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June 13, 2013 |

Surviving Summer

BY Jen Hatmaker

Folks, I’m one week into summer, and I have some thoughts. First of all, for all the teachers and parents who made it: HALLELUYER. For those of you with four days or two weeks left, may the Lord’s face shine upon you. We are on the other side, lighting candles for you. Godspeed.

Second, some readers struggle with satire; it is lost on you. I get it. We aren’t all fluent in sarcasm. Example: a district employee where my cherubs attend read my last post, dashed to her principal with the truly horrific discovery that I was only educating two of my five children, and lamented, “Something has to be done!” So for you, I’ll include [[non-sarcastic parenthetical notes]] so you can stop holding prayer vigils for my family.

I, like most of you I suspect, approach summer with equal parts delight and dread. Delight, because NO HOMEWORK FOLDERS. We’re all chilling out! We’re so chill! We’ve got our kids to ourselves and no one is our boss! And of course, no pre-dawn wake up calls to hasten the moment when some kid is all I can’t find my shoes and Did you sign my reading log and Where is my library book and Jessica’s mom eats lunch with her every Tuesday and Thursday. (Well, Jessica’s mom also cried when she went to kindergarten, and my friends and me went to brunch, so…)

[[I actually LOVE to eat lunch with my kids two days a week, which equals about 80 days of the school year in which the first kid’s lunch starts at 10:50 and the last kid’s lunch ends at 1:10, so let’s see, I’ve been at school two-and-a-half hours in the middle of my work day (twice a week) dodging the petrifying cafeteria monitor and pretending Brandon packed lunches because I would *never* send Pringles and a tortilla slathered with Nutella. We are legit, me and Jessica’s mom.]]

^ That was my attempt at “non-sarcastic” and I’m going to go ahead and give it a D-.

But there is also a teeny bit of dread, because here they all are. Every day. Up in my grill. Even on my best days, we spearhead a cooking project together, finish a craft, take a bike ride, and go swimming, and that gets us to 1:35pm. It’s like time stands still, and plus, the sun goes down at approximately 11:20pm, so it can feel like the summer solstice of doom.

I believe this was approximately 10:49pm.
I’ll be honest: I’m pretty decent at the big activities, but the filler stuff that gets us to bedtime isn’t my jam.
Remy:  “Mommy? Can you play beauty shop with me?”
Me:      “Oh, I would, but I can’t.”
Remy:  “Why not?”
Me:       “Because I don’t want to.”
[[Never fear. I totally love playing kid stuff with my kids. I find Legos riveting. You should see my towers. So straight. So towering. Absolutely no dimension or visual interest. This never, ever gets old. In fact, I play Legos by myself when the kids are gone.]]This can backfire. For instance, say your sons decide to fill the unstructured time themselves, and you say sure, whatever, just whatever takes up another hour, and they fill a giant, inflatable punching balloon with water in the upstairs bathroom, and since the hours are infinity, you say fine, but the next thing you know, five gallons of water is pouring through your downstairs light fixture, seeping through the floor, because evidently water balloons eventually break. When the husband has a coronary and asks WHO LET THEM DO THIS, you work up a tear about staying home all summer while he works in his quiet office, and he backs off because he doesn’t want his solitude screwed with.[[Disregard this. I carefully supervise every single moment of summer, and there is never a moment where I can only account for three kids.]]

With natural light plus the cascading water, Remy noted, “We have a rainbow in our house!”
I’ll be sure to include that amenity for future resale.

I’ve culled a few structural ideas for us Mediocre Mamas who want this season to be fun and memorable, but we also live in the real world where not every solitary day is pinnable (thank you for these shame-based new verbs, Pinterest). Nor can we afford to take five kids to water parks each day, because Brandon is a pastor and I am a writer; two professions noted for wealth building, except not that.There are loose structures, because for me, complicated systems are basically an invitation to fail more. I can handle one really cool fun thing a week. That is the outer limits of my capabilities, and just whatever about it.

So we are enjoying our third summer of “Mystery Thursdays.” The kids know every Thursday we go somewhere neat, and it is a surprise: floating the river, going to the lake, daytime movie and a picnic (a bunch of theaters show free kid movies all summer), swimming at Barton Springs so my kids might see an old, naked person (Austin keeps it weird, folks), paddle boarding, Schlitterbaun, anything that shakes it up. Some of these are free, some really inexpensive, some super pricey, but after fifteen summers as a parent, I’ve calculated the value of keeping us occupied and the summer moving along, and I am willing to pay 17 million dollars.

[[Of course I don’t really think we can buy our kids’ happiness and our personal sanity. I also philosophically reject babysitters, house help, date nights, a hefty book budget, movies on demand, DVD player in the car, and all forms of child bribery incentives.]]

With average success, we carve out an hour of Room Time every afternoon. Theoretically, the kids are supposed to read, and some do. Others probably do something involving a controller, but Mama needs the Hour of Peace and I don’t even care. This will technically fulfill the Summer Reading Program I agreed to at the end of school because I was just trying to get out the door. On the fifth hour of summer, Remy gasps: “MOMMY!! WE HAVEN’T STARTED OUR READING LOG!!!” and I think I had a stroke; I smelled burnt toast. So 1.) Room Time for reading, 2.) log your own hours, and 3.) I’ll sign them the morning of August 26th as you’re heading back to school.

[[Don’t spaz over reading minutes. WE LOVE TO READ. I’ll remind you I am a writer and place a stout premium on the written word. But when we have to do it and log it and sign it and turn it in, it’s like the difference between running for fun and running from a murderer. I’m totally kidding. I have no idea what ‘running for fun’ means.]]

Summer Rule: The trampoline can sub for a bedroom. Room Time for reading? No problem.
Actual nighttime sleeping? Sure.

Everyone still has a daily chore, which marks the end of Room Time. At first I said, “You have a chore a day. You can finish it whenever you want.” And the children did. Interestingly, whenever they wanted turned out to be never. They never wanted to finish a chore actually, which is shocking because they obviously care so much about cleanliness and order. Opposite Day! So Room Time ends with Chore Time, and I hope you are starting to get the picture of this Hatmaker Summer Party.Then we brainstormed a list of filler activities instead of risking their lives by saying I’m bored: ride bike, rollerblade, basketball, four-square, Rip Stick, board games (or as I like to call them, Bored Games, because Monopoly is like a very slow and horrible way to die), arts and crafts, iStation (a cool online reading program our school hooked us up with), trampoline, friends, make a movie/video, iPad apps, build something, write and illustrate a book, Legos/Bionicles (my 15-year-old begrudgingly “helped” the younger boys “for a minute” and I discovered his complicated architectural war-scape five hours later), Spa Day, or any of the zillion games we have for the Wii, Xbox, and Kinect. Swimming at our neighborhood pool is in regular rotation too, as these homeowners’ fees better go toward something other than watering demerits and hate mail about our fence.

Therapists say healthy people have boundaries, so I set some. Kids, things I am not in charge of this summer:

  • Breakfast.
  • Lunch is a crapshoot.
  • Figuring our your snacks. You know where the kitchen is.
  • Entertaining you.
  • Solving all your problems.
  • Enduring fighting. You fight, the thing is gone, good times are over.
  • Being your cruise ship director.

I will stock the kitchen with the goods, so if you ask me what’s for breakfast, I’m going to show you my coffee mug and give you a blank look. I taught you how to make eggs and smoothies and breakfast sandwiches and oatmeal, and I’m sad to admit this, but there is the cereal. Enjoy your chemical concoction, a nutritional hypocrisy I’m comfortable with.

Last, Mamas and Daddies, do not forget to get away from the darlings periodically and do something together. As Remy says, “Sometimes I just need to be by my lone.” Summer contains some of our best family memories, but after *a lot of togetherness* it’s good to have a breather. Do what you gotta do: pay a babysitter, trade free child care with another friend, put the littles in day camp one week, trade time off with your spouse, ask Grandma/Aunt/Sister to take them for an evening, trade sleepovers with your kids’ friends (we once engineered all five kids at sleepovers on the same night, and I turned instantly Pentecostal, waving my praise flags and I’m pretty sure I spoke in tongues).

Our plan is to keep it light and keep it fun. It’s so nice to enjoy my kids outside the rigors of school for awhile. For me, structure summer too much and all the joy is gone; structure it too little and I will lose my crap. There is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle where we balance resting and playing, chilling out and going out, staying at home and hitting the highway.


When I remember I only have three more summers with my oldest, everything suddenly comes into clear focus, and I realize what Bo and Hope and Stefano have always known: these are the days of our lives. May they be filled with laughter and cannonballs and good books and grilled hamburgers and fireworks and road trips and friends and happiness and love.And may the children learn to make their own lunches. Amen.

One last note: Happy Father’s Day this weekend to all the amazing Daddies and Papas and Grandpas and Papaws! Whenever men invest heavily and sincerely into their marriages and children, love abounds. For every time you’ve attended tea parties, recitals, student-led conferences, baseball games, concerts, and then tucked the littles into bed, we love you! In your honor, please enjoy this card Remy made for Brandon after following the template at school:


Want more? Click here to read “10 Things to Do With Your Kids This Summer” which I wrote for my BFF, Barnes and Noble today, where I’ve spent around half my salary for the last 15 years. After I wrote it, I realized 10 things was my absolute maximum, so in other words, here is everything I know about Summer Fun in 1000 words. So sad.