Calling into work meetings from the tennis practice carpool. Texting “where are you?” 26 times a day. Asking my neighbor to do a welfare check on my kids at 1 p.m. while I’m at work because they’re either dead or still asleep — but definitely not answering their phones. There are many things that have surprised me as my children have grown older. And at the top of the list is summer with tweens and teens.
Younger children skate right on through the hottest months of the year with their typical daycare situation. As they enter elementary school, you are likely driving across town for drop-offs at Grandma's or managing a spreadsheet of day camps where every week there’s a new set of registration forms, drop off times and pick up locations.
But the middle and high school years? I didn’t see this disaster coming. Too old for sitters, too young to be left alone all day.
An article published a few years ago in Atlantic Monthly haunts me every day. It touts the importance of unstructured, unsupervised free play for the development of executive functioning, a key determinant of academic and life success. Yes. Amen. I’m in. My three sons, which include 17-year-old twins and an 11-year-old, have zero executive functioning skills and we need to right that ship so they can eventually fly this nest. But how do I pull that off when my husband and I both work full-time? My job doesn’t take the 12-week break our public schools do.
While I’m all about the free play, if you work in a city and have a decent commute, chances are this means your children would be left unsupervised 11-12 hours per day. And as much as I want them to daydream and engage in unstructured play, explore the woods in our neighborhood and go fishing with their buddies, that’s not our reality. The best case scenario is that they sleep until lunch and play Fortnite until dinner. The worst? Well, that’s what keeps me up at night.
Even with jobs for the older boys and a couple of day camps for my youngest son, there needs to be an adult present to make sure they eat real meals, get where they need to go and make good decisions.
I have good boys. The older twins are certified and experienced babysitters, but when it comes to sorting themselves out, the wheels fall off the bus. One day last summer when all three were home alone, I fielded numerous calls from my youngest about the grave injustices committed by his older brothers while I was leading a management team meeting.
And since I can’t make year-round school a reality, here are a few solutions I’ve found that are helping me stay in good graces with my boss and keeping the house from burning down until September:
Anticipate it: Parents of elementary-aged students, consider this your warning. If you can anticipate this disaster, you can plan for it. Get creative and brainstorm solutions in January. Grandpa in Oregon needs help with a major project? Great, ship the kid there for a couple of weeks (as my smart neighbor did!). Have a friend with similarly aged kids? Do a "kid swap" for a week or two where you can send your kids there and work crazy hours while kid-free and then take yours and your "swapped kids" while you take a few days vacation for fun summer activities and hopefully they will entertain one another while you squeeze in some work from home days.
Negotiate flexibility: This is when it pays to be a full-on rockstar at work (more on that in my upcoming book) because this is the time to call in favors with your manager. Can you work from home two days per week in the summer? Can you adjust your schedule to leave by 3 p.m. since your teenagers will be sleeping until noon anyway?
Team up: I trade kids all summer with a neighbor who has similarly-aged children. Our youngest two can run around outside together while I work from home. Or, on her days off, they get some of that unstructured free play that we’re looking for.
Leverage technology: In our house, we have a Reagan-esque “trust but verify” approach to making sure what needs to get done gets done. Read two chapters in your summer reading assignment? Send me a text summary. Fold and put away your laundry? I want photographic evidence. Going on a cross-country training run? Screenshot your mapped run. It seems like I’m an electronic helicopter parent, and maybe I am. But as tasks get done consistently and trust is built, I back off on oversight. Until they screw up, which they inevitably do. They’re teenagers.
I’ll leave you with this, parents. If you are stressed out and angry that summer isn’t hanging out in the backyard hammock reading together, you’re in good company. Summer is hard if you’re working and you have middle and high school children. Like, really hard. But hang in there. There are only about 12 weeks before you’re emulating that Staples commercial from the ‘90s, buying school supplies and singing “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
Jennifer Folsom is the chief of corporate development at Washington, D.C.-based data analytics consulting firm Summit LLC. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and three sons, 17-year-old twins Josh and Will, and 12-year-old Anderson. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood,"The Ringmaster," will be out this fall.