Expectation vs. Reality: Parenting in the Summer

When summer doesn't look the way you expect, maybe it's time to examine your expectation. 

When I think about summer, I’m flooded with memories of swimming, camping, sunshine, vacations and countless hours in a hammock with a book. The summers of my childhood were incredible. So, when I began my career as a teacher, my perception of summer carried over into early adulthood, and I didn’t hate it one bit.

However, my career path has changed a number of times since those first years out of college, and the past several years have resulted in a harsh reality I wasn’t quite prepared for in my first 25 years of life: most adults don’t get the summer off.

I work full time, and I find my job incredibly life-giving. In fact, I wouldn’t want the summer off. This summer, however, has presented some complicated realities that have caused me to examine the way I view summer and wrestle a bit with some preconceptions I had for what summer could be.

My oldest daughter, Eloise, recently completed kindergarten. This summer is the first time in our parenting life that summer has felt significantly different from the rhythm of the school year. It feels like a priceless opportunity to soak up quality time with my children who, far too soon, will be too busy to snuggle.

I’m confronted by the expectations that I’ve set for myself about what summer should be, and the way that conflicts with the life I’ve chosen. Being a working parent in the summer means that my teacher and stay-at-home friends will be taking their children to the park and the splash pad while I’m at work. They’ll be working on educational activities to avoid the “summer slide” during the day, they’ll be taking trips to the zoo on a weekday morning, and they’ll be up at the lake for days or weeks at a time. 

As a working mom in summer, my heart aches to think about the fun we won’t have together during those hours and like any parent, I question whether my choices are the right ones. And yet, I have been reminded by a teacher friend that it’s not all smiles and splashes. 

Come July, my stay-at-home friends are desperate for adult interaction, a break from the near-constant bickering, and just one meal where she doesn’t need to beg her children to “take an ever loving bite of your lunch!” They feel like they’re simply housekeepers and mediators, cooks and referees. The trips to the splash pad and the playground are really aimed at giving their living rooms a break from the rowdiness and roughhousing, a desperate attempt to wear them out enough to nap in the afternoon.

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Each day, my children are in excellent care. Their caretakers provide countless opportunities to run around, climb, splash, dig, and play. They read together, they laugh, and they form memories and bonds with new friends, grandparents, and extended family members. In the evenings and on the weekends, we snuggle, we read, we travel, and some days we go to the splash pad and the playground too. 

Slowly, I’m realizing that it’s my expectations of what summer “should be” that are casting a shadow over the sunshine of summer. My children aren’t suffering, they’re thriving. The hours I’m spending at work fill me up, and because that’s what fills me up, I have more to pour into them during our time together. Spending my energy on guilt and feelings of inadequacy is unfair to me, and it’s unfair to my family. 

The same is true for my friends who have the opportunity to be home in the summers. Shouldering the burden of making every moment incredible is simply too much for anyone. We need breaks, we need to converse with our peers, and we need opportunities to rest as much as we need opportunities to do meaningful work. Maybe what we really need this summer is to give ourselves a break, and only expect that we can find delight in our days, however they’re being spent.