Like many of you, I’m staring down a summer without daycare. The phase two restrictions would morph my toddler’s beloved school into something he wouldn’t even recognize. Meanwhile, my third-grader’s summer camps have been uniformly canceled. Goodbye, kids’ yoga. Farewell, ropes course and archery, with breaks for healthy lunches and wholesome snacks! Ciao, handy curbside bus pick-up and drop-off.
My carefully structured July and August have imploded while my husband and I still have to, you know, work. Now it’s just us, our kids and three decrepit window-unit air conditioners.
Why does this new schedule present as alarmingly foreign? It shouldn’t. Growing up, I did not maintain an elaborate summer calendar. I went to precisely one summer camp at a playground down the street from my house that contained a seesaw, three rusty swings and a hot metallic slide. (I think we made friendship bracelets.) Our family belonged to a pool, hardly a swanky one, and sometimes my dad would meet us there after work. I watched TV. I rode my pink Huffy bike. I kept detailed journals with self-improvement tips (“Get tan legs before September!”) and read a lot of “The Baby-Sitters Club” books. (They’re making a comeback!) I experimented with a Bic razor and shaved off my arm hair, so that it still grows back in hirsute thickets. No, I did not have a ropes course. I did not do trust falls. My sense of reality came from “Sweet Valley High.”
Life was more clear-cut then, of course. My mom didn’t work. She wasn’t spending her time swatting children out of the frame of a glitchy Zoom call. Logistics were simpler. Expectations were, perhaps, lower. And social media didn’t reinforce every single inadequacy or call into question every single missed family-bonding opportunity.
And so, is it perverse that I’m looking forward to a summer with no expectations, wherein many of my peers are similarly leveled and frazzled? That the game has been called off? That I have an excuse to set my kids free? I will be busy working. So will my husband. My freshly feral tots will have to fend for themselves, to some (safe, non-hazardous) degree. They will need to make their own fun in their own backyard. They will have to grow accustomed to that 1980s, humid, sweat-soaked summertime brand of languid boredom that breeds creativity and maybe even memories. Armed with nothing more than a Gizmo watch and a bike, my 9-year-old will have to find excitement, or at least diversion, on the streets of his own neighborhood. Poor kid.
This is not merely an interesting experiment. Very real child-care complications exist for many of us, ones that are poised to hold women back in particular. These camps and daycares served as more than social and educational sanctuaries for our kids; they enable parents to not get fired. Those of us with understanding colleagues operate with the mutual expectation that we’re working at half-speed right now; not everyone is so fortunate, and for so many, a lack of summertime childcare adds a fresh layer of stress and uncertainty. I’m not clueless enough to think that this is an ideal situation for all. It’s not.
That’s why this bizarre situation might finally force us into self-acceptance, to give ourselves some forgiveness and some leeway. To do less with less. To acknowledge that parenting is always a juggle, but right now it’s sort of like an octopus juggling melting ice cubes. We may need to reprioritize a bit, to make our kids’ happiness less central as we simply muddle through.
So this summer might just be about permission: to stop second-guessing about providing the best, most meaningful pandemic summer ever and to simply be an OK parent, one who keeps our kids safe and relatively content while dealing with unprecedented weirdness and disorganization. To be average. To simply get by.
That’s my plan, anyway, though I wonder how long it will last. For my cohort of parents who have always operated in an ambition-oriented framework, who are comfortable with setting goals and achieving them and for whom hard work yields reward, I hope we don’t start trying to out-simplify ourselves, striving to be the best possible average parent with homemade popsicles and Instagram shots of sunlit sprinklers. (I just ordered my kids an herb garden. Who am I?) We’ll see.
But maybe I’m using the wrong word. Maybe there’s nothing average about simplicity. Maybe it’s just natural. Life has a way of teaching you how to live it, after a while, and maybe this is a teaching moment for all of us: to relinquish control, to give ourselves a break and to let our kids free range it a bit. They’ll forgive us, if we forgive ourselves.