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Summers are the worst for working parents. Why didn't anyone warn me?

Sheer panic is the only way to describe how I feel every spring.
Mom walking with daughter carrying pool toys on summer day
The mad dash to figure out what to do with my school-aged children during the summer months has begun.Cavan Images / Getty Images

If you pay attention to the parenting space online, you’re likely bombarded by content about the mental load of parenthood or the immense challenge it can be to balance work and family. I knew about that struggle. But one thing I didn’t expect as a working mom was the sheer panic I would feel every spring as I tried to piece together child care for the summer months when schools are closed.

Juggling the school-year calendar is rough enough as it is. My kids, in the second and fifth grades, have multiple half-days each semester, and school ends promptly at 2:15 p.m.

Summer, however, is a different story.

I wish we could have a “slow summer,” as so many influencers and online content creators talk about. I wish I could just let my kids sleep in, play outside (although we live in Arizona and it’s tough in 110-degree heat), read and hang out with me. I wish we could travel or do activities together through the summer months.

But I have to work. And that means I have to figure out child care.

Where I live, summer camp sign-up starts in February, and for popular camps it’s a battle to even get in. Many camps schedule just a week at a time, so you’re left piecing together options that your kid will (hopefully) enjoy, while also facing the inevitability of multiple drop-offs and pick-ups if you have more than one child. Some camps I’ve seen run from only 9 a.m. until noon, or, if you’re lucky, 9 a.m.—3 p.m., so either way, you’re not getting a full day of work.

Oh, and did I mention that, for some of these camps, you have to pay up front? Yup, right after you recover from holiday overspending you have to fork over thousands of dollars for nonrefundable summer child care.

Some school districts have amazing low-cost options that run for the whole month of June, but unfortunately our district isn’t one of them. 

When my kids were younger, they would go to their preschool summer camp, which was a godsend because it provided before- and after-care and covered most (but not all) of the summer weeks. Now that my kids are older and have separate interests, there are few options that they both enjoy. While I probably could make them go to the same camp — and oftentimes I do — dragging a kid to something they detest for a whole week is less than ideal, especially when it costs a lot of money. 

Megan McNamee
Me with my kids.Shelby Fitz Photography

I’m lucky to work from home and do work that I enjoy, and I am grateful that I have flexibility. Unfortunately, I can’t take the summer off to be with my kids. Far from it, actually. I’m the co-founder of Feeding Littles, a resource for parents, and summer is our busy time, as we ramp up for back-to-school. This year we’re releasing “Feeding Littles Lunches,” our second book, so summer is not the time to slow down.

The other possibility is to have my kids stay home with me while I work. We’ll probably have to do that at some point, and I recognize that this is an option many working families do not have, but I know an entire summer like that would not be good for us. We experienced it during the COVID-19 pandemic. I felt bad at my job, even worse as a mom, and so frustrated that I couldn’t do both at the same time.

I also wish I could change my feelings about this. I want to look forward to the summer break. I want to enjoy the little time off I take with my kids. I want to stop feeling resentful that summer child care is tricky and disruptive and costs a fortune. And I recognize my privilege in being able to send my kids to a camp, period, as many families don’t have that choice.

Regardless of my anxiety about all this, I think the break is good for my kids. They end up having great summers. I know that teachers need the break too, and I am so thankful for the educators and child care workers who give up their summer weeks to work these camps. I don’t think year-round school is necessarily the answer, at least not for my kids.

But until there are affordable, easy options that my kids both enjoy, I’ll do the summer-camp-anxiety dance every spring. And I know that I’m not the only one who feels this way.