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Summer: The Agony, The Ecstasy

by Allison Slater Tate
Photo by: Shutterstock

My personal Facebook posts sometimes confuse my friends with younger, not yet school-age children. I admit that, to the exhausted eye of a mother with less years under her belt, they might seem slightly crazed with their wide array of dread and joy.

At the beginning of each school year, I am full of relief and It-s-the-Most-Wonderful-Time-of-the-Year status updates. Even though each fall brings the apprehension of new teachers to know and new schedules to navigate, the only tears I wipe away as I drive (on two wheels) out of the school parking lot are tears of unabashed glee. It’s true.

But then, the school year is peppered with holidays and vacations that are a welcome respite from the frenetic pace of the school year. I relish the opportunity to let myself and my kids stay in pajamas past 7:30 AM, and I feel an obnoxious amount of freedom from homework obligations for someone who has not had homework of her own in ten years.

May is just about the worst month ever: a crazy roller-coaster of both physical and emotional climbs and dips, full of deadlines and lasts and last-minute parties and goodbyes and projects – always the projects – and always projects nobody told us about before May. I do not enjoy May, and I am not shy about it.

By the time school is finally out, I am cheering summer’s name all over Facebook. Some of my friends send me quizzical texts: You are happy about the end of school? they ask. You’re not afraid of what you will do with your kids for two and a half months? Are you feeling okay?

I mean, it’s complicated. I don’t have the funds to put my kids in a constant stream of engaging camps that will give me time to myself and a pile of worn-out kids every evening, so yes, the prospect of summer can be a little daunting. I don’t have regular childcare, my babysitters are off at college or on vacations of their own, and my kids are just as prone to the bickering, brawling, whining, and other exasperating behaviors of unstructured children everywhere.

But at the same time: no packing lunches. WOOT! No missing library books, obligatory foodstuffs for class parties, or last-minute homework panic! FREEDOM!

At the end of each school year, I always have big plans for the summer. I’ll finally have time, free of the schedule of school, to get things done. I won’t have my day interrupted by drop-offs and pick-ups and sports and lessons and PTA meetings. I won’t be obligated to anyone but me. We’ll do all sorts of interesting things we never get to do. By the end of each summer, I have big plans for the school year — um, the same plans. Because the truth is, summer days don’t offer me enough structure and predictability to actually accomplish anything.

My kids are in free-for-all mode, and I am their free-for-all cruise director.

That means that for me, summer often becomes the Parent-At-Home equivalent of New Year’s Eve: it sounds like so much fun in theory, but when it actually happens, it can fall way short of expectations. Instead of being patient and fun and sitting in a lounge chair in the driveway while my kids make elaborate chalk drawings or packing them all up for fun afternoons tubing on the local river, I find myself stepping over them on my way to the laundry room while they watch their 50th hour of lord-knows-what on Cartoon Network. I mean to read chapter books to them before bed, and instead, I let them stay up past their bedtimes playing the video games they don’t have time for when they are in school, and I hope they remembered to brush their teeth. I want to make sure they are keeping up their academic skills and summer reading lists, and… yeah. Not so much.

My husband and I take the kids on family vacations, too, but those also do not always live up to our idealized dreams either. We expect our kids to be awed by their new experiences and to wax rhapsodic about the culture, food, and fun we plan for them. More often, they whine about interrupting their screen time for an outing and they order macaroni and cheese no matter where we are.

It’s easy to feel a little defeated by summer. By the time I get my legs underneath me and feel like I am in a rhythm and enjoying it, it’s time to go back to school. I never feel like I get it quite right.

But at the same time, it’s still magical. It still serves as a kind of picnic bench between school years — a place to rest, a place to reflect, a place to breathe a little, even if you are a working parent, before the next round of growth.

My children are frozen in frame for the eight weeks of summer. They seem to grow like weeds the other nine months and change of the year, but the summers serve as snapshots of who they were, right in that moment.

This summer hasn’t been without its heaviness or frustrations. But for me, it will always be the summer my children were 11, 9, 5, and just turned 1 and the last full summer before I turn 40.

It’s the summer the toddler would cock her eyebrow and bust into dance moves when we played Taylor Swift for her. It’s the summer my youngest boy acquired his first wiggly tooth, much to his thrill and trepidation. This is the summer of so many Full House re-runs that my children casually mention John Stamos and Bob Saget in conversation (Who would have ever imagined?); of taking my kids to movies and sitting in the lobby with the mobile, bored toddler; of teaching the baby the joys of guacamole and the oldest the buzz-kill of summer homework before middle school. It’s the summer of catching fireflies and jumping off the diving board again and again with the children of my college friend in South Carolina and small town adventures in North Carolina. We’ll remember our first slides down Sliding Rock, ice cream sundaes and green tomato pickles at a real soda shop, and white squirrels scampering up trees in the backyard of our rental house. I’ll remember that this was when the toddler would knock her brother over with her enthusiastic hugs, my oldest started really becoming a tween, and my 9 year old started showing incredible patience as a big brother.

In the end, summer isn’t about if we check every item off a figurative or literal list. It is about our memories and that we recognize that even though it is unstructured, our kids might be crazy, and chaos is reigning supreme, summer is a special space in childhood.

I thought when I graduated from college that my “summers” were over, but through my kids, I have them again. So I embrace them, knowing that once Meet-The-Teacher comes around, I’ll be ready to pack lunchboxes again. Sort of.

Allison Slater Tate is a writer (The Mom Stays in the Picture) and a mother of four crazy, exasperating, wonderful children that keep her on her toes and in her minivan. You can find her writing at the Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and Brain, Child, as well as her personal blog. She over-shares on Facebook, and Twitter when the kids let her play with her iPhone. Her parents are super glad they splurged on the Princeton education. Obvs.

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