School’s Out for Summer. Moms Already Need a Break.

(Courtesy of Chamber of Mothers)

I’ll never forget the first time my child came home from elementary school with a ‘summer bucket list.’ It was clearly an end of year gap-filler kind of activity meant to ease kids into the transition from school routine to summer. Thankfully, his ideas mostly involved staying in his pajamas and lounging around our house. My own work had picked up, and I didn’t have the same time off.

I can’t think of a parent who doesn’t look ahead to summer months with simultaneous relief from the morning scramble and trepidation at the loss of set hours their child is cared for at school. Never mind, rising stress at the cost of summer activities, the juggle of schedules that shift every few weeks with a patchwork of camps and Jenga-like balancing of drop-offs and pick-ups, especially with multiple kids in the mix. All the while, parents still maintain a work schedule that, for most, doesn’t break for summer as well.

“Pretty soon into motherhood, I realized the year is most naturally divided into five segments for parents of school-age children,” said Sarah Hart-Unger, a physician, a host to two popular podcasts, a planning expert and a mother of three. “Unfortunately, the way that our society is structured, summer requires a great deal of legwork to keep it realistic, keep it manageable, and keep it fun for kids. When I was learning what it was like to operate in the seasonality of being a parent of school-age kids, I recognized that the quarter system just wasn’t enough. It didn’t really fit with the rhythms of our family.”

Hart-Unger’s realization of the lack of rhythm affecting everyone helped her form her own schedule: the summer quintile.

Unlike the reliably planned school year, which starts early, she said camp drop-offs become erratic and harder to manage. In fact, the hardest weeks for parents actually lie at the front and back ends of the season, she said, “where the camp doesn’t start yet, but school has already ended.”

For low-income parents, the financial and scheduling burden is even worse. “Camps have gotten more and more expensive,” said Hart-Unger. Summer camp costs about $87 a day, according to the American Camp Association. (As of May 2024, the average hourly wage in the US is $28.16 per hour or $225.28 for an eight-hour work day.)

“There are some programs that are subsidized depending on where you live, but a lot of those get snatched up like hotcakes,” she continued. “So, if you don’t have the resources to sit there and grab the weeks, and you may not have a high-paying job, summer is an absolute struggle where families cobble together a ton of different things.”

“And yet there [is] no acknowledgement of this huge rhythm that affects everyone,” Hart-Unger continued, “and that’s when I said, ‘Okay, summer should be its own season,’ and I came up with the idea of making summer a quintile for the year.” 

“Moms are time poor,” said Erin Erenberg, CEO of Chamber of Mothers. “We don’t live in communities and villages; if we don’t have the expectation of community care for our children and aging parents we don’t truly have a choice and it becomes harder and harder to contribute outside of the home. Many mothers rely on school schedules and after-care while school is in session. For many, childcare during the summer is a patchwork of summer camps and enrichment activities that are expensive and have variable schedules.”

All year round, childcare can exceed rent payments by at least 25 percent nationwide and is more than double that in eight states and Washington, D.C., according to a new report from Child Care Aware of America.

“Mothers report increased financial and emotional stress and anxiety heading into the summer,” said Erenberg. “All of this taken together fuels our fight for a federal, universal childcare system wherein the government internalizes some of the work and cost so that American families can contribute to the economy and create summer plans without the enormous disruption and expense they currently face.”

“Kinkeeping,” a term describing the ‘invisible labor’ and ‘mental load’ dedicated to family memory-making, highlights the work that most women are expected to do within families. The pressure to perform ‘kinkeeping’ increases during the summer months; school-free (seemingly) open time that is meant to be filled with ‘special’ memory-making events.  Recognizing the hidden costs—often, not all that hidden—for camp, travel, road trips, meals out, additional childcare during transitional weeks pre- and post-school’s start, and more encroachment on income-generating work, is another weight that parents carry. 

Erenberg said that most mothers will say to themselves, “I ‘shouldn’t’ feel stressed going into summer, ‘it should be fun’—the culture has sent you the memo that you’re responsible for summer memories and yet you feel overwhelmed, rather than joyful.” 

“It’s a little bit analogous to the holiday season,” Hart-Unger agreed. “There’s an expectation of merrymaking and keeping everything fun that comes up during the summer and around the holidays. The answer is not for women to stop doing it; the answer is for everybody to do it.”

Chamber of Mothers’ “Vote Like a Mother” Campaign Launches Ahead of 2024 Elections

Hart-Unger and Erenberg’s words directly speak to the mission behind Chamber of Mothers, a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization that wants to put political activism on mothers’ summer to-do lists—not to add another burden, but rather to use this time to get ahead with voter registration, understand ballot initiatives and prepare for the upcoming fall elections. This week marked the launch of their “Vote Like A Mother” campaign, which aims to make it easy for mothers to use the less hectic summer months (just past “May-tember,” which parallels the holidays with its glut of end of semester activities) to prepare to vote in their own best interests. 

“At a time when moms are especially overwhelmed doing so much for others—teacher gifts, field trips, class parties, supporting their kids during final exams, finalizing summer camp schedules, and shuffling work obligations to accommodate shortened school days—we want to remind moms of the importance of their voices and votes,” said Erenberg. “Vote Like a Mother is about returning a sense of agency to mothers who sometimes feel powerless in the face of an onslaught of care obligations.” 

Chamber of Mothers is committed to changing the lack of widespread, affordable and accessible childcare, as well as advocating for federally protected paid family leave. Their third pillar is maternal mortality and achieving better outcomes. 

Through their campaigns, Chamber is finding ways to make commitment to political action easier for mothers by developing local chapters for ‘on the ground’ work, or encouraging women to put together a text group chat with a close circle to share information about candidates and upcoming elections. Erenberg said often women feel they don’t have time to read up on issues and then might not vote because they don’t feel prepared—or default to voting as others suggest, versus considering what’s in their best interests. In collaboration with i am a voter and theSkimm, they want to make registering and preparing for fall elections as easy as possible.

(Courtesy of Chamber of Mothers)

“Vote Like a Mother is a rallying cry,” said co-founder Raena Boston. According to Erenberg, “Whatever your concerns are, whatever you hold most dear, be sure to ascertain where candidates and issues line up with your values, and vote according to your own interests. We don’t believe in the ‘mommy wars’ and dividing lines between working and ‘at home’ mothers. All mothers work. All mothers have a point of view on how to build a country that works for them. We’re asking them to vote for the leadership and issues that they care about.” 

Just past Mother’s Day, the flowers have likely faded, alongside the social media posts lauding the hard work of mothers and urging them to ‘indulge’ in self-care for the day, versus investing in systemic change. 

“Tick registering off the list for yourself and consider it a moment of actual self care,” said Erenberg. 

Reformed legislation that actually helps all mothers is a lasting gift.

Text MOTHER to 26797 to register to vote, check current registration status, and access detailed ballot/polling information.

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Elline Lipkin is a poet, academic and nonfiction writer. Her first book of poems, The Errant Thread, was chosen by Eavan Boland for the Kore Press First Book Award. Her second book, Girls’ Studies, explores contemporary girlhood in the United States. Currently a research scholar with the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA, Elline also teaches poetry for Los Angeles Writing Classes. As a nonfiction writer, she has written about everything from being a feminist bride to female mentorship and influence within the literary world, as well as Barbie’s new body and “fauxpowerment.”