A simple kind of summer

Family Matters, Claire Mullen, June 2022

One day in mid-April, I sat in our home office with about 20 tabs of registrations for summer activity options open on my laptop. Our wall calendar, iPhone Google calendar and about a half-dozen printed camp schedules covered the surface of the desk.

Visions of swim lessons, vacation Bible school, beach trips, sports camp, school camp and church camp danced in my head. I designed a planning system that involved a different color highlighter for each child. By the time I really got going, the scene in our home office looked more like the command center for a complex military operation than one mom’s attempt to organize her two young children’s summer break.

In the years since my kids have been in school, I’ve really struggled to maintain a great balance of summertime fun, structure, rest and productivity. As I’m sure a lot of parents would agree, flipping the calendar from “Manic May” to June and seeing a great expanse of nothingness can induce a bit of panic. But why?

I spend the school months often feeling too frenzied, wishing for a break from what can begin to feel like a parental Uber from school to home and back for afternoon extracurriculars each day. By springtime, I’ve run clean out of nutritious and delicious lunchbox ideas and must shush the voice in my head whispering words like “preservatives,” “sodium” and “saturated fat” as I toss Lunchables into backpacks on the way out the door.

The relief over a three-month respite from calling out spelling words, practicing multiplication tables and combing the house for show-and-tell items when we’re already running late for drop-off is instantly replaced with anxiety over the looming annual question, “What in the heck are we going to do every day for three months?”
As I sat back in my swivel chair, feeling overwhelmed and conflicted, I thought about my childhood summers and wondered how my mother did all that strategizing and scheduling for twice the number of children that I have. And then it dawned on me: She didn’t.

As I remember it, our summer days unfolded organically. Mom didn’t bee-bop the four of us around town from half-day morning camp to midday swim lessons to afternoon playdates. Maybe it was because she was just too outnumbered by her offspring. Or maybe (likely) it was because she knew better. She knew that if she left us to our own devices and withstood the chorus of “I’m bored,” we would eventually end up making our own fun.

Creative fun. Free fun. Fun that involved things like digging a hole up to our knees, unreeling the garden hose to fill the hole, raiding the kitchen for tools, and spending an afternoon making mud pies and cakes in our makeshift backyard bakery.

Riding endless laps around Huntington Park on our bicycles with any combination of neighborhood kids and absolutely no particular destination.

Perfecting the ultimate daredevil feat of holding onto the rope of our tire swing, jumping from the top rung of our treehouse ladder and landing down onto the tire midair.

Running in the sprinkler. Helping our grandfather stake tomato plants. Building Mason-jar habitats with sticks and leaves for fuzzy caterpillars. Reading books in bedsheet forts on rainy afternoons.

And in our older years, squirting lemon juice in our hair, slathering ourselves with tanning oil, toting a boom box out to the trampoline and steadfastly lying out in the midday July sunshine on the hot black mesh for hours on end. We would eventually retreat indoors to rub pink calamine lotion on our mosquito bites, snag a banana twin pop from the freezer, and wash away the sweaty, muddy, sticky evidence of an adventure-filled summer day in a warm bubble bath.

And so, in that spirit, I’ve decided that my personal bucket list for the summer of 2022 will hold exactly one item: “channel summer break circa 1993.”

Sure, I’ll throw a few camps in for good measure and the sake of my sanity. There will be plenty of pool days and maybe a weekend or two at the beach.

But I really hope that when we all fall into bed on Aug. 16, the night before the first day of school, my family won’t feel as though our summer was a frenetic blur of jam-packed days. I hope that we’ll be the good kind of tired that comes from yard work, bike riding, tree climbing, diving board jumping and late-night book reading.

My hope is for a simple kind of summer.

Someone might want to check on me in late July.