Staring down summer vacation with kids brings about two separate, yet equal reactions: hope and fear. As a child with a mother who stayed home, summer meant endless days at the pool, grilled cheese and real Coke from the pool-side stand, running amok in the neighborhood until dusk and wearing the gnarly mix of mosquito bites and crispy sunburn like a badge of honor. It was so simple, so free & so satisfying.
For most of my children’s lives, I have worked year round which meant summer camps & daycare, the same packed lunches, regular bedtimes, with the occasional weekend trip to the lake. Gone were the admittedly romanticized summers of my youth and each year I approached summer with a sense of sadness for what I thought my children were missing.
Every summer started and ended the same way, with me filled with self-flagellating regret. Dropping my daughter off at daycare and my son at another camp he didn’t want to be doing felt like a failure. I was failing my kids by not filling their break with days at the pool, my undivided attention, freedom and the special reverence with which summer demanded to be treated.
The glossy retrospective vision I had viewed summer with through all these years made whatever attempts I made feel feeble and trite. Trying to stuff bokeh-filled moments into the confines of weekends left me constantly unsatisfied with a berating inner dialogue on my failure as a parent.
When I decided to step away from my career two years ago to pursue a different path, I embarked on my first summer home with the kids with the rose-colored assurance that now, finally, I would be able to give my children the summer they deserved. I planned, neigh attempted to stuff, summer with everything. The threads of that grandiose plan began to unravel in the first few school-free weeks. Everything felt fraught with anxiety, over planning, and saturated with loaded expectation.
I tried to unpack what made those childhood summers so magical hoping I could bottle it up and share it some 30 years later. But, I realized the landscape of summer had changed so much that it is, in some ways, impossible to give my daughter the same summer of my youth.
Running amok in the neighborhood has been replaced by weeks-in-advance scheduled play dates. The deeply freckled skin with the permanent bathing suit tan lines that took months to fade replaced by a vicious cycle of exhaustively researched EWG-certified-safe sunscreen application. Poolside greasy snacks are now organic & locally sourced, screened for common allergens, carefully and artfully prepared and stored in non-BPA glass mason jar completely Instagram-worthy, though barely touched by actual children, snacks. And, the lazy days of reading books, riding bikes along trails, and poking around the neighborhood replaced with carpal tunnel-inducing compulsive phone scrolling and nearly getting hit by a car while trying to find that rare Pokemon. The ease of summers past has been replaced by a seeming anxiety loop with a side of digital unease.
The magic of 1980’s summers I was trying to impart felt like grains of sand slipping through my fingers. I bemoaned the stresses of the modern life over lunch one day with a friend, beating myself up for how my now teen son completely missed out on the magic of summer and for having one last chance to give my daughter that elusive gift. I spouted plans for how this summer I would get it right, a digital embargo, long pool days, camping even if it killed me. After the proper amount of mother guilt related empathy, she asked,
“Did you ever think you are trying to give them the summer of your youth when you should be trying to give them the summer of theirs?”
If there was ever a time I felt someone had dropped the mic on me, this was that moment.
What exactly was I trying to accomplish? And, who was I trying to accomplish it for? The memories I was chasing were ephemeral and rosy and missed their meat. The beach trip I waxed poetic over was a nightmare of sibling fights, blistering sunburns, sleeping on the too hard motel floor for lack of beds. The magical pool days were painfully hot with popsicles that melted too damn fast to cool down the heat that exhausted. Somehow, these regular moments had become epitomized, sanitized, and eulogized in a way that no one could ever live up to.
When I distill down to the core of what gift summer gave all those years ago, it wasn’t the actual things we did but the feelings it created. Ease. Wonder. Freedom. And, I realized facing this summer that the key to waking up on Memorial Day in a post-summer bliss hangover was not about planning activities but reaching for feelings.
One of my favorite authors Danielle LaPorte talks about why so many task-oriented goals fail and it is in part because they are focused on mere tasks, often of the should do variety. When I thought back on the summer plans we made last year, I saw an extensive task list devised to stuff more experience into summer. Check. We did it. No check, we didn’t. We somehow missed out, failed, should have.
The push to accomplish all of those nostalgia-driven things wasn’t making me feel ease, wonder or freedom, and I had a child who was constantly disappointed by our lack of checks. I had to approach this summer without expectation. By not loading us down with what I thought summer should be, I could allow our kind of summer to evolve.
As this summer weaves its last strands, the permission I’ve given for feelings first and to do lists last has shifted the course. Sometimes we’ve dodged a too sweaty day reading books in bed or bounced on the trampoline singing songs too loudly or painted in our sketchbooks under umbrellas on the porch or just let the day take us where it does.
And, sometimes, because this is reality and not an aspirational mommy blog, we’ve watched more than the pediatrician-recommended amount of tv, spent half of our afternoon chasing Pokemon, had a fixed calendar with weekly playdates, and avoided the too crowded pool like our lives depended on it. We haven’t managed to accomplish anything but somehow have accomplished everything.
Today as I read my daughter what I had written about summer, she started to cry. While she is predisposed to being as dramatic as her mother, I honestly couldn’t, in this case, see the need for full blown tears. She said it all just seemed so sad, and as I poured over the words again, I realized it was. We sat there for a while cuddled in my chair and talked about how moms are prone to think they are doing things all wrong even when they are working hard to do their best. She wrapped her sunscreen soaked arms around my neck, tucked her head under my chin and as I smelled the lingering chlorine in her hair pulling her close, I realized these days were everything they needed to be.