Welcome to ‘Now We Are 50’ a new monthly column about the stage in life when children are grown, careers have happened — or not — and we wonder, ‘What’s next?’
Back in rainy, cool May when summer still seemed like a dream, I walked to a nearby playground with my sister-in-law and three of her five kids, in Baltimore for a visit. It had been a long time since I had spent any time near a jungle gym, slide, or monkey bars.
My eight-year-old niece pulled me into the playhouse and pointed out the real windows and the loft. “I’d like one of these in my backyard,” she said. “I could get a cat and live on my own.” My four-year-old nephew kept drawing our attention with daring feats, making it hard to have a conversation.
But my sister-in-law and I tried nonetheless, talking in abbreviated snippets, poised to catch him if he slipped off the ropewalk, or down the fireman’s pole. The subject was summer. Might we get together? Could we ever coordinate a family vacation?
We compared schedules, and I was daunted by the complexity of hers. With kids ranging in age from 17 to 4, every permutation of the summer job, camp, team sport, and a family visit was in the mix. I felt exhausted for her already.
Now with summer in full swing, I think back to my own time with young kids, to the logistics involved, the long days that needed filling. All of the camps – from art to zoo, from sports to sleep away. The pool, the ocean, the sprinkler. Managing the finances of it all. Too many movies and video games. The cries of “I’m bored” and conversely the perils of adolescent experimentation – always at a high in the summer.
I don’t envy my sister-in-law.
And yet, I do. Summer, that sweet in between time. No homework. No bedtime. Relaxed routines. A little chaos. Lots of togetherness.
Summers now for my husband and me are a bit too quiet.
My oldest son is a rising college senior and this spring, for the first time, there was no pit stop at home before the out-of-town summer job. The nonappearance of all his stuff was much sadder than I could have anticipated. The laundry – the unpacking and repacking – connected us to familiar roles: me the caretaker, him the messy boy. This spring I didn’t tackle that mystery college “sludge” or read on the t-shirts, as I folded them, about the parties and concerts he’d attended.
And he’s likely to go from his job directly back to school. He’s hit that point where life conforms to work, rather than work conforming to life. It is still as shocking as it was so many years ago for me. What? It’s summer – our time, fun time!
My daughter always spent six weeks away at camp – this was a privilege and a joy for her. She found a place she loved early on. Now she’s gone back there as a counselor.
When we opened her trunk to start packing, it was redolent with the smell of childhood, of summer. We enjoyed the familiar ritual, ticking through the list, shopping for bug spray, water shoes, and flashlights.
But this year was different. She’d just gotten home and was leaving already. Six weeks are eight. We packed up the old minivan and off she went in it – without me! No book on tape, no traditional stop at Starbucks. I’ll be scanning the camp photos, not for her face but to guess which ones she might have taken as the photographer. Other moms will see their daughters smiling and laughing. I’ll have to settle for the occasional text on her days off.
She asked me shortly after her 19th birthday, “Mom, is it strange that I’m this old?” Yes! I was just you, just back from college with a borrowed turntable and a stack of records, working odd jobs. Yes! You were just the teeny camper I worried would be homesick. Now I’m the homesick one.
Summer was always the biggest challenge for my youngest son – How he hated most camps, literally fleeing from one, chasing me as I tried not to look back at his tear-strewn face. That didn’t stop us from trying a variety of activities to keep him occupied while we were at work. It was my second summer job for many years.
This year he found himself a good summer job. Without any help from us. And off he goes each morning – self-contained, licensed, capable. No whining. And at the end of the work day, on his days off, he gets himself to his favorite fishing hole. To the deli for an Italian sub. To play pick-up hoops with his pals. He’s out more often than in. No rides needed.
We’re on our own. My husband comes home to a quiet house most evenings. Where’s the pile of sporting gear, flip flops, wet towels? Where are all the kids who used to be lounging around? Who is going to watch the O’s with him?
Although he was delighted when everyone began their summer jobs that, for the first time, all of five of us had an income, the flip side is this odd sense of purposelessness, accentuated in the long, light evenings of summer. Our new normal.
I remember distinctly a mother older than me saying at the pool years ago – when I was there with my three very young kids, sticky with popsicles and sun lotion, fussy with the heat – that while the hours of mothering small children can feel so very long, the years race by. How right she was.
I will say that again to the young mothers of summer. Enjoy every sun-drenched moment! Because ahead, in a not-too-distant season, are the hours of not mothering. Long in an entirely different way.
I’m thrilled for my kids. Things are as we could only hope they would be. As for me, I think I’ll give my sister-in-law a call. She might need a little help this summer!
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