Opinion: The school summer holidays are just six weeks of hell for working parents

Opinion: The school summer holidays are just six weeks of hell for working parents
I won’t miss the tsunami of chaos that is the school run, but I am dreading the long break all the same: it’s virtually impossible to make it work and go to work, and I don’t know how anyone does it

“Summer holidays 2021” is the title of the online spreadsheet – yes, you read that correctly – that my ex-husband and I have been forced to create in order to figure out what the hell we are going to do with our children. That’s right, folks, the moment we’ve all been dreading kicks in for some of us today: it’s the school summer holidays… aka six weeks of sheer hell for working parents.

Don’t get me wrong – we don’t dread the long break because we love doing the school run; nobody loves that, unless you’re a masochist who actually gets a kick out of asking small humans if they’ve got their shoes on 15 times at 8am, and you find it fun to foolishly think everyone is ready to leave the house only to realise that you forgot to make a “Brazilian shaker instrument” out of dried lentils and a plastic water bottle, because it’s “Brazil Day” today, didn’t you read the newsletter?

And no, you didn’t read the newsletter, you never read the newsletter, you never have time to read the newsletter, which is why it’s 8.15am now and you’re scrabbling around for some yellow lycra leggings and a green and blue T-shirt that’s size 3-4 years old but still in the drawer, and your daughter is nine, and one day (maybe) you’ll actually get around to sorting out her bedroom – except you know you won’t.

And you’re barking at her to “just find a crayon and make a Brazil flag”, which is a perfectly normal request, so why is she doing the splits? Nobody asked for that – it’s not time to practice a gymnastics routine, it’s time to make a Brazilian shaker instrument for the LAST DAY OF TERM OF COURSE, because there’s a party, and it’s Brazil-themed, and oh yes, “I also need a plate of party food – but I can’t share it, because of Covid, so you need to separate out all the sweets and crisps and wrap the plate in clingfilm.”

By now it’s 8.20am, but it’s going alright; it’s time to leave the house – it’s tight but everything is working, you might not actually get a late slip this time, which is a good way to round off the end of term, a solid way – except that you then walk into the living room to find your youngest has stripped off their school uniform and is standing there completely naked, asking you to help him “find his Ninjago costume”. Give me strength.

So, no – I won’t miss the all-out tsunami of chaos that is the daily school run, but I am dreading the summer holidays all the same. Because it’s virtually impossible to make it work and go to work, and I don’t know how anyone does it. On my family’s shared Google Sheets spreadsheet we have columns in green marked out when I’m on duty, columns in blue when their dad is on duty, the occasional sparing column in yellow where we’ve managed to rope in a grandparent – but one set lives three hours away, and it must be even harder for parents with no support at all; for single parents or those with family they still haven’t managed to see, living abroad.

I’ve managed to factor in just two days of “holiday sports camp” so I can go into the office, but I can’t afford any more than that – summer childcare for one child (per day) is £30, let alone two. It barely makes it worth working over the summer at all, except that if I had to think of daily activities every day for my children for six long weeks I’d be completely stressed and bankrupt. Better to tick just one of those illustrious boxes off, rather than both at once. All my sympathies to stay-at-home mums, dads and carers – because it’s far, far easier to be at work.

There are days when my children (aged nine and four) are just going to have to amuse themselves at home without me being around – in a mental or emotional sense, though I’ll certainly be tearing my hair out in physical form as I try to write while simultaneously being asked for snacks 372 times an hour.

Sometimes I look back and wonder how on earth we got through months of lockdown, and then I realise that we didn’t; that it was horrendous for all parents – those working or non-working or freelance or those sick with Covid or those grieving or feeling the strain of trying to homeschool as well as making a living and looking after themselves to boot – but people love to tell parents they’re doing a bad job; we simply can’t get it right or be good enough, and it’s not really any surprise that I got shamed during lockdown for sharing this tongue-in-cheek flowchart I made my kids.

My favourite of the ridiculous eye-rolling responses is from those who say, “well – you chose to have children” – but that doesn’t solve the problem of the achingly long summer break in offices or workspaces or in retail or hospitals or in basically any industry in which human beings with small children work, which is a lot of us, so it’s really quite a pointless thing to say and doesn’t help anyone.

I’m far from alone in feeling dread over the end of term: I hear the collective cries of despair echoed through various school and friend-based WhatsApp groups as we wrangle and bid, barter and swap days. I’m taking a friend’s two kids (and expect my sanity levels to be duly lowered when caring for four children under 10) for a few days while she works; she’s having mine while I do the same. We’ve taken paid and unpaid holiday, we’re going on day trips and adventures, we’re currying favour with playdates and park outings – all while trying not to go completely skint from the blasted ice cream van.

What’s the answer? Well, we could make the summer holidays shorter, we could make it four weeks instead of six (two would do it perfectly but teachers need a proper break, too) – or the government could actually stump up some proper support for parents, for a change. After all, a recent report found that working mothers are disproportionately affected by the summer break, with nearly two-thirds struggling to find enough childcare for the holidays – following on from the way women have been adversely impacted overall by the pandemic.

As for me? The school bell rings in T minus seven hours. I better enjoy these last few moments of quiet while I’ve got them.