Ann Taylor Fleming on the Summer Daze

July 15, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Here now is essayist Anne Taylor Fleming with some thoughts about mothers and summertime.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: In the summer, I don’t live in the present. Part of me always lives in the past, in those aimless Coppertone-coated summer days of my childhood. Mostly in my memory I live here on this beach in Santa Monica. This is where my family and I spent endless summer hours, swimming, chatting, eating squishy sandwiches dusted with sand, and drinking warm bottled Coca-Cola.

Some days we toted along a friend or two, but you could hardly dignify that by calling it a play date–an arrangement that has to be planned these days by two working mothers with the precision of drill sergeants. I watch today’s mothers now with empathy and distress–America’s hard working, middle class moms, never more so than in the summer. That’s their worst time of year because the kids are out of school. What to do with them?

Can’t just let them pedal their bikes down to the beach, or the local park and hang out like we used to do. Oh, no. The very idea sends shivers of concern up the parental spine–predators, usually more imagined than real, lurking behind every umbrella. Leave them at home alone? No way. You’ve got to get those kids scheduled. The working world does not shut down in the summer. Companies run.

The stock market buzzes. Construction goes on. Cops work their beats. Doctors operate. Welcome to late 20th century America, a beehive of workaholics. With the movement of women into the workplace, you have a very different world than the one where Dad brought home the bacon and Mom cooked it and raised the children, all those sitcom families.

Now, women are working an average of 41.7 hours a week and men 48.8 hours. And most families require two breadwinners to make ends meet, to keep kids in Nikes, and pay the mortgage or the rent, not to mention having enough to take a summer vacation. Beyond the economic realities, there is something else behind the country’s workaholism, something sociologist Arlie Hochschild talks about in her provocative new book, “The Time Bind.”

What happened, she says, is that there’s been a total flip in our national life. Despite the uneasiness caused by downsizing corporations in the past decade, for many, workplaces have become the havens, retreats where they hang out with buddies, joke and complain, but where the expectations are clear and the rewards are tangible. It’s the home front that’s the problem. That’s where the real stress is–all the roiling, defeating needs of loved ones, all the varied demands of children, not to mention the piles of dirty dishes and dirty laundry.

Raising children is a messy, emotional, and difficult business, as is marriage often. So it’s easy to understand perhaps why so many of us would seek the escape that work offers. So here we are in deepest summer, and a fair number of America’s kids are scheduled to the max, given the work schedules of their parents–day camps, summer schools, sleep-away camps. They have camps now for everything: camps for computer whizzes and soccer stars, for budding musicians and would-be actors. And the theme parks will no doubt be packed, kids being shuttled from a Disney World here to a water park there. This one is not far from my house. Watching the kids swim and surf on these manmade waves, I want to ask, hey, what’s wrong with the real ones?

A half hour drive and you could be riding real waves. But there’s no planned amusement here on Santa Monica’s beach, where I used to wile away my summers–just sand and sea and sun, and the pervasive sense of idleness, of endless summer days stretching towards the horizon.

I guess for today’s working moms and overscheduled kids, that’s just too much to handle.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.