Sweating the Summer Scramble

For many working parents, the impending school-free weeks are a logistical nightmare.

A businesswoman on the phone while kids play around her at a playground.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Lethargic and overfed from the holidays and with a major case of the Januaries one Saturday night, I wanted nothing more than to crawl under a blanket and watch a movie. My youngest was finally in bed. But instead of relaxing, I dragged myself over to my computer, cracked my knuckles, and started the Search. Even though June and the end of school were months away, the fresh calendar on my wall was a potent reminder of the looming terror of the summer. For households like mine, one of the 66 percent of American families with kids where all available parents work full time, summer is the time when the comfortable routine of the school year is shattered, replaced with the week-to-week renegotiation of routines, commutes, start and end times, and panic-inducing costs. Oh yeah, and if we are lucky, maybe even some fun for our children.

For many families, summer no longer has the bucolic glow of a stay-at-home mom presiding over endless weeks of unstructured play and neighborhood roaming (and it never really had that glow for everyone, especially for families of color, as women of color have historically had higher rates of workforce participation). Instead, summer has become a mad scramble to find child care coverage wherever you can get it—from family, neighbors, babysitters, community activities, summer camps, and vacations—a steamy, hot cauldron of every work-life conflict we usually navigate with the help of six hours of structured school time a day and a consistent after-care program. Families like mine navigate the work and life demands of their lives with a reasonably predictable routine that changes infrequently. Summer kicks that routine to the curb, and then steals its lunch money.

As a longtime researcher, I decided to approach the summer problem with data. At the Better Life Lab at New America, we asked a national sample of 1,335 American parents of kids ages 4 to 14 what they do to care for their kids over the time in the summer when school is out, but jobs are in.

Turns out, I’m not the only one feeling the heat. Many American families are just like mine, patching together a quilt of care between local summer camps, family trips (not a vacation), care from relatives, sharing care with neighbors, babysitters, and when all else fails, having your kid stay home by themselves. Finding this care isn’t easy—more than half of parents said it is hard to find care they need.

The advanced nature of all this planning ups the degree of difficulty. Will my parents or my in-laws be well enough to watch their grandkid a few months from now? Do they even want to? And what happens when, even though the care is arranged, someone is sick or has to leave town? Even the best-laid summer plans can fail and require a whole series of fallbacks and contingency plans. My job and my spouse’s job go until 5 in the evening, and often later, and then I have to commute home or to pick up, so a camp that ends at 3 p.m. without aftercare requires yet another layer of logistics—a summer babysitter (or two, depending on their schedules) who will reliably, but inexpensively, pick up my child from camp and watch them. My kid is safe all summer, and my husband and I can stay in our jobs, but this means I spend much of my summer and the months preceding it emailing, texting, worrying, battle-planning different new logistics for each week. It sucks up extra hours of time and mental overhead in a week that has little flex between work and life to begin with.

For so many families, even after arranging for this care and camp for their kids, it’s paying for it all where things get especially tricky. In my community, spots in the county- or town-subsidized camps are snapped up immediately, within hours, if not minutes of becoming available. And it’s no surprise why. Our research showed that close to half of parents—46 percent—said that it was somewhat or very hard to afford summer care for their kids. The cost data bears this out. One in 5 parents of kids age 4 to 14 say they paid $3,000 or more for summer care for their kids in 2017.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are things that workplaces and policymakers could do to help parents. Paid vacation, and more of it than the paltry 10 days a year that is standard for the Americans who are lucky to have this benefit at all, would allow parents to spend more time caring for or with their children during the summer months. More workplaces that allow for flexible schedules would help parents manage the logistics around the edges, and shorter summer school vacations would reduce the economic and logistic burden on working families. Further, more subsidized, high-quality, and engaging activities that allow kids to explore their passions, try new things, or keep up with academic subjects and have days that mirror the length of the average workday, would go a long way toward helping families manage the summer scramble.

With summer nearly here, I’m almost finished with the work of camp waitlists, medical forms, and payment plans. Now I just hope it all works as designed. Millions of working American families are still stuck hacking and spending their way through this summer scramble. Until there are more systematic summer solutions in place, I’ll be sweating the end of the school year, not celebrating it.