How I’m Giving My Kids a 1980s (ish) Summer as a Working Mom

A couple of years ago I read this awesome post on another City Mom’s Blog site. Just to give you a quick summary, the author described a decision she made with her husband to eschew the traditional gauntlet of summer activities and opt for a slower paced, quieter, non-scheduled summer. Rather than filling her kids’ days with fun and exciting camps, activities, and play dates, she was looking forward to long lazy days where her kids might actually meet up with boredom and {gasp} need to figure out something to do on their own.

I’m right there with the author. I have great memories of long summer days where I’d wake up, throw on some clothes, and go outside to my favorite tree. I’d climb up and read until I got hungry, then come down and figure out some lunch. My sister and I would build forts on sunny days and do crafts and science experiments on rainy days. We lived in the country so we didn’t get to the pool much, except for the two weeks where my mom would take us into the nearest town at o’dark-thirty in the morning and the big yellow school bus picked up all the kids and took us 20 miles north to the county seat where there was a municipal pool where we’d have swimming lessons in the freezing cold water. 

There was Vacation Bible School, but other than that I never remember more than one week of camp, and then only when I was old enough for it to be sleep-over church camp. I’m sure my memories are a bit colored by nostalgia, and there were probably was more yelling and boredom than I remember, but I do know this:

I was responsible for my own entertainment the vast majority of the time.

These days it seems summer includes so many more choices. There are day camps available for pretty much anything that a child could be interested in. There is the fear of the “summer slide” and desire to help kids succeed in many things. Sometimes the pressure to offer your child enriching and exciting experiences over the summer months seems so very high. That’s why I loved the author’s perspective of saying “NO” to the bustle and hustle and embracing the so very important lessons that can be learned in non-scheduled time.  

How I'm Giving My Kids a 1980s (ish) Summer as a Working Mom

But…I had one big problem as I thought about what kind of summer experience I wanted my own kids to have. 

This “1980s” summer experience seems to make one very large assumption: that there is a parent or an adult caregiver home during the summer months and available for supervision, meals, trips to the pool, and other last minute adventures.  Even if that adult is not directing the activities, someone needs to be present in case of an emergency. My husband and I both work outside the home, and neither of us have a change in schedule during the summer.  My kids are not old enough to care for themselves without adult supervision, so they need to have a place to go four days of the week, all summer long. 

So, we can’t have a 1980’s summer. My kids need age-appropriate supervision. Our summer needs to be scheduled, packed, and full of artificial experiences.

Or does it?

While long summer weeks of no plans or activities is one way to go about it, the idea of a 1980’s summer doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. I think the essence of the experience is allowing kids to have some down time, some responsibility for their own fun, and some room for flexibility and spontaneity. 

So thinking in that vein, here are some of the things that our family is going to do to help us experience a 1980’s (ish) summer this year:

Slower weekends

My kids have to be in some kind of care or camp at minimum four days every week when I go to work.  This is a non-negotiable, as my schedule does not change when school lets out for summer. For my younger kiddo it just means he continues his schedule at his daycare program.  For the older one, it means coming up with a combination of caregivers and activities to provide him appropriate supervision during the day while my husband and I are both working.

I’ve found that since I am gone from my kids long hours during the week it is very easy to fall into the trap of doing ALL THE THINGS during the weekends. This year we are going to limit our weekend plans to allow us the options of picking up and going to the beach if the weather looks good, or sitting out on the patio with the firepit, or any other number of summer activities.  I’m not saying we won’t DO things on the weekends, but we are planning to worry less in advance about planning what we will fill our time with and let things unfold as they will.

Lower expectations

In the same vein of wanting to do ALL THE THINGS…I also sometimes find that I want all those things to be magical.  Other people have vacation pictures on beaches, at amusement parks, and on camping trips, and in all the pictures the people are smiling, hugging, loving on each other, and generally looking like something out of a magazine ad.  I have driven myself crazy trying to create a memory-making Instagram-worthy day trip, only to find that the only picture I got was of one kid crying while the other one picked his nose and begged to go home.

I’ve realized that when I expend so much energy trying to artificially create magic, I miss the magic that can happen organically each and every day.  That same trip where one kid cried and the other picked his nose also might have had some great laughs while plodding through muddy trails.  Some of the best summer memories I think really are moments that can’t be Instagramed: watching my kids catch lightning bugs (with my eyes not through my phone), the smell of an evening fire pit, or the belly laugh at daddy’s silly jokes or a preschooler’s made up songs.  So we are planning to lower those expectations for magic, and see what kind of magic we find along the way.

Use family and friends

I realize that I’m speaking from a place of privilege here, but we are fortunate enough to be able to lean on family members and friends to help fill gaps in care.  My older son will attend a few weeks of daycamp activities over the summer.  The rest of the time he will spend two days each week with his grandma, one day with my cousin, and one day with random friends and neighbors.  This will let him have at least some ability to sleep in, find his own breakfast, figure out what to do for the day, and flex his creative abilities when boredom inevitably sets in.

Take our vacation time

It’s a studied fact that nearly half of American workers don’t use all their vacation time.  According to Project Time Off, that’s over 658 million vacation days left unused.  Last year we were nearly one of those statistics.  My husband’s job doesn’t allow any carry-over of vacation days from one year to the next, and the schedule of his work cycle makes it very difficult for him to take days off in November and December.  Near the end of the year he ended up with a few days that he was in danger of losing, and we found ourselves scrapping to find a day that he could take off around the holidays for some family time together.

This summer we pledge to do it differently. We have already mapped out days that both he and I will take off from work, sometimes to participate in scheduled activities and sometimes just to be able to spend an unscheduled day working on whatever projects or activities strike our fancy.  And we will take a full week off to spend at the lake as a family. 

How I'm Giving My Kids a 1980s (ish) Summer as a Working Mom

My kids may not have the same summer experience that I had growing up, but I think I can choose to give them an experience that is just as rewarding and where they can flex their boredom muscles and discover talents and interests they didn’t know they had. There may be more planning and agenda setting than I had when I was young, but we can still allow for some resemblance to the lazy summer structure the 1980s offered.

Less going, less doing, fewer expectations, more time, more simple magic.

These are really the things I remember, and what I can give to my kids now.  


Sarah Bengtson
Sarah is a proud Iowa native who currently lives in North Liberty with her husband and 2 sons. She grew up in rural Benton county and moved to the Iowa City area in 2005 to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa in Physical Therapy. Now she balances raising two growing boys with a work as a pediatric physical therapist. Outside of work and family, Sarah loves music, playing her cello, running, baking, crochet, church activities, and cheering for the Hawkeyes and the Minnesota Vikings.


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