When I became a mother, I felt an unspoken pressure to fill every single free moment with something magical, something memorable, something Instagram-able. We purchased family memberships to the zoo, the children’s museum. We endured numbingly obnoxious stage productions of children’s television shows that our children mildly enjoyed. On summer weekends, we visited the splash pad, the natural history museum, the aquarium and the playground.
When our third child came and postpartum anxiety and depression hit me hard, we dialed back the activities, and I felt terrible about it. I felt like I was depriving our kids of the childhood they deserved, the ones my friends seemed to be having through my window to their lives online.
Looking back on my own childhood, I’m not sure where I got the idea that we have to fill every moment with an educational or entertaining activity. That certainly wasn’t the narrative of my childhood years. My childhood was spent in my backyard sandbox, building sandcastles and avoiding surprises from our cat. Hanging upside down on the trapeze on our swingset. Riding bikes on our sidewalk with our neighborhood friends and imagining that I was a famous singer as I belted out “Baby Baby” from my front porch along with Amy Grant on my Walkman.
Sure, we went to the zoo, but I can only think of a small handful of visits over the course of those childhood years, and most of those were school field trips. I recall one visit to a children’s museum, while on vacation at my grandmother’s. If splash pads existed when I was a kid, I wasn’t aware, and was happy to settle with the garden hose and the baby pool or the sprinkler.
The summer of 2020 is going to look different from any summer I’ve been a parent. Nothing about this year has been what I anticipated, more so than any other season I’ve parented through. I’m disappointed that our summer vacation has been canceled. I’m sad to not be looking forward to some of the summer liturgy that we’ve grown accustomed to. And, truthfully, I’m nervous about not being able to walk my kids down to the playground to burn off steam this summer.
At the beginning of the stay-at-home order, I made a list of fun indoor activities that we could do with our kids, who are ages six, four and two, when they got too stir crazy from never leaving the house. We’ve had glow baths (throw a dozen-or-so glow sticks in the bathtub and turn out the lights), built forts, set up tents in our living room, spent hours mesmerized by kinetic sand and played plenty of board games.
As we look ahead to this summer, sure, there’s plenty of things we might normally do that we can’t this year. But, there are so many things we’ve forgotten about the rhythms of our own childhoods, the pace that we lived our lives a few decades ago, that our kids will get to discover for the first time this summer. Our kids need to learn that boredom is the point from which their imagination soars. They deserve to fall in love with the dirt, rocks and bugs in their own backyards, to tend to flowerbeds, to turn their swingset into an imaginary castle and the dog into a dragon.
So, perhaps, we make this summer’s list and it’s less exciting and less shareable than the trip to the beach. But maybe this year we realize the magic was never at the beach, it’s always been in the fleeting spark of childhood that our tiny people possess within their very core. This summer, like the summers of our own childhoods, is a gift, an invitation to discover the joy of our own homes and the big open canvas with no programming or expectations. Let’s not miss it.