Yes, The Invisible Load Of Motherhood Does Get Heavier During Summer

We started planning for it in February. We have spreadsheets and camp fliers, calendars, and costs broken down by each of our five kids, ages 1 to 9. And yet, it still arrived in a flurry and still landed mostly on me, the mom. As someone otherwise very proud of society’s evolution to a more equitable division of the “invisible load,” I’ve noticed that it all seems to go out the window when warm weather and summer break arrive. Why, when I look at the drop-off line for summer camp, is it still mostly moms?

Though a 2023 Pew Research Study found that one in five dads is a stay-at-home father, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in 2023, almost one in four kids under age 15 had a stay-at-home mother. Also, according to a 2022 Pew Research Study, 78% of mothers feel they do the majority of work when it comes to childcare tasks, including managing their children’s schedules and activities. And all parents know activities never get more confusing, complicated, and expensive than when school is over in May or June.

We can point back to that epic event in March 2020, which shall remain nameless, for some of the blame. One study in 2022 shows women’s total work hours fell by 11% in the May to June period, twice the decline of men (with school closures and summer break childcare issues to blame).

Working moms are at an additional risk of becoming completely overwhelmed as they balance work and childcare needs, a struggle that’s been named the “summer ceiling.” The blog The Corporate Sister defines it as a “conglomerate of professional and personal obstacles faced by working mothers during the summer months as a result of the scarcity (or complete lack) of childcare resources, couple equity, and overall gender equality.”

So, if you feel like your life is getting infinitely more difficult as summer closes in, you aren’t alone. New York Times-bestselling author and parenting data scientist Emily Oster wrote in her newsletter: “The two times in the year that I hear the most about mismatched mental load in the family are the holidays and the summer. It is too often the case that one household adult — often mom, in heterosexual couples — holds all of the responsibility here. Summer planning can be especially galling because it is surprisingly complex. The parent who isn’t doing the scheduling may simply have no idea of what is going on.”

She points to the lack of accessible childcare as a major cause. “Many times, I have bemoaned the lack of year-round school,” she wrote.

Social worker and therapist Crystal Britt, who was trained in the Fair Play Method and also co-hosts the podcast Time to Lean about mental load and domestic labor, reports that moms are moving their sessions to more frequent visits in the summer, from every other week to weekly, with the increased demand.

“Additional stressors moms face in the summer include expectations they have of themselves, such as wanting to be fun summer mom, but feeling stressed and anxious about still having to work, as well as meeting the expectations their kids have for the summer, pressures of the financial strain of paying for additional activities, continuing to coordinate meals and snacks with the new summer schedule, strain of adjusting themselves and all kids to the new summer routine, and the expectation of communicating all of this to their partner,” she says. “Oh, and make sure you’re nurturing your marriage/relationship with that partner too.”

Olivia Rutman, mom of three boys five and under and founder and CEO of Kids Care Finder from Carlsbad, California, agrees it can all be so overwhelming. “The summer camp struggle is no joke. I have heard horror stories about overly complex spreadsheets, parents taking three days off work just to book camps, camps selling out the minute they open, and the list goes on,” she says.

So, what can parents do heading into summer? A 2024 study out of Ohio State University offers some suggestions to prevent burnout, which 57% of parents face, including:

Connect with your children in simple ways (it doesn’t have to be elaborate amusement park trips!). Think: being present, listening, being creative, playing with them, and physical affection.

Check unhealthy thinking patterns in yourself, such as judgment around how involved you are as a parent in the summer, and if you have actual evidence to support your worry.

Readjust your expectations to prevent frustration and low self-esteem… if there’s no beach vacation in your kid’s future, but you are keeping them safe and fed, acknowledge your good enough parenting during a tough time with limited child care.

Reflect, then act on your priorities. Just because others have their kids booked with STEM lab activities from morning until dinner doesn’t mean you have to. Maybe your kids thrive by resting and less scheduling, which might take pressure off you, too. Time for free play is powerful, the researchers found.

Start planning incredibly early, and no, it’s not ridiculous to start in January. Oster writes, “Invite your partner if you have one. I’d schedule an hour to sit down with the calendar, with your recollections of the prior summer, and work on a plan. If there are open questions you need to answer, make a plan for answering them (and possibly a follow-up meeting). If there are dates you need to sign up by, put them in the calendar. This meeting is also an opportunity to decide who will do the work and whether there is a way to split it. If you do choose to share the load, think about the principle of total responsibility transfer — split up whole tasks, not pieces of them.”

Work together for cheaper options with other parents. “Many parents in my circle feel the same pressures and pains about summer, and thankfully, many work hybrid or remote like myself,” says Lisa Ockinga, mom of two and chief product officer for Ling, Ltd., a language learning app in Seattle. “We’ve arranged for a rotating experience where, one or two days a week, kids are dropped at mine, and they hang out. Another parent will offer the same in return. At the very least, the kids get interaction with each other and get out of their comfort zones.”

Put those pandemic-times skills to use in this way. “Thinking back to the COVID times, creating the idea of a ‘pod’ or a ‘village mentality’ has helped immensely with the logistics of summer,” says Nikki Macdonald, financial advisor for Northwestern Mutual and mother of two in Arlington, Virginia.

Share the lengthy responsibilities with your partner to increase awareness. Sure, it’s another to-do. But it might be a step in the right direction to divide things up more equitably next summer. As Britt says, “Summer tends to be a time of year that is remembered fondly by the family members who benefit from it (dad, kids), but dreaded by the default partner who arranges for all of those fond memories to happen (mom). This is typically true of the holiday season as well for similar reasons.”

So until things equalize, find a pool and an hour off and make sure you realize summer is for you, too. You’ve more than earned it.

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