THE BLOG
06/25/2016 10:10 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2017

Summer Vacation Drives Working Parents Insane

Remember all of the songs extolling the joys of summer?
Summertime (And the livin' is easy)
Hot Fun in the Summertime (Out of school, yeah, county fair in the country sun)
Sunny Afternoon (Lazing on a sunny afternoon)
Summer Breeze (Makes me feel fine, blowing through the jasmine in my mind)
Summertime Summertime (Come along and have a ball, a regular free-for-all)

Summer vacation for working parents is literally a "regular free-for-all," but no one is having a ball. Unless you are trying to balance a job with keeping your children safely occupied and happy, you probably think summer is still an awesome time for families. I know I used to believe this.

In my yearend newsletter column as a preschool director, before I had grandchildren, I waxed nostalgic for the summers I spent with my kids as a stay-at-home mom. I talked about peaceful times and kicking back to enjoy your children. I cringe when I look at the list of fun summer activities I wrote back in 2003 when I advised parents to "share some quiet and glorious time with your child"...
  • Take a walk and smell the newly cut grass
  • Splash in the puddles from a summer storm
  • Build a sand castle
  • Pick a bunch of dandelions
  • Blow soap bubbles
  • Run through a sprinkler on a hot day
  • Eat a picnic lunch in the park

Now that my three children have joined the ranks of working parents with children, this what summer vacation really looks like:

One set of grandkids has a nanny, so she gets to blow the bubbles and smell the flowers with them. My daughter pays the sitter one-fourth of her salary so she can spend the rest of her earnings barely keeping her family afloat. Mom gets to carpool them to swim practice after work. Maybe on one of her days off, she can pick dandelions or run through the sprinkler with them, if she's not too exhausted.

Another set of grandkids attend daycare programs so their parents can work. This is also a very costly venture, and now that the older son is in public school, a bit of a logistical nightmare. During the school year, they can pay for him to attend before and after school care, but now that school's out, it's a scramble. At least the little one can have a consistent experience, staying in his daycare setting. But big brother, all of six years old, will have to adjust to a new day camp with after care for six weeks, followed by two different camps, to cover all of the summer months. I guess my son can splash in puddles with his boys on weekends if it happens to rain.

My three in-town grandkids have an ever-changing schedule. Even with my help, it is challenging for my daughter to get them where they need to go and still work. Despite her Herculean efforts to piece together safe and fun activities for them, one of the girls was left with no programming each week in June. And the sad irony is that, for the child with significant special needs who least tolerates change, there was no way to put together a consistent experience. Here's what her summer looks like:
  • Summer school - 3 weeks in a different school with a different teacher
  • One week with nothing
  • Summer camp for children with special needs - 3 weeks
  • A different summer camp for children with special needs - 2 weeks
  • Another week with nothing
The arrangements my poor daughter has had to make are so convoluted and confusing that I have given up trying to write them in my calendar. I just call every morning and ask who needs to go where at what time and what my assignment is. Recently, Heidi Stevens wrote in her Chicago Tribune column Balancing Act that compared with other developed countries, American parents are the least happy. And what was the thing that makes us a country with the least happy parents? Workplace policies. According to researchers with the Council on Contemporary families, our recipe for unhappiness includes:
  • Lack of or minimal paid parental leave, sick, and vacation days
  • Cost of childcare compared with what parents earn
  • Non-flexible work schedules
Stevens states, "...trying to raise children and earn a living in a country with zero weeks of guaranteed paid leave and childcare that costs as much as college is draining." So-called summer vacation is really a nightmare for working parents who can barely hold it together with the structure of school.

Before she had children, one of my daughters, who is a child psychologist, wrote this about summer:

"Summer is a time for bubbles, windy days, and genuine smiles. It is a time to go outside and see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Children are masters at this. They find wonder in almost everything, from petting a dog, to watching butterflies, to finding the smooth rocks and pieces of glass that wash up on the beach. It seems like the busier life gets, the harder it is to notice these things on our own or to be able to take the time to appreciate them when children point them out to us... I also believe that parents benefit just as much from these breathers. It gives parents the opportunity to rediscover fireflies and ice cream trucks, and to take a day away from palm pilots. Most importantly, it gives parents a chance to enjoy their children and remember all the good things about being a parent."

The reference to palm pilots tells you she wrote this long before she became a working parent. She was remembering the summers of her youth, a simpler time when it was still possible for families to get by on one income so a parent, usually the mother, could be home with her young children over summer vacation. Sadly, she never got to experience this nostalgic experience of a hazy, lazy summer as a parent. For her and most of her peers, summer vacation is more of a nightmare than a dream.

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