The school summer holidays in the US fall on different dates according to where in the country you live, but they have one characteristic in common. In New York, where we are into our third week, the summer stretches endlessly before us, way beyond the six-week period of the British system. Last year, through a combination of Covid and the early falling of Yom Kippur, public schools in New York closed for three months in the summer. This year, we’re back to the standard 11-week break, in line with the rest of the US – a curtailment for which we’re supposed be grateful.
I’m not grateful, obviously. Eleven weeks is an enormously long time to fill, even with the generous free summer camp provisions laid on by the city. It pushes parental resources to the absolute brink, and interferes with all the rosy ideas one used to have about summer. When holidays drag on this long, they turn from opportunities to relax into onslaughts to be weathered, something even the kids – parked in various facilities between 9am and 6pm daily, like tiny adults holding down tough summer jobs – start to feel after a few weeks.
In my case, I suspect a lot of this anxiety is connected to the distance between my children’s experience of summer and the memories I have of my own. It is a staple of generation X parenting to reminisce about the seemingly endless periods of unstructured time that characterised our days off from school – memories that get wilder with every retelling. At seven years old, the current age of my children, were we really off on bikes all day so that no one knew where we were? Surely that was nine, or 10, although by current standards a child of even that age whose whereabouts was unknown to her parents would pretty swiftly become the object of a police search.
We didn’t have phones, obviously, just as we didn’t have bike helmets or organised fun. Coverage of Wimbledon had finished by the time the holidays started, and beyond a few baby TV programmes in the morning and a couple of shows for older kids in the late afternoon, we were left – in a phrase I’ve unironically used on my unimpressed children – “to make our own entertainment”.
We built forts. (Did we though? More than once?) We put on plays (ditto). We played endless games of gin rummy. (We definitely did this, but why that should present itself as something wonderful to aspire to, I can’t clearly understand now.) We read books. (OK, this is one that I genuinely worry about. On the other hand, maybe it’s fine.)
I grew up in the 80’s, but in my memory, these scenes unspool with the sepia-tint of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, or the movie version of Atonement, or Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, which was definitely not set in Aylesbury.
The nostalgic whitewash of this version overlooks the massive amount of, usually maternal, effort put in to keeping us occupied during those weeks, something I sense most parents can’t or won’t do these days. Perhaps we were all just better at boredom, back then. I refuse to play more than three rounds of Connect 4 in a row with my kids, and absolutely can’t be involved with the Barbies. I get twitchy with lethargy after too long in the playground.
I tell myself that in New York, it’s simply too hot to be out, and that in a city of 8.3 million people, choked with nose-to-bumper traffic, fresh air is probably fresher inside, after being pushed through the filter of an air-conditioner. I’ll take them swimming – three hours of amazing faff for 30 minutes in the water – but I’ll complain about it a lot. And yet, packing them off to their eight-hour-a-day summer camp, I worry that something is lost.
Overthinking things is obviously the typifying parental gesture of our times. My kids have half settled at camp but are shocked by its rigours and are finding the long day hard. (They need to “push through” said a counsellor this week, which made my heart sink; they have an entire lifetime to learn to push through things.)
With nine more weeks on the clock, I’m looking at contingencies, and shrinking at the $6,000-a-kid cost of the private-sector alternatives. This is nuts, I think. All of it: not just the private camps, but the insistence on parking them anywhere for this long. Perhaps the genuinely bold move would be to let them stay home, being ignored while I work, and watching so much garbage on the iPad that it ceases to appeal. Beyond which – I’m too doubtful to try it, but can’t quite shake the dream – lies the mirage of the perfect summer break of my memory.
July 15, 2022 at 12:51PM Emma Brockes