Terrance Heath

Summertime for the Working Parent

Filed By Terrance Heath | July 03, 2014 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: education policy, education reform, summer, summertime, working parents, year-round school

year-round-school.jpgIt's a pipe dream that will never happen, but Jessica Valenti has a point that hits home with me, when she writes about the novel idea of "summer vacation for parents." Sure, you laugh. Like I said, it's a pipe dream that will never happen. But as thinking about how easy this would make my life is almost enough to make me weep.

Reforming the outdated school calendar could do as much for working families as flexible schedules and child care.

Some of my fondest memories are of summer vacation: no school, playing in the sprinklers at the playground, going to the beach with my parents and summer camp. Glorious. But since becoming an adult (boring!) and having a kid of my own, I dread summers.

Yes, the weather is nice and it's vacation season. But it's also the season of little-to-no child care options so, for working parents, the summer is more of a scramble than time off.

Sing it, sister. I know this song well.

Our situations are different, but like Valenti, I'm fortunate enough to have the flexibility to work form home when I need to. While Valenti alternates between caring for her toddler daughter and writing around her toddler daughter, during the summers I now face a morning marathon to deliver two school-age boys (one rising first-grader and one rising sixth-grader) to two different summer camps, via public transportation (bus and Metro), before finally getting back on the Metro and going into the office.

In order to accomplish this, during the summer my day now starts one hour earlier than during the school year. By the time I walk into my office at 9:30 a.m. -- after a 6:00 a.m. alarm, breakfast, getting the kids packed up for camp, and a two-hour commute consisting of three buses and a Metro ride -- I've already done the equivalent of half a day's work. It's like that old Army slogan: "We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day."

The rest of the day still stretches before me.

Welcome to summer for the working parent. Gone are the days when the kids either walked a few blocks to school, or the school bus picked them up and took them there. Gone is the on-site aftercare, and the assurance that the kids have somewhere safe to be until we're done with work for the day.

I sat at nodding off at my desk on Tuesday morning, and I couldn't help thinking: "There's got to be a better way." As Valenti points out, we've been doing it this way for more than a hundred years.

The current American school calendar - multiple holidays and teacher conferences, school days ending at 3pm and two to three months off for summer break - is based on the outdated presumption that one parent (or caretaker) doesn't have a full-time job. But while the social expectations behind the more-than-century-old calendar would have us believe that there is always one, gloriously fulfilled, stay-at-home parent (a mom, of course) to fill in those gaps, the truth is that most American families have two working parents, the majority of whom feel overwhelmed about juggling work and family life. And while, according to Pew, there's been a rise in stay-at-home moms and dads over the years, a good portion of those parents are actually living in poverty or stay home because they are unemployed.

I don't know what that better way looks like. Valenti suggests reforming the school calendar. Some schools in this country and in Europe have done this, by experimenting with a longer school year that has shorter, more frequent breaks as opposed to one long summer break.

frazzled-mom.jpgIt's an idea worth introducing into the discussion over education reform. In fact, I don't think it's likely to happen any other way. Certainly workplace policy isn't going to change that much. Employers aren't likely to be willing to give parents a "summer break." I'd be wary of even bringing it up in the workplace.

My experience has been that when parents bring up an issue like this, most other people just don't want to hear it. I've heard "Well, you chose to have kids" enough to know. (The implication being that it's our own "fault" for having kids, and we'd better not expect anyone else to change anything to make it easier on us.)

Families have changed a lot in the past 100 years. More women are working, and many are the primary breadwinner in their household. More households with young children have two working parents. Maybe it's time for "summer break" to change, just enough to actually give parents a break too.

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