There were days I didn't think I would make it to the end of the summer. I have five children. One is a baby. One is three years old and not quite ready for preschool. One goes to preschool, one is going into first grade, and one into fourth. The two oldest go to a school with a traditional calendar. They have 12 weeks of summer vacation. Filling 12 weeks with enough activities and entertainment to keep everyone occupied is hard.
In the middle of August, my husband Jack and I went to a party. One of our closest friends was turning 40. His wife threw a surprise birthday party for him. Unlike most of the parties we attend, no children were invited. Jack and I got a babysitter for the kids and set out to enjoy ourselves. As we drove to our friends’ house, I looked over at Jack and smiled. “We’ll be able to eat dinner without 800 interruptions," I enthused. “We won’t have to spend the evening making sure none of the kids has fallen into the pool or disappeared upstairs.”
Jack smiled back. At the party, I commiserated with some of the other moms. “We did fine for the first half of the summer,” I told one mom. “Then we went on vacation, and that kept everyone occupied for two weeks. Since we’ve gotten home, I’ve had a hard time. The kids all feel let down because vacation’s over. They spend the day bickering and torturing each other. I’m running out of ways to get them out of the house. You can only go to the pool so many times.”
“I know,” the other mom nodded in agreement. “I can’t wait for school to start again.”
Near the end of the evening, I ran into another mom I hadn’t seen since school got out in June. This mom has eight children and lives on a farm out in Valley Center. “How’s your summer going?” I asked.
“Too fast,” she sighed. “I just love it when everyone’s home. I wish school never had to start.”
I nodded politely and told her about our vacation. On the drive home, I told Jack about my conversation. Guilt rose up from the well of guilt I keep just below my heart. I felt as though I might choke. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked Jack. “Why can’t I feel that way about my children?”
Later that week, I asked my therapist the same question. “You’re in an entirely different situation,” he explained in the logical, compassionate way he always does. “The woman with the eight kids in Valley Center has a farm. She sees her children in the morning, then they go out and work all day. I’m sure all but the littlest ones have chores to do. Her husband works with them. They come in for lunch, then go out and work in the afternoon. She doesn’t have five little kids underfoot all day expecting to be entertained.”
“You’re right,” I told him. “It was more like that when I was a kid. We played outside all day. I remember riding my bike around our neighborhood in Pine Valley and going to a friend’s house or playing with whomever else happened to be out. Nobody scheduled play dates. Every summer, we spent a week with my grandparents in Pacific Beach, and we went to the pool when it was really hot. Mostly I played outside or played with my little brother or entertained myself.
“Times are different," I continued. “I don’t even let my kids play in the cul-de-sac in front of my house unless I’m out there with them. I can’t imagine just sending them outside to play and not knowing exactly where they are for hours at a time.”
Understanding the situation didn’t make the days go by any faster. We shopped for school shoes and scheduled play dates. We spent a day at the Wave Water Park in Vista, and the next day had three of my oldest daughter Rebecca’s friends over for a tea party.
Finally, Labor Day arrived. Jack, Rebecca, and three-year-old Johnny slept in. I went downstairs with Angela, Lucy, and Ben. While Lucy and Angela watched Dragon Tales on KPBS, I fed Ben toast squares and banana and drank my coffee.
When Jack came downstairs, he carried a load of sheets out into the garage and started the laundry. “It’s the last day of summer," he announced when he walked back in. “Want to go to the swing park?"
The kids cheered. I packed a picnic. A little before lunch, we drove from our home in San Marcos toward the beach. Near a lagoon in Oceanside, Jack parked the van in a small parking lot. After we ate lunch. Jack led the way up a path through eucalyptus groves. Hidden in a small canyon, we found The Swing: a length of rope looped over a high eucalyptus branch. At the rope’s end, someone has knotted a small, square board to the rope. While I held Ben, Jack lifted each of the kids in turn up onto the board and pushed them far out over the canyon. They screamed and laughed as they flew through the air and the wind blew through their hair.
Walking back down the canyon, Angela turned to me and said, “I don’t want school to start tomorrow.”
“Oh, sweetie,” I answered, “you’ll be ready.”
And so will I.