Managing Working-Parent Summer Guilt

Lego camp for kids colorful ceative
Lego camp was just one of the many ways I filled my kids time over the summer! This was some of my kiddos creations from a few years back.

I blinked, and May is almost over already. Spring is in the air, and summer is breathing down my neck. If you’re a full-time working parent, you know the drill of making early decisions about summer daycare! And if you’re like me, you may not have everything figured out for the summer yet or have dropped the ball on a few things already (why didn’t I look for a chef camp in March before they all filled up?)

Gone are the days when my girls went to daycare through the summer, blissfully unaware that some kids get the summer off to just have fun. With a 13 and an 11-year-old now, some things have gotten easier and some have gotten harder. They can manage most of their daily routines on their own (hallelujah!), but with that independence comes the desire to choose what they do with their summers. But my steadfast companion through all of these stages: working-parent guilt.

Every year, as summer gets closer and closer, I feel the heavy weight of guilt that my kids don’t have a mom who can take them to the pool whenever they wanted to go, or take them on camping trips, or road trips, or a bunch of fancy summer vacations, or even just give them the relaxing break that they surely needed after a hard school year. And I have written journal entry after journal entry about being grateful that I can afford fun summer camps in an attempt to stave off the guilt.

And man did I try to plan fun camps for them. They had adventure camps with high ropes courses, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting. One of my kiddos went to a week-long white water kayaking camp! They went to ceramics camps, art camps, YMCA day camps, week-long sleep away Girl Scout camps, theater camps, sailing camps, Lego camps, field trip camps, tennis camps… you name it, they tried it. I packed their summers full of as much fun as I could (and threw more money at the problem than I probably should have), but no matter how much fun they had, I still was plagued by soul crushing guilt.

And I know that guilt comes with privilege. I know parents who struggle with the opposite side of that guilt—parents who can’t afford to put their kids in any or many camps. Maybe they don’t have any daycare options for the summer. Maybe they have to make the hard choice of leaving their kids at home alone while they work during the day. Or they have to change their schedule to work at night while their kiddos are sleeping. Maybe they made the choice of having a stay-at-home parent, but without that second income, they can’t afford any camps and have to figure out fun things to do all summer on a shoe-string budget. Maybe they see kids like mine having fun in camps and wish they could give that to their kids. In one way or another, I think we’re all feeling some form of summer guilt.

This guilt is compounded by social media. When the summer months hit, I’m inundated with my friends’ photos of their fantastic summers with their families. And even though I know it’s just a snapshot of a moment that was most likely not as rosy as the picture suggests, I still feel more and more guilty as the summer progresses.

Did I ever find the solution? Well, not entirely. I still find myself occasionally slipping into the world of comparison and guilt. But I have found some things that help get me through it:

  • Take a social media break: Social media is FILLED with comparison of every kind. If you feel bogged down by any type of comparison, this might be a good prescription for you.
  • Gratitude journaling: I know, I know… it seemed hokey to me, too. When I started this practice a few years back I just listed 5 things I was grateful for each night, but that didn’t always feel genuine, and it sometimes led to the same comparison and feelings of shame that I “should” feel better about things if I have more than others.But in reading Emily & Amelia Nagoski’s book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (more on that in an upcoming blog!), they talk about a very different gratitude practice that I have found endlessly more helpful. They say the two most effective ways to live a gratitude practice are:
    1. Write a letter to a person you are grateful to, and if you want to super-power that practice, READ it to them. I often find myself texting people my gratitude in long form as a quick way to find my center in this practice. Learn more about this practice here:
    2. At the end of the day, think of an event or circumstance that you are grateful for and write about it. They outline a 4-prompt process for this:
      • Title it: “ie – I finally finished that blog about summer guilt”
      • Write down details about what anyone (including you) said or did
      • Describe how you felt at the time and how you feel now about it
      • Explain how the circumstance came to be.And then maybe go buy that book from your local bookseller—it has changed my life.
  • Exercise: The number 1 thing you can do to break up that stress cycle is to get out and exercise. (Again, see that book I mention above!) For me, all I need is a brisk half-hour walk, and I feel more like myself again. And speaking of walks….
  • Nature: You don’t have to get out in the woods to appreciate the magic of the world around us. Walk outside and look at a flower or a tree. Or look up at the clouds in the sky and imagine yourself as a kid again. Or watch a spider build a web.
  • Meditation: Often, when I mention meditation to someone, they tell me that they “can’t” do it because there’s no way they can clear their mind. But that shouldn’t be your goal in meditation. The art of meditation is not to banish your thoughts or feelings, but to recognize them and let them drift away as they pop into your mind. I use the Headspace app to help me on my meditation journey, and there are a lot of other apps, books, classes and techniques out there that can help you on yours. Try 5 minutes a day to start. I promise it’s worth it.
  • Talk to your friends: They are undoubtedly feeling the same thing you are. But don’t use that as an excuse to gossip because that ends up taking you right back into that icky place, no matter how good it feels in the moment. Get some hugs (if you’re into that), some tea, coffee or some drinks (if you’re into that), and let some of those feelings out in a safe space.
  • And then last but not least… it’s OKAY for your kids to be bored. I have to remind myself this all the time. Allowing your kids the autonomy to figure out what to do when they’re bored is healthy for their development. You are not their cruise director!

And to those other parents out there feeling the sting of working-parent summer guilt? I see you. And I feel you. Send me a note and we can chat about it.