Tuesday, June 27, 2006
"Summertime, and the livin' is easy," so the Gershwin song goes. At least that's how it should be, especially in summer-friendly San Diego. If you're a working mom or dad, however, the promise of summer also brings the bittersweet reality that the office doesn't close just because the days grow long.
And no matter how much working moms enjoy their jobs, the summer is hard because it represents the potential for free time with their children, unburdened by homework and rushed mornings to beat the school bell. The fact that work doesn't stop because summer begins is sometimes a hard pill to swallow.
In my nearly 11 years of parenting, I've only had one summer when I didn't work. That was only because I had a new baby and was on maternity leave. It was the summer before my oldest began kindergarten and my newborn was an easy going guy, ready to be on-the-move. It was a magical summer, full of long days at the beach, pool parties, museum visits and slow walks around the neighborhood stopping to examine every roly poly, admire the geometric shapes on butterflies' wings and visit with our many elderly neighbors.
Yet every year as summer -- gloomy or sunny -- emerges, my neighbor asks me the same question, "So, you have to work again this summer?" She has asked me this same question annually for nearly 10 years, even though she knows I work full time. But, she's a stay-at-home mom who, I imagine, views my choice and my schedule with equal parts disdain and misunderstanding. I always answer the same way.
"Yes," I say. "The station runs 24/7, even in the summer." I say this with a smile even though I'm not smiling inside. And every year, I hold back from saying what I'm really thinking. I shut up not only in the spirit of being neighborly but because I accept it's my choice and, like any choice, there are trade offs.
Parents who don't work outside the home say they also face the summer with some trepidation, but for different reasons than my own. While my friends who are home for the summer may not face the scheduling rigors that I do, they are quick to remind me their days are no picnic. There are nearly three months of long days to fill. And after nine months of highly structured schedules, telling the kids to go play in the backyard won't always cut it; I know that from the days that I'm at home with my kids. So, I don't envy my friends' seemingly endless quest for playdates, half-price attractions and the welcome music of the ice cream truck.
During the school year, my schedule is relentless, but it's also reliable. I drop off at the same time; I pick up at the same time. I know what to expect and life is easy (or as easy as it gets with three kids). The summer, on the other hand, represents a Rubik's Cube of scheduling: Balancing work hours with camps that start late and end early; planning family vacations that meet the needs of both parents and kids ranging from 1 to 10. Every day is different, meaning every day something can go wrong or fall through the cracks. This week alone, I heard three comments on the vagaries of summer from working parents feeling the burn.
One father seemed surprised that school had actually ended and now his child had no place to go. When I asked a co-worker how she was doing, she mumbled an almost unintelligible sentence, however I caught, "Kids," "Summer," and I heard her growl. Another mother dreamed of a fantasy island where her children could go for the summer. "Only for two weeks," she said, wistfully, voicing another harsh reality for all parents -- working or not. There's no vacation from parenthood, the freedom of summer is truly a childhood experience.
For all parents, summer represents both promise and void. The promise of night swimming, late dinners outside on the patio, beach bonfires with s'mores and sleepovers on weeknights. The void is the time to fill and the endless choices. I've had what I call my "Camp Summers" and my "Camp-Free Summers," and I'm still undecided on which is best. "Camp Summers" mean I put my kids in an endless array of summer camps -- both just for the day and week-long sleep away camps. The benefits are many: the days are structured, there are organized activities in a safe environment, and the kids learn something every day. The detriments are the relentless schedule and the exorbitant costs. Good camps are very expensive. This is something most working parents don't think about when they decide to be working parents. The cost of several weeks of camps equals the cost of a decent summer vacation for many families. But, you get what you pay for, and peace of mind doesn't come cheap.
"Camp-Free Summers" are more free-wheeling. They're my preference when I'm taking a lot of vacation time. They are romantic in an old fashioned sense of summer. The kids wake up naturally, there's no rushing to make it to camp. When I'm not home, I pay a sitter to take the kids swimming or to the park. They play with friends and sell lemonade and cookies. It's all very halcyon -- until they get bored. This year, my oldest was only two days into her nearly "Camp-Free Summer" when the calls started.
"Mom, I'm bored." "Mom, I'm tired of swimming." (Note: she'd only swam one day as summer vacation just began). "Mom, everyone's at camp and there's no one to play with."
After three days of this, I sat her down and reminded her that she requested the "Camp-Free Summer," but my job afforded me the opportunity to make it a "Camp Summer" and that I was prepared to make that her reality. The calls stopped. I relaxed in my air-conditioned office and set out to make the best of my "Work Summer."