June 25, 2019
Recently, a colleague with a 1-year-old turned to me with a look of panic. It just dawned on her that someday soon, she'll have to figure out what to do with her child during summertime. For now, her baby is happily ensconced in a year-round day care. What in the world, she wondered, do parents do when school's out?
I had just been thinking about color-coding our matrix of summer camps and carpools, start times, end times, the costs of each camp. (And had just written myself a reminder to call that one camp that never returns calls because I didn't get the promised sibling discount.) My mind wasn't at work; it was on this new summer schedule.
Summertime is often thought of as a lazy, relaxing break from the rush-rush of school days. No more waking up early! No more packing lunches! Beautiful days wide open for kids and parents to hang out and — oh right. That just isn't the case. Last year, on the last day of school, I tossed my children's stinky lunch boxes into the trash in an act of blissful defiance, only to later dig them back out because, hey, they need to eat when they're at camp, too. (Surprise.) Most parents work, so life is still centered on getting child care and getting everyone out the door, even from June through August.
Camps typically end earlier than school does — not very convenient for parents who work until 5 or 6 or in varying shifts. And camps are different week to week, so the locations and rules and times change with each one.
Even those who have a parent at home to deal with logistics still face one big issue: Camps are expensive.
In costly areas such as Washington, one-week day camps can run $500 or more. Finding a spot in one of the more popular ones means signing up when there's still snow on the ground. In my house, a casual week-long baseball camp we consider relatively affordable is $375 for one child and ends at 3 p.m. After-care costs another $150 for the week. (Meanwhile, a month of after-care during the school year here costs about $400.)
I know I'm a lucky one: I have a friend and neighbor who is able to pick the kids up this week and hang out with them until I get home from work. My husband or I do the drop-off in the morning. But that's a luxury — not something that will happen all the other weeks, and not something every parent can do.
Tied up in knots over our (ahem) carefree summer, I asked members of our Parenting & Work Facebook discussion group about their summers.
"We pay for after-care, but for most weeks, we can't manage both after-care and before-care, so one or the other of us is inevitably rushing to get to work late, while the one goes in extra early to make up for the lateness on the other days," said Lila Guterman, a science journalist who lives in Washington, whom I later emailed to discuss her family's expensive juggling act. (Disclosure: Her husband works at The Post.)
This is the first year her daughter, 11, and son, 8, are mostly at different camps. So the scheduling alone that goes into summer camp life is enough to nix any feelings of carefree summer days for Mom and Dad.
"Our kids are almost 9 and 6 and are rising 4th and 1st graders, respectively," wrote one mother. "I work roughly 7:30 AM - 4:30 p.m., and my husband works 2nd shift, so we need a summer care option that goes until at least 5 PM. Unlike many of our friends, we don't have a parent who's a teacher and we don't have any grandparent help with childcare."
"I agree that it's just a Giant Pain In The A** to have to arrange for a patchwork of full-time coverage for 9+ weeks," wrote another. "We are lucky to have what I consider to be affordable city rec options here and also we live in a small community where driving/walking times are not long, and both my spouse and I have decent flexibility to arrange for dropoff/pickup. But, frankly, yes, it is a longer day for my kids in an organized activity than they have during the school year, and more difficult a daily routine for us, plus much more costly."
With two small children, Keopu Reelitz of Hawaii is in a tough (and expensive) time of life. In an email exchange, she summed it up in a way we can all relate with: "Summer is just something we get through and not what it used to be. I hope one day that changes."
Sure, there are solutions: paying a neighbor to let your kid hang with their sitter, sharing rides, paying for that extra after-care or even co-oping with parents in your area where you trade off afternoons if your work is flexible enough. I love hearing about all the ways people make summer work. But that's just it: It's work.
For Andrew Knott, a stay-at-home dad and freelance writer, the summer schedule is fine, because he's at home, but the expenses are daunting. His two older children (ages 5 and 7) are in tennis camp four days a week from 8:30 to 12:30 at a nearby country park in the Orlando area. "It's relatively affordable," he said in an email, at $80 per week per child. He also has a 3-year-old who is home with him.
But to pay for camps, the family cuts back by not taking major vacations and reining in smaller expenses, such as takeout meals, during the summer.
"I also do my freelance writing and editing mostly at night after the kids are in bed, which puts a limit on how much I can do," says Knott, whose wife works full-time as a labor and delivery nurse at a hospital.His income is lower in the summer months, but he says he figures that, "If I can make enough to pay for summer camps, we can get by okay."
The summer issue is daunting for many, and is beyond daunting for families whose children receive free breakfasts and lunches through school, or who find school to be the best stable environment as their parents work different hours and shifts.
As Stephanie Land wrote for On Parenting, summer and working single parenthood are no joke. "At $200 or more a week, most summer camps, at least where we live in Missoula, are not only unaffordable but also impractical, as many start late and end early, or are only half-days. I would have to pack her a lunch and buy her new tennis shoes, and that's if I found something I could afford," she wrote.
And for parents whose children have special needs? Camp is even more expensive, as they need to provide their own aides, or pay for very expensive camps.
Summer is still a joy for many of us, my family included. But the narrative around the long, lovely days of summer is just not so. There are indeed camps and programs for families that need extra financial support. And there are companies that allow more telecommuting in the summer months so parents can deal with different child-care hours. But the scramble, the chaos and the costs can turn summer into a bit of a nightmare.
I still have a great feeling when that last day of school comes along. I celebrate right along with my sons. But I also am clutching my calendar, making sure everything is typed up neatly into our family Google Calendar, and I wish on one of those stars in that summer sky that we'll find time amid the maneuvering, budgeting and sweating to enjoy it all.