The relief, however, is quickly followed by a more panicked: “What on earth am I going to do to keep them entertained all summer?”
After all the false starts and crushed hopes last year, when I held on to our pre-Covid booked plans and tickets until the last minute, hoping for some miracle, I have been reluctant to make any plans at all this year.
In fact, one of my strategies to get through the past six months has been to live in the moment, just focusing on getting through each day and week as it happened, without the mental energy to think further ahead. This has worked pretty well. It has also, however, meant that I am now looking at a family calendar for July and August which is just one big, blank, open space.
“We’ll just do day trips,” I announce cheerfully. But when it comes to thinking of where to go on these day trips I falter. Where to, exactly? Will the beaches not be packed? Will we even get parking? And as I am vaguely contemplating an overnight somewhere, I find myself heading for “but sure, haven’t we got food at home” territory. We’ve been home for over a year already, everyone is comfortabe. Do we really need to be somewhere else?
It might be a long two months.
This mental paralysis, akin to how I feel when trying to think of what to cook for dinner, is not surprising. Living through a pandemic, even for those of us who escaped its more traumatic consequences, is mentally exhausting. And the simple, mundane decisions we used to make without a second thought suddenly came with a whole other set of implications and consequences — literally with the potential to be life-or-death related. Meeting friends. Going to work. Getting your hair cut. Trying to figure out when you could see your parents next.
And while the restrictions to some extent made it easier by taking the decision-making out of our hands, not being able to make these simple choices has had an impact too. Things that used to be within our control were suddenly not. The inability to plan for the future, genuine fears about safety, job security and mental health – our brains are not designed to deal with this level of uncertainty and ambiguity on an ongoing basis. No wonder we are frazzled, and no wonder the simplest things might seem like mammoth tasks right now.
But something needs to go into that calendar.
Like with everything else, we are all in different boats as far as the summer is concerned, too. Not everything is available to everybody. So for everyone looking forward to the staycation they booked months ago, there will be someone who simply cannot afford one. Or who never got it together to book one in the first place. And for everyone who’s finally able to visit and spend long-awaited time with family, there are those whose family might be elsewhere, no longer with them, or unavailable for other reasons. Many will be working through the summer, perhaps with limited childcare options. For those parenting alone family trips might just be that bit more challenging to organise, never mind get through. And the reality is that even with holidays planned, there are still going to be days and weeks of time to fill with…. something.
But regardless of where we are at, I don’t think I am alone in wanting this to be a good summer. One to remember, in a positive way. A bit of respite after a long year. With expectations lowered, sure, and with the knowledge that little things can be as enjoyable as big things.
I ask my kids what they would like to do, what their ideal summer would look like considering we’re not going on any actual holidays. Their requests are simple enough, coloured perhaps by what has been available to them for the past 14 months. Go to the beach. Bake. Arts and crafts and fun stuff. Spending time with their friends.
And armed with this I start making some tentative plans. And figure that it will, somehow, all be OK.
Because here’s the thing. Who am I to say that the Instagram-worthy and according-to-plan days are the best? For all our making-memories hashtags we can’t really control what our children remember from their childhood and what bits are most important to them.
My youngest son recently entertained me with a lengthy recollection of something we had done years ago, which I really had thought nothing of at the time. To him, it had been a brilliant day out. When my daughter was small, I took her to a beautiful children’s theatre production. I had high hopes for it, thinking she would love it. It didn’t go well. She was restless and fidgety and after 20 minutes I admitted defeat and left. I remember being upset that she hadn’t got to enjoy this amazing event I had planned for her, and that on some level I felt she should have done better work at appreciating.
Nothing can make us as frustrated as our kids not enjoying an activity we specifically picked out for their benefit. But then we walked to the bus stop, she jumped in every puddle she could find, we got to sit upstairs at the front seats on the double decker bus and she was ecstatic.
So allow yourself to have aspirations about a fabulous, memory-worthy time, but don’t feel that you need to live up to the fantasy of a happy holiday that you either think other people are having, or that you have in your own mind. Accept the reality of your life, your circumstances, your children’s preferences and personalities. And your own.
Do get up early, pack up and go to the beach or the park if you can. We have so many amazing amenities at our doorstep. Go to Fota. Explore walks you haven’t taken before, places you haven’t visited, or stick with your tried or tested favourites.
And for the days when you can’t, think of little things you can do to make the everyday a bit more special. Abolish bedtimes for a day. Announce an impromptu trip to the shop to buy ice cream. A barbecue for dinner. Balloons. Bubbles (of the soapy kind, although if you fancy some of the drinkable type for yourself, why not). Hot chocolate on a rainy day.
Although do have a look at child-centred offerings like Kinderama, created by Cork-based Stef McSherry, for some guaranteed safe and interactive online content. Or incorporate technology into the outdoor by checking out Wanderful in Dromkeen woods, an augmented reality trail which teaches children about Irish wildlife. Make popcorn and have a movie night. Have a water fight. Embrace a bit of mess.
And take a deep breath and perhaps a sigh of relief. We have come through a long winter, in more ways than one. Let’s enjoy this summer. We’ve earned it.