guard. Her eyelids are fluttering and I know within minutes she’ll be asleep, too.
Ah, beach days. That’s what summer’s all about, right? Well for us, actually, it’s not.
Growing up, summer meant spending the day at one of three bodies of water with my siblings and our friends: the pool in our backyard, a local water park, or the lake. Like my own mom, most of my friends’ moms were also stay-at-home moms or teachers who were off for the summer—so our neighborhood was always brimming with kids. None of our parents sent us away for the summer to camp or put us in formal daycare situations; they didn’t need to, but also, we lived in the country… kids from “the city” (i.e. New York) came to camp in the part of New Jersey where we grew up.
In between water fun, we’d sell lemonade or candy to neighbors, ride our bikes, and play games like Manhunt and Midnight Clock until the sun went down and our parents made us come inside. Aside from the occasional bee sting or irksome streak of crummy weather, the summers of my youth were pretty blissful.
Unfortunately, my kids will never have summers like that. Nor will most kids today. Like many couples, my husband and I both work outside the home, so for our kids, summer feels no different than the school year. While I’d love to let them sleep in because they’re exhausted from staying up way too late at a BBQ the night before, they still have to wake at 7. It’s still the same rat-race to get out the door because we still have to get to work and they have to get to the childcare center, which means we still endure the same “hurry up, get dressed, brush your teeth” prodding as we aim to beat the clock each morning.
And though I temper my working-mom guilt throughout the school year fairly well—reminding myself how my kids are thriving at school, how I love my job, how we can’t really afford to live on one income—summer is when that guilt flows like raging hot lava and the pull to quit my job and be a SAHM feels strongest.
While I love their school and know they’re with their friends doing wonderful things—like reading, playing games, and singing songs, learning, and getting outside—they’re not with either of us. And, moreover, they don’t have the freedom to just “be” with each other, either. Sure, they have free time at school and visit each other every day, but they can’t wake when they feel like it or stay in jammies all day or read for hours or nap under a tree just because they feel tired and it’s 4 p.m. and nap-time didn’t happen when it was “supposed” to, like I did as a kid.
I didn’t even realize what a “luxury” any of that was until I became a working mom and could see with my own eyes what my kids were lacking, what I wish they could have—something that costs zero dollars but is priceless: free time. And I feel really guilty about that. They may not know what they’re missing, but I do.
Further, being a working parent means we’re left to cram all things summer into the weekends. I hear summer’s siren song and it’s hard to say no: sprinkler time! The beach! The zoo! Splash pad! Soccer/gymnastics/swimming lessons! New fro-yo place! Bike riding! Let’s hit the park we love! S’mores! Obstacle course in the backyard! BBQs! Free museum exhibit!
I am the first to admit I want to do it all (much to my homebody husband’s chagrin) but I also know that isn’t realistic, either. In addition to kids needing down time/free time, we still have a household to maintain and a yard to care for and other things that spring up, and those things often can’t be done when the kids are asleep.
To attempt some semblance of balance, I try to set aside at least one of the weekend two days to just “be” at home—where the kids can do what they want: color, invent games, build forts and make pillow piles, help Daddy in the yard, even watch a couple back-to-back episodes of their favorite show because they don’t get much screen time. But it’s a constant struggle between wanting to maximize our weekends and giving them the space they need to be creative.
And I know we’re not alone in this struggle. The long, lazy days of summer are an illusion to us, an unobtainable Holy Grail. It kind of makes me resent those 10-12 weeks of “summer.” Though the weather has changed and everything feels more relaxed by nature, that’s not the reality for families like ours.
Ultimately, I’ve had to let go of the working mom guilt and come to terms with the fact that, although my kids won’t have the carefree summers I had growing up, we can still have a great time making memories. It just needs to be crammed into a much, much shorter period.
Quality over quantity, right?
How about you? Do you suffer from similar summer guilt? How do you cope?