Like most adults, summer was always my favourite season. I loved the heat, the light, the half-nakedness, the way it slowed down the pace of life but simultaneously dialled up the crazy. It was the season when even the dullest, most predictable of people would go a bit mad, skipping work to jump in public pools or eat vodka-filled watermelons on the back of flat-bed trucks. Anything could happen in summer – and it did.
And then I became a parent.
I’m not one for sweating the small stuff when it comes to raising kids, but on this issue I feel that someone needs to speak up. Those of you considering reproducing or adopting children should be aware of the hydrogen bomb-like effect this decision will have on your glorious hot season – summers which, until kids, will have no doubt been filled with icy gin and tonics, fat novels and long afternoon snoozes in hammocks. You can kiss all those things goodbye – except maybe the gin, which you will now swig furtively, straight from the bottle before collapsing face first into an unmade bed.
I know what you’re thinking. Lots of parents post pictures of themselves on Facebook tanned and grinning while their children frolic around them with cute inflatable toys on the beach/dock/pool deck. Families love summer! Yes, I know those people, too. But believe me when I say that just after the iPhone camera-shutter clicks the kids start whining for ice cream and a beer bottle is shattered resulting in a minor dockside emergency and stitches. I’m not saying Facebook parents aren’t capable of happiness, but for the most part those blissed-out moms and dads are about as carefree as the oiled-up Sports Illustrated bikini model is sexually aroused. It’s their job to look that way.
Here’s the truth: Until your kids are old enough to hold down a menial job and spend their spare time drinking beer in ravines, your summers as a parent will no longer be your own. Maybe there was a golden era when parents kicked back in the summer, back before most of us required double incomes to live in expensive, polluted cities and had children in need of round-the-clock supervision. But that era is gone – a fading loon call on a long-deserted lake.
Of all the many “nobody-told-me’s” of motherhood, the change in summer was the most staggering. I was prepared for the broken night’s sleep, reduced social life and child-care costs – everyone gripes about that stuff. But I thought summers would be more fun with children, not less. I thought I’d hang out eating ice cream with my kids, rather than become their full-time indentured domestic slave. Just try dressing, feeding, hydrating and cleaning up after a teething toddler and a spectacularly bored five-year-old, three or four times a day in hot weather, while also trying to work full time at home, and see how refreshed you feel.
Here in Britain, the government is considering staggering the school calendar to get rid of the summer holiday, which some experts argue is bad for children’s learning and pointless because of climate change (the Gulf Stream has sparked a string of cold, rainy British summers). It’s a move that that would have horrified me before kids, but now I’m all for it. The season I once looked to for solace and pleasure is now litany of drudgery, a logistical nightmare of hidden costs and broken routines – in short, the most stressful, unmanageable time of the year.
Last summer I was stunned to realize, after renting a cottage on a lake with my family in Ontario’s Muskoka region, that my husband and I were going to have to watch our kids – the eldest not-quite-able to swim and the younger crawling and putting every sharp and/or poisonous object in his mouth – every single second of every single day, except when they were asleep, which was almost never. I’m not sure why I thought it would be different. Probably the same reason I downloaded 10 novels to my Kindle and packed the new Ottolenghi cookbook thinking I’d braise a lamb shoulder in rose oil and saffron instead of boiling a thousand hot dogs. Wishful thinking.
This summer, my illusions have been shattered, I’m setting the bar low. One two-week holiday close to home and the rest will be spent in the house. Despite this simplified plan, I’m dreading the last day of school the way I used to dread the first. I used to call this a “vacation” but now I just call it “looking-after-children-in-a-house-that’s-not-my-own.” Yes I could outsource their care, but this is doubly expensive, complicated and in some cases impossible (popular day camps were booked up in February – which is the time of year I now relax, not sitting online booking summer camps). And then there’s the guilt. What is wrong with me that I can’t enjoy this, I think as I stand at the sink, doing the dishes for the seventh time that day, cursing the health freaks at our local playground who have just closed the wading pool in a heat wave because of one little E. coli outbreak.
Maybe there was a time when summers were easy for parents, when everyone’s lives matched the perfect images on Facebook, but that time is not now, and it’s certainly not my life. It’s not the gin I’ll miss this summer – it’s the tonic.