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When Summer Is a Luxury Parents Can’t Afford

Sarah Bregel's two children sit atop a downed tree along a shoreline, overlooking the water on a warm, summer's day.
Image Source: Sarah Bregel

It’s finally feeling like spring in my home state of Maryland, and I feel a bit like I’m recovering from The Eternal Winter. Cold, slushy afternoons filled with kids pummeling one another into the carpet have suddenly been replaced by warm, sunny days with kids … well, pummeling each other into the dirt. But hey, at least we’re outside!

I’ve been so overjoyed at the sight of blooming flowers and the smell of the warm spring breeze that I almost forgot — it’s time to start panicking. Summer is right around the corner, and this working mom has absolutely no plan in place for who’s going to watch the kids while she’s earning a paycheck.

None. Zero. Zilch.

Don’t get me wrong, summer is beautiful. It is hands down my favorite time of year — weather-wise, anyway. I thrive on sunshine. Plus, it means pool days and lazy mornings spent watching cartoons rather than slapping together lunches for school and rushing out the door before 8 AM.

But if you’re a working parent who can’t quite afford daily childcare or back-to-back camp programs, summer also creates a huge, unavoidable issue. Those long, hot weeks suddenly spiral from the carefree summer you longed for into a non-stop daily scramble, filled with worrying how the heck you’re going to manage to work and take care of your kids.

Of course, my family is far from alone here — about 15 million kids live below the poverty line, and even middle class families with two working parents have difficulty finding affordable care in the summer. In 2014, the average family spent about $958 per child on summer expenses, according to The American Express Spending and Saving Tracker, and the costs seem to go up each year.

Multiply those expenses by two, three, or more kids, and well, that’s a pretty hefty price tag just for the freedom to get to work each day.

Personally, I don’t mind going a bit free-range with my kids in the summer months, sending them out into the backyard, letting them have extra screen time, or allowing them to just do their thing when I’m trying to meet deadlines. I’m a work-at-home parent with one kid who’s not yet school-age, so I’m used to juggling a busy (yet flexible) work schedule with at least one tiny human underfoot.

And believe me, I’m never more grateful for my flexible schedule during the summer months — in many ways, it’s a different kind of luxury not every parent has. Still, going three whole months without a solid care plan in place is draining. And when you’re doing your best to be a good mom and a good employee, it can be more than a little trying.

Debbie Weingarten, a single mom and fellow writer living in Tucson, Arizona, knows this struggle all too well. She says she also plans to let her kids “free-range” this summer, only that’s tougher where she lives.

“Tucson is 110 degrees in summer,” she says. “They basically have to be nocturnal.”

Weingarten adds that she’s lucky she has grandparents nearby who are willing to help out one day a week, but aside from that, she’s on her own and is seriously worried about how having kids home 24/7 will affect her income.

‘I’m legitimately panicking about summer … I can’t save.’
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The same is true for Alicia Whittington*, also a single mother, who works as a patient coordinator at a surgery center in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I’m legitimately panicking about summer,” she tells Babble, on finding affordable care for her son. Whittington says her family is breaking even as it is, so worrying about the cost of summer care and camps is completely overwhelming. “I can’t save,” she says. “And I’m struggling to find a camp that’s affordable and has proper hours.”

Regardless of working hard every day at a good job, Whittington shares that in order to make ends meet this summer, she will have to sacrifice taking a family vacation just so she can simply get by.

Even for parents with two incomes, the struggle is real. Ashley Claure, a mom of three and working artist in Annapolis, Maryland, says that finding affordable summer care is at the top of her priority list right now.

“Try painting with three kids needing/wanting you every single second,” she shares. “My youngest is a walking tornado, so just making sure he doesn’t die is a full-time job.”

But even though it’s tough to get to work with three kids in the house, Claure says she’s scoured the Web for affordable camps, and they just aren’t in her family’s budget.

“Camp is expensive,” she says. “We can [only] swing one week of camp for each of them.”

The rest of the time, Claure will be doing her best to work with the kids in the house, something she says is hard, but necessary.

Sarah Bregel's children stand by a swing set with their friend on a warm sunny day.
Image Source: Sarah Bregel

Lauren McMullen, an insurance agent in Deale, Maryland, says both she and her husband feel badly they can’t afford the kind of camps their daughter’s friends are headed to this summer, but it’s just not in the cards.

“My daughter asked me yesterday if she could go to an overnight camp because that’s where a friend is going and she thought it sounded fun,” McMullen tells Babble. “However the cost for one week is $809. I can’t honestly justify spending that kind of money.”

While overnight camps undoubtedly cost more, McMullen says, even the regular day camps are just too much.

“Summer used to be an exciting time,” she says, “but since I have to work and have children, it can be a nightmare finding affordable childcare.”

I can totally relate. So much so, that last summer, I actually created a low-cost “day camp” in our backyard and invited a bunch of kids over for a reasonable rate. I felt so badly that I couldn’t afford to send my kids to a summer program, we made one ourselves. And while I think I’m still recovering from the chaos of it all, my daughter is already busy planning this year’s agenda. She’s full of ideas; meanwhile, I’m full of anxiety about having 20 kids in our house again for a solid week.

This year, I’m sure our summer will once again be filled with slapped-together care, free-range kids, and a hefty dose of mom guilt for good measure. But considering one-third of American families are are in the same boat as us, I’m willing to bet your summer might look a whole lot like that, too.

The reality is, most of us can’t afford summer. And while we may look forward to warmer days, hot dogs on the grill, and all of the wonderful things this season has to offer, our anxiety about how to make it all work is never very far off.

Sure, we’ll make it work, any which way we can. But will we be counting down the days ’til September rolls around again? You bet.

*Name has been changed upon request.

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