It’s a peaceful picture: An adult and child are holding hands, and they’re running/toddling toward the waves of a blue, blue ocean in the near distance. Wind-whipped hair blows around their shoulders. Their footprints are about to be washed away by the sea. I can almost smell the salt-spray freshness as my shoulders begin to relax.
The caption says, “We only have 18 summers with our kids. So let’s make them count.”
My shoulders tense right back up again.
The pressure is on to make summers magical for our kiddos, isn’t it? Just like we’re tasked with making the holidays memorable, the back-to-school season exciting, the meals rounded and the childhoods idyllic.
But for those of us working outside the home during summer break — scratch that; for any parent, anywhere — summertime can feel anything but magical. There are child care schedules to be juggled, none of them simple or manageable for more than a few days in advance because summer, she is shifty. Summer school lasts only through June; camps are one week of sky-high fun mixed with sky-high expenditures; teens can babysit your littles but only when adequate transportation is provided.
Summer weights with no bus schedule? Can’t.
Teen book club at the library in the middle of the workday? Can’t.
Lots of downtime, at least on weekends? Can’t, because as we’ve already mentioned, summer must be off-the-charts with memories! Schedule that weekend to the MAX or else suffer the knowledge that a moment of goodness slipped out of your lazy and uninspired little fingers!
Look, I love a great summer memory as much as the next millennial parent, but I also love an absence of gut-churning anxiety about how to produce said memories.
Step back through the looking glass with me, where we’ll land in June of 1996. I would have been 13 years old, microwaving myself a Cup O’ Noodles before plunking my lawn chair into the middle of my backyard, shin-deep creek, picking the peas out of my noodles and tossing them into the stream to watch them float past as I ate. My ankles dangled in the icy water for crawdads to explore my toes.
Maybe later I’d do some chores or ride my bike down to the fireworks stand for some gunpowder bang-snap poppers. Maybe I would watch four hours of game shows and eat four whole ice cream sandwiches. And when my parents got home from work, maybe I’d peel potatoes for dinner with my mom before staying up late with nothing but cable TV to inspire me.
And if that wasn’t magical, I don’t actually know what was.
Not because it was laid out in Insta-ready snapshots but because it was the definition of easy freedom.
Oh, I remember our family vacations too. They were dramatic, sweeping events that filled me up with joy and novelty, enough to last all year. Beaches, canyons, road trips, theme parks: the stuff of dreams. But not, as it turns out, my only lasting source of joy.
What I want to remember about summer, before I fall headlong into the need to keep up with the season’s social demands for trips to the lake and public pool passes and the internal floggings I inflict upon myself for not measuring up in each of these fleeting, limited summers ...
Is that summer is already magical — life is already memorable — without my obligatory machinations. Some of us parents are so busy trying to recall the glow of our own childhood summers that we spend ridiculous energies on recreating it rather than just letting it evolve.
We don’t only have 18 summers, friends. We have 54 summer months before these babies could legally move out into their own, independent lives: 216 summer weekends, 2,592-ish summertime daylight hours.
But wait! That’s not all!
We don’t only have summers for living and remembering. We have all the days and moments during our ordinary lives. All the captured hugs and conversations. The one-on-one dates we make time for with our kids, bedtime snuggles and movie nights. Accidentally laughed-at preschool curse words. Snapshots in time that make up a full and connected relationship with one’s family.
Then, we have their adult years to look forward to. Grown-up vacations and cross-country phone calls. Adult relationships and life changes. We have this one, whole lifetime and yeah, it seems fleeting, especially if we boil our parenting strategies down to shareable, captioned photos, but it’s made up of moments. Moments we take for ourselves, as well as moments we fill with our children.
Summer can be good and memorable and magical, but so can the other days of a normal life. If I want to teach my kids to savor the interstitial spaces between the big, flashy bursts of newsworthy excitement, I’d better live into that notion with some peace of my own. Peace for the accidentally beautiful summer.
Dewy nights spent chasing fireflies past bedtime. Surprise Bomb Pops dripping down a toddler’s chubby wrist. A lazy Saturday with a sprinkler and grandma’s homemade ice cream. The single shooting star we see driving home from a late swim with cousins. Waking up at 11 a.m. hungry for lunch. A lack of homework, hallelujah. Peeling shoulders and forgotten showers. Flip flops. Peaches. Hose water.
Summer. I can let it be lovely without forcing it to be lovely.
Come to think of it, that sounds like a metaphor for parenthood in general. But that’s a column for another day.
Sarah Coyne is a parenting columnist for the Globe. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.