Politics & Policy

Summer of Our Discontent

Embrace the vacation horror.

Asked if I wanted to write a summer-vacation survival guide, I snorted and said I’d be happy to read one. And, anyway, whose survival is it that we’re seeking to ensure?

If it’s that of the children — newly released from the rigors of the public-school system, where, this past year, one of mine watched A Bug’s Life in eighth-grade English class — I’ll pass. I’ve been to Chuck E. Cheese and surveyed the population; we can afford to lose a few thousand of ‘em without jeopardizing the replacement rate.

The grown-ups are another story. America is already hurting for lack of adult supervision, so it behooves us all to grasp hands, take cleansing breaths, and buck each other up in July and August. It matters not whether you are a parent with children at home, an empty nester or a DINK. The alarming outbreak of children affects us all. It’s us against them, and many of them are on skateboards, headed straight for our BMWs.

The concept of summer vacation is terrific. Who doesn’t need a break from routine? There are no buses to catch, no lunches to pack, and the day beckons pleasantly: Come! Abandon all homework ye who enter here! Scamper about the lawn with your children; play croquet and eat ice cream! Here loom two glorious months in which to sun ourselves on rocks, grill instead of bake, and drift off to sleep at night without wondering if we truly understand gerunds and participles. Are we smarter than our fifth graders? Who cares? It’s summer, time for fun!

This happy state of mind lasts about an hour.

By 10 A.M., reality descends, and the 13-year-old returns to bed with a sore throat, the 8-year-old proclaims boredom, and the first thunderstorms of the season arrive, depositing enough e. coli in the local lakes to close them for the rest of the week.

By 11, someone asks, “What’s for lunch?”

Lunch? I gotta feed them LUNCH?

For the past nine months, stay-at-home mothers have blown through the lunch hour with a handful of almonds or a ZonePerfect toffee bar while our offspring eat platters of nachos and French fries at the same schools that later send us letters complaining about our children’s BMIs. We uncomplainingly prepare hot breakfasts and dinners, but the addition of another meal to plan and prepare on a lazy day of summer seems gratuitously cruel. Yet, incredibly, my ungrateful progeny reject my offer of ten walnuts and a banana, forcing me back to the kitchen.

By the end of the first day of “vacation,” every stay-at-home mother is rethinking Linda Hirshman and scanning help-wanted ads surreptitiously. The working moms, meanwhile, sit in their orderly, air-conditioned offices, oblivious to the sweat and stench that accompany the sticky children of summer, and thinking wistfully of their own childhood summers spent catching fireflies in Mason jars and selling ten-cent Kool-Aid from a card table on the front lawn. Wishing that they could revisit those days, they think — fleetingly — that maybe the SAHMs have it right, and really, they should march into the boss’s office and offer two week’s notice. But then it occurs to them: If they were home now, they’d be making peanut-butter sandwiches, and consuming half-eaten crusts for their lunch. Better Ruby Tuesday’s salad bar, and joyously back to work.

The dirty little secret of parenting is that there’s so little actual parenting involved. Mostly, “parenting” is a euphemism for “housework in the presence of children,” which quadruples when the temperature hits 90. The businesswoman daydreaming of her fireflies and lemonade stand edits out the image of her own disheveled mother beginning her sixth load of laundry (do wild blackberry stains ever really come out?), applying Band-Aids and zinc oxide, breaking up fights, mopping up spills, and perpetually sweeping, like a crazed Lady Macbeth: “yet here’s a spot … what, will these floors ne’er be clean?”

It is said that parents don’t go on vacations; they only take trips. For example, our family drives 17 hours every summer to spend two weeks at the beach. It is not a vacation. It is merely a relocation of the laundry. The decision to procreate is a decision to forfeit vacations for a dozen or more years. (Somebody should notify the not-yet-pregnant teenage girls of Gloucester, Mass.) Knowing this — or, rather, accepting it — is worth more than a hundred vacation-survival guides in the obscenely cheerful parenting magazines. If stress derives from the gap between our expectations and reality, relief comes in letting go. Out, out, damned broom.

I remember once reading a very old man’s secret for living so long: “When it rains, I let it,” he said sagely. There’s so much wisdom in those words, for every occasion of life, and especially for summer.

When it spills a pitcher of homemade lemonade all over the newly mopped floor, I let it.

When it knocks the $200-and-near-impossible-to-replace Wii off the shelf, I let it.

When it picks all the annuals in my flower garden, I let it.

When it hits its brother on the head, I let it.

Like Steve Buscemi’s character accepting the imminent destruction of Earth in the movie Armageddon, we must learn to embrace the horror. Without summer vacation, there would be no school teachers, and we’d have to hang out with our kids all year.

— Jennifer Graham is an NRO contributor who writes from the suburbs of Boston.

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