Every other Wednesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.Summertime always means a hectic work schedule for me. Sometimes I like to reminisce about my childhood and pretend that I’m still on vacation all summer long, but I’m not. Because my husband’s work schedule becomes more flexible in the summer, I pick up more work. What that means is two parents working from home while caring for two children under 7. And as stressed out as I am for much of the summer about how it’s all going to get done, we’re the privileged ones. The implied joyfulness and freedom of summer vacation are, in reality, anxious and insecure for so many Americans.We won’t do a vacation beyond the occasional local daytrip, and our kids aren’t enrolled in any camps. But we don’t pay for childcare, either, and we don’t have to scramble to figure out how our kids can be safe and healthy for the summer. So while I’m hustling for deadlines and feeling like a grading machine, I’m not worried about my kids. That’s a pretty big deal. Last month, in a New York Times article entitled “The Families That Can’t Afford Summer,” K. J. Dell’Antonia explains,
Most American schools take a 10- to 11-week break during the summer. The assumption that underlies summer vacation—that there is one parent waiting at home for the kids—is true for just over a quarter of American families. For the rest of us, the children are off, the parents are not. We can indulge our annual illusion of children filling joyful hours with sprinkler romps and robotics camp or we can admit the reality: Summer’s supposed freedom is expensive.
Dell’Antonia profiles families struggling to find summer support for their children and explains the financial and academic consequences for families in poverty. When wealthier families provide enrichment during the summer, children living in poverty tend to fall behind. For families who rely on free and reduced-price meals during the school year, summer also presents problems of food security.
Despite the reality that we no longer need the summer break for agricultural labor, we’re loath to do away with summer break. Of course, for working parents without the help of family, friends, flexible work, or the income to establish childcare, any break from school is fraught with logistical (and often financial) difficulties. There’s something special about summer, though, at least in the cultural imagination. The problem lies in the gap between our ideals of summer vacation and the reality.
There’s a low-cost park program in my neighborhood, but its days and hours are limited, and it is entirely outdoors. Some parents pull their kids on extremely hot or stormy days, but many don’t have that option. There’s the issue of transportation, too, for anyone outside walking distance. Many families I know “shop around” for VBS programs, too, but those usually only run a week at a time, and don’t always cover a full day. Our local YMCA steps in with programs (and scholarships) to bridge the gap for lots of families. Summer illustrates a structural problem that individual families have to work out, with varying degrees of options and affordability. And, of course, money always makes it easier.As challenging as it can be to figure out how to focus on my work with my entire family at home, summer doesn’t devastate our health or finances. We’re lucky to have an accommodating workplace and family nearby to serve as backup. But reading articles like Dell’Antonia’s reminds me just how much I’m in the minority. There are families in my neighborhood, and in most neighborhoods, who dread the stress and extra expense of summer. The implied joyfulness and freedom of summer vacation are, in reality, anxious and insecure for so many Americans.
It may be “ordinary time” within the liturgical calendar, but reflecting on summer vacation prompts me to consider just how ordinary poverty is for so many of my neighbors, literal and figurative. Of course my family life requires planning and preparation, and of course I worry for my children. Yet I have never worried about finding a safe place for them to spend their day. I have never worried about where their next healthy meal would come from. Their summers may be spent watching their parents trade off working from home, but their fridge is stocked with food and their shelves are loaded with library books.
Summer vacation may come around only once a year, but the poor are with us always. They’re friends and family members and neighbors who love their children just as much and dream for them just as big. It’s up to all of us to support the people and programs who can extend the love of Christ to all families, not only the ones who can afford that idyllic summer.
Image by bykst via Pixabay.