Summer can be a burden for working parents, especially mothers. That’s because the American school calendar is predicated on a family structure that hasn’t existed for decades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022, 73% of mothers and 93% of fathers with children younger than 18 were employed. That’s a lot of families that are scrambling to figure out how to cover care for up to 12 weeks.
For many women considering a return to work when their kids are still at home, the question “what will I do about summers?” can feel really overwhelming. Here are a few thoughts on strategies for tackling summer.
When considering costs, take a long view. The cost of summer programs can be high and can lead people, especially women, to feel it isn’t worth it to spend their entire summer salary on childcare. But it’s important to remember that the three months of summer care enable employment during the other nine months of the year. And, remember the longer view, too: any childcare costs incurred in the early years are an investment in your earning power over time.
Let go of the guilt. Following from the idea of investing in your own earning power, a great summer program is also an investment in your child. Often we focus on the “my kid has to go to camp because I work” instead of focusing on the value kids get from these programs. There is a lot of research to suggest that kids lose significant academic skills during the long summer vacation. A great summer program that includes some academics alongside fun activities can be a great way to give your child advantages that will last a lifetime. And programs that offer athletics and arts enrichment can supplement for programs that may be less plentiful during the school year.
If you have a choice, choose fewer transitions. While it might seem great to be able to give your children a variety of activities (a week at tennis camp! a week at ballet camp!), if possible choose one program that covers all, or at least most of, the summer. Every transition to a new program involves a new routine, intake forms, and all the rest – creating more stress. For the marginal benefit of an additional activity it’s rarely worth it. Our daughter attends a camp that offers a variety of sports and arts programming. It keeps her engaged and excited all summer while minimizing the disruptions to our routines.
Find a responsible college student to help. Here’s an idea suggested by Margaret Ryan: “I did something different this year. I found a babysitter (20 year old college student) via Urban Sitter for my 9 and 12 year old girls. She plans their week and picks them up every day at our home and drops them off in the evening. They go to the public pools, the playgrounds, and local museums. We’re paying half the price of camps for two girls but that’s not the draw. The girls love planning their schedule, the consistency of schedule, and the freedom to just play during the day. Its a great solution for us.”
This solution is much less stressful than running here, there, and everywhere to get kids where they need to be!
Consider “Camp Nana & Grampa”. One option that can both reduce your costs and be valuable for everyone is for your kids to spend additional time with grandparents and other extended family. If you live far from your family this can be a great opportunity for them to get both quality and quantity time. And even if they are nearby and get to spend time regularly during the school year, there is just something about lazy summer days that can create really special memories.
For all these ideas, know that summer is likely to involve some stress as you inevitably cobble together a variety of ways to cover the gaps. For my family there are definitely a few weeks on either end of the summer where my husband, our caregiver, and I look at each other and say “Wait, who’s going where today?” Anticipating a little bit of chaos can be a great way to manage it.
Written by Tami Forman, the founding executive director of Path Forward and a frequent speaker on issues related to caregiving and workforce participation.