What Happened When I Tried To Give My Kids A 1980s Summer

by Stephanie Sprenger
Originally Published: 
Two little girls and two little boys at the beach during a 1980s summer

It was the last week of school, and a handful of parents gathered around a picnic table at the third-graders’ end-of-year party. We made small talk about how fast the year had gone, and then we launched into what was on everyone’s minds: summer vacation plans.

“We’ll be doing a few soccer camps, horse camp, and then taking a trip to Disneyland,” one mom shared.

“We’re doing art camp, gymnastics and swim lessons, and then a sleepaway Girl Scout camp in August,” another chimed in.

“How about you guys?” an acquaintance asked me.

“Well, we’re pretty unscheduled this year. We’re having a 1980s summer,” I confessed with equal parts pride and dread.

Due to a nebulous blend of laziness, disorganization, frugality and apathy, I had planned very few activities for my children this summer. As May approached and I hadn’t joined the frenzy to book the best summer day camps or schedule lessons, I figured we would just “go with it.” This particular life philosophy is not one that I embrace or practice regularly, so I almost congratulated myself for being so laid-back. It was the new me: a Zen-like, Type B, super-chill mom who let her kids roam barefoot and run through the sprinklers whenever they wanted. This summer, there would be no Sharpie-labeled sunscreen bottles to tote to activities, no oversized T-shirts bearing camp logos to purchase, no lessons to be running late for. We’d sit on our asses, and we’d love every minute of it.

As a part-time working mother of an almost 9-year-old and a preschooler, I am used to a school year with plenty of childcare. Once I made the 1980s summer proclamation—no school, no camp—I was well aware that I was going from an adequate supply of “me time” to pretty much nonstop family togetherness. Gulp. What had I done?

Once June hit, we started our new schedule. Two mornings a week, I taught a few classes, lugging my offspring with me to hang out in the recreation center’s childcare room. The rest of the time was ours to fill. We saw friends, went swimming a lot, caught every $1 family movie, played with neighbors and lazed around in the mornings. In many ways, it was heavenly. Rarely did we have to scramble to get dressed and eat breakfast in time for me to get to work, and many mornings, the kids and I didn’t roll out of bed until 8:30. They went straight downstairs to grab their own prepackaged breakfasts and turn on the television (Mother of the Year, right here!), while I sat in bed drinking coffee and reading novels. It was almost utopian. Sometimes.

As we drifted through the first few weeks of summer vacation, I compared our weekly routine to the June days of my own childhood. There were a few similarities, but a few glaring differences jumped out. In particular, my summer as a mother contained two distinct anti-1980s qualities: guilt and fear.

When the neighbor kids played in the quiet cul-de-sac, I was never inside the house making dinner or reading a book. My worn Adirondack chair was ever-present in the driveway, making sure a too-fast car wouldn’t zip down the street without the warning cry of “Car!” There would be no kid-only bike-riding to the nearby grocery store for candy—or frankly, just for the sheer joy of doing something independent and passing time—nor would there be hours of the day when my children disappeared into who-knows-which-friend’s house.

When the kids climbed on the playground, I was right there sitting on the bench, albeit forcing myself not to hover by repeating the shaming mantra of “helicopter mom, helicopter mom” inside my head. A crack in the pavement could result in a head injury, too many ICEEs could result in hyperactivity or juvenile diabetes, unknown whereabouts could indicate abduction.

And when I did give myself permission to partially check out—whether it was on that park bench on my iPhone or retreating to my office during a Netflix marathon—I felt the familiar niggling guilt. Shouldn’t I be building a fort out of couch cushions with them? Shouldn’t we be baking muffins instead of me hiding in my room surfing Facebook? It really wasn’t fair for me to be downstairs doing a yoga video while they played upstairs with Legos—we should go to the museum or something.

What a ridiculous combination, not to mention a counterintuitive one. If I ever managed to combat the fear and let my kids roam a bit more, the guilt at the self-indulgence of allowing myself some solitude quickly replaced it. I’m quite certain my own mother breathed a sigh of relief whenever we drifted 10 houses down to our friends’ house to play, rather than wringing her hands because she should be enriching our lives more thoroughly.

And to a certain degree, I too soak up any crumbs of self-care that I get, delighting in the joy of sunbathing uninterrupted or sitting down in a quiet room to workshop an essay. But it rarely happens without that initial wave of the fear-guilt sucker punch: You’re supposed to be spending time with them right now. What if one of them is doing something dangerous? Or another variation on the theme: What if they’re missing out by not doing Spanish immersion camp or taking tennis lessons? What if they’re falling behind their peers?

One of my favorite books, written by the late Susan Jeffers, is Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. She points out that the object isn’t to completely eradicate the fear response, but rather to notice it and power through anyway. I love this principle, and I’ve adapted it a bit to include guilt as well. Feel the guilt and do it anyway. “It” being letting go a little.

So I’m going to embrace our version of the 1980s summer, with a little less independence (for all of us) than I would prefer, with a bit more worrying and supervision, but still preserving the relaxed, free(ish)-range, unstructured vacation I remember loving as a child. We will sleep late, waste time, take unplanned outings, see friends and get dirty. We will make memories.

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