How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and with that one is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. -Annie Dillard
It’s happening again.
It started in late May, and it continues to roll out across my social media feeds through the first weeks of and into the middle of June: the shriek of panic or lament that school is out for the summer.
This doesn’t come from the students, of course. The students are thrilled to be cut loose from the constraints of the school year’s 180 days.
No, the cry comes– to a person– from their mothers, women who work full-time, part-time, away from or at home, mothers who meet the many demands on their lives–in one way or another–in part because their children are in school.
Until they aren’t.
Yes, the school year has ended, and suddenly these children are not neatly and appropriately occupied for six to eight hours a day and are instead unavoidably At Home.
The heart of the maternal need is a simple question: What to do?
And this blog post intends to answer it.
Or, anyway, to offer something–just a little something–that could potentially be helpful.
First, an acknowledgement: It might be easy for someone standing on the outside to throw a little shade on these lamenting mothers (“Don’t you want to be with your children?” they may ask, and maybe–can you tell?–they are even snide about it). Because mothers are supposed to revel in motherhood. They are supposed to preside over the lives of their children unruffled and wise, smiling warm and unwavering smiles. They are not, in fact, meant to be people so much as mothers–which is an oxymoronic expectation, but I digress.
Those smug assumptions about motherhood come from people who have never been mothers or who have never observed motherhood closely– or who, having long ago released their now-grown children into the world, remember all of it with an affectionate and overblown fondness that has obliterated the harder kernels of memory.
Parenting is hard. That’s a fact.
And children, newly released from the bonds of school, brimming with energetic demands or rendered dissatisfied and fractious by their freedom, can be a challenge. Even to themselves.
So here, another acknowledgement: Children are meant to be enjoyed. I will amplify this and go so far as to say that people are meant to be enjoyed, that beyond meeting the demands of survival (that whole food, clothing, shelter bit), enjoyment is The Thing. Enjoying someone is embodied love: it is saying and showing that the other is terrifically worthwhile.
We should do this for one another, and parents should most absolutely definitely do this for their children.
Yet another acknowledgement: No one is enjoyable all the time. And a child, newly released from the fetters of the school’s calendar year, might be uniquely un-enjoyable
Children ought to be enjoyed–as ought all people. But with children the stakes are high because they won’t be children long, and so we feel an urgency to enjoy them and a wretched guilt when we can’t.
The thing is (see above), no one is enjoyable all of the time. At the end of the day, children are people.
As are their parents.
In light of all this, I have an encouragement for families and especially for the Mother of the Summertime Lament:
Create (and keep) a routine.
I know, I know. That sounds so boring. And after all of this build-up, surely I could have something a bit more thrilling in mind.
But hear me out.
A routine offers structure and predictability–and these things are unbelievably helpful to children. And their parents.
Need proof? Think of Mr. Rogers, who is currently if belatedly enjoying a new appreciation of his work. How did he begin Every Single Episode? With a predictable routine: changing work-shoes and jacket for sneakers and sweater–signs that he was at leisure with the children, giving them his undivided attention. He finished the program the same way, in reverse. And although I was always sorry to see him make his way to that coat closet, he was also meeting my expectations.
For a child, predictably met expectations create a sense of security.
A secure child is a (more) content child.
And a content child is always (far) easier to enjoy.
Beyond contentment, routines bring other gifts. For example, they enable better supervision over the use of screens.
Screens, the bedeviling temptation of the summer holiday. They pacify children–until they don’t. I’m sure there are all kinds of studies about screens and boredom and the surprisingly heightened dissatisfaction they
engender as soon as the screen goes off.
Without going into all of that, I think a parent’s best ally when confronting screen use is to limit it, and to be the boss of it, because children typically lack the judgment and control that is helpful to do the same.
With a routine, screen time can just fall into place. As in
See? You decide. You be the boss. Your children will be happier that way.
Routines also enable those pesky negotiable things like
When my children were in middle-to-late grade-school and early-middle-school and I was teaching full-time, our summertime days quickly began to fill up. My children were going in three different directions (because I have three children), and as a result, so was I. Invariably, some-two of them had play-dates on one day and another had play-dates on three other days, and before I knew it, I was never seeing all three of them together.
So I established a routine: Wednesdays were “Mom-days.” They could have play-dates on any other day of the week, but Wednesdays were reserved for the four of us. Then I pulled out my laptop and found Interesting Things To Do all over our town, and I planned accordingly.
Sometimes we just went to the pool. Sometimes we visited a heretofore un-visited historic site. The library. The museum. The movie-in-the-middle-of-a-summer-afternoon-at-home-and-it-wasn’t-even-raining. Whatever it was we did, that was our day to do it.
It gave them time to do their things, and it gave me time with them together.
I’m pretty sure none of us regrets it.
Another perfectly splendid thing about a routine is that it can incorporate things that need to happen.
Example? Summertime assignments, reading or otherwise. I have a daughter in high school, and every summer it seems she has some assignment or two that she is expected to complete during the summer months.
We all know how this can go. Summer brings its own demands and pleasures, and it’s easy to continually push deadlines away in favor of fun. The problem can be that August arrives long before you expected (have you noticed how that happens?), and suddenly everyone is miserable because the workload is too heavy compressed into that time-frame, and the mother IS the heavy, trying to ensure the work gets done.
Everyone is unhappy.
Enter the routine. “We” work on it every Monday afternoon for two hours. Or Mondays and Wednesdays for one hour. Whatever works. The project gets underway (which also magically often makes the assignment less daunting) and then it gets underway some more, and it’s well in hand–even finished–at the end of July.
Routines can also meet the need for REST.
You know. Remember? Peace and quiet. An hour or two during which Mom can get some work done or even think her own thoughts for a space.
When my children were young, we had a resting time every single afternoon. Sometimes they had to read on their beds; sometimes they were allowed to play quietly in their rooms. But the quiet and solitude were sacrosanct. And also tremendously helpful. I can’t recommend it enough.
I know, I know. Not everyone is a “routine” kind of gal, and that is completely fair. But the beauty of a routine is that it’s a general expectation. You can keep it as carefully or loosely as you choose.
You might be a dawn-to-dusk planner. You may be a one-day-a-week planner. You may need your kids to Just Be Still for an hour every afternoon. So build a routine around those needs and then gently and oh-so-lovingly Stick To It.
Your children will learn to expect the pattern and then– guess what??– you have yourself a routine.
Here’s the thing: whether you are a routine-sort of person or not, you want to enjoy your children. And you are also a person, which means limited energy, limited perspective, and demands on your life that may or may not include, be enhanced by, or involve your children.
At the same time, you know what’s coming: Your children are growing up fast. You’ve been observing this already out of the corner of your eye. You know that the days– even the ones that creep by in the present– are going.
So consider building yourself a little schedule. Decide what you and your children need in order for you to have a healthy summer together. Make a routine out of those things you need, want, and hope for.
That routine will be “a net for catching days”–these fleeting days of summer that will be over before you know it. Yes, you can be sure that your summer will slip by, but maybe it will do so while you enjoy it. And your children.