"Believe it or not," I said to my husband, "I'm actually looking forward to summer vacation. No carpools to drive, no lunches to pack, and especially no homework."
That was the day before school got out. Two days later I'm frazzled and overwhelmed. "What was I thinking?!"
It's the same every year: dreams of being supermom or on an even higher level, ubermom, as David Brook's describes it in his latest book, On Paradise Drive. I imagine we'll do projects together (forgetting that I don't have an artistic bone in my body), we'll go to museums together (forgetting that my kids despise the "m" word), we'll go swimming (forgetting that we don't have a pool or, at the moment, access to one.). We could bake, but can I bear the mess? Even my cleaning lady seems to have gone on strike, refusing to wash yet another dish or iron yet another shirt. What's a caring but hassled mother to do? Are there any activities that don't involve great travel or great expense? And that everyone agrees to participate in?
There is always the option of screaming "I am not in charge of entertainment!" and locking myself in the bedroom. I recommend using that technique sparingly.
So assuming we want to aim a little higher, you can do what I did today: send them to their friends' houses and let some other mother struggle through!
A partial solution, however, lies in knowing yourself.
It's only in some late night fantasy that I emerge as "School teacher Barbie" filled to the brim with crafts ideas, fun yet educational trips along with the perfect matching outfit. By the light of day, however, that is not who I am. I love my children, and I've even been known to enjoy spending time with them, but to devote my whole day to organizing entertainment… it's just not my style. We have taken many family trips, have had many Sunday adventures, but on a daily basis? Let's just say I know my limitations.
One activity per day (maybe). One project, safe and UNsupervised. And then they're on their own. They can be creative, resourceful and enjoy each other -- and even have a really good time -- once they stop expecting me to lead the fun.
The games they create themselves are frequently the best. When our children play nicely together, what parent doesn't shep nachas? When left to their own devices, they raid the dress-up box and put on shows and play card games and sometimes (although not too often, so don't be jealous) clean and organize their rooms.
Trying to referee children's fights is worse that working for the NBA; so don't.
In fact, our constant involvement actually interferes with their relationships with their siblings. We once had a family for dinner that came with their three small children and one nanny per child. Although this may have made it easier on the parents, it blocked the ability of my children to make relationships with them. My family was looking forward to playing with them and were happy to welcome them into our home, but the unnatural presence of an adult in the middle inhibited the relationships.
We do the same to our own children. Our game of "monkey in the middle" impedes the natural fun and games they would have with their siblings.
And when they don't play nicely? Stay out of it. Trying to referee children's fights is worse that working for the NBA; so don't. Let "work it out yourselves" become your constant refrain. They will and they will bother you less and eventually learn to play together. Give them more credit for having the tools to resolve the issue themselves and let them experience the pleasure of their independent abilities.
I could crowd the summer with activities (true confessions: some of my children are working or going to camp for part of the summer) but will I thrive as a full-time chauffeur? What about my other responsibilities -- work, learning, quiet time -- are they all meant to fall by the wayside? I think ubermoms make the mistake of only living for or through their children. Not only does that put a heavy pressure on the child, but it diminishes mothers and ultimately what we have left to offer our children.
Jewish tradition tells the story of a very poor family with many small children. One day they received a precious gift -- one fresh egg. The mother was tormented; how was she going to divide this one egg among her large family? Finally she hit upon the solution. She went quietly into her room and ate the egg herself.
Returning to school in the fall with a sense of confidence, basking in familial love, is the greatest gift of summer.
This mother didn't eat because she couldn't control her hunger. She didn't eat out of selfishness. She didn't eat it because it was a particularly delicious egg that appealed to her senses. She ate because in looking after herself first, in nourishing and strengthening herself, she would be a better mother -- kinder, more patient, more tolerant.
Summer is a challenge to all mothers (if you're not challenged, I don't want to hear about it!). One of the keys to success is to look after ourselves, not in an indulgent manner, but in strengthening ways that renew our energy and allow our children to be the beneficiaries.
Our smiles are more important than the educational value of the activities. Our peace and calm is more necessary to our children than a trip to the mall. Patience is more productive than a day at Disneyland.
What can we really do for our children in the summer that is unavailable all year? We can communicate our love throughout the day. All day, non-stop, just by our presence, by a kind word or gesture or touch. That's what will really prepare them for the next school year. Returning them to school in the fall with a sense of confidence, basking in familial love, is the greatest gift of summer.