Highlights
  • Summer can feel overwhelming to working parents, often taking a toll on their mental health.
  • When kids are out of school, parents virtually have to double as domestic CEOs to manage jobs, camps, and vacations.
  • To help prevent burnout, parents can shift their mindset away from unrealistic expectations and from comparisons to other families.
  • Perfection isn’t possible in parenting, especially in summer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find meaning in the longer, messier days.

We are not in Disneyworld. We are not in Ibiza. We are not chartering catamarans or taking month-long road trips in our luxury Airstream so we can cross more national parks off our family bucket list. Instead, we are waking up early to make SunButter sandwiches before delivering our children (if we’re lucky!) to daycare or summer camp or their grandparents’ house, and then we are going to work, just as we do in fall, winter, and spring, and then we are exhausted, and then we are crying, and then we are drinking wine spritzers, and then we are looking at other peoples’ family vacation photos on Instagram, and then we are hungry, and then we are raiding the day’s lunch boxes that we haven’t washed yet, and then we are eating the stale, discarded crusts from the SunButter sandwiches while wondering what’s happening on Lake Como.

There is no hot girl summer for working parents. We scramble to find childcare while school is out of session. We run out of fruit popsicles. We sweat, both literally and figuratively. It can seem as if only the CEO-type parents with color-coded calendars, backup bottles of SPF 100 sunblock, and money to burn will survive until September with their mental health intact. Because all the usual challenges of household management tend to be magnified by the summer’s heat, its lack of routine, and its financial stressors. 

But summer can also be an opportunity to try out new mental health strategies. We don’t have to suffer from June to August, nor do we have to enjoy every moment of sunshine to the fullest. Here are a few practical ways that working parents can adjust their expectations and preserve their mental well-being over the summer months. 

First, a Pep Talk

You can do this, parents! Your family has already survived the worst (hopefully) of the pandemic. Which means that you’ve probably already dealt with fear and stress and depression and remote learning and parental burnout and financial worries and loneliness. In comparison to all that, the summer months might be a breeze.

And keep in mind that a full quarter of your life is summer! Is it honestly realistic that a full quarter of your life would be spent poolside in the Hamptons with a great book while a nanny plays mermaids in the shallow end with your perpetually delighted children? NO. Start thinking of summer like any other season, one which has the potential to be packed with bright and beautiful moments, but which also shouldn’t be expected to support all the fun for the year. That’s just too much nonstop R&R for three months to carry. Summer still contains work, chores, conflicts, boredom, and sadness, despite what the beer ads tell us.

So let’s start by questioning how you frame the summer months in your mind. Have you been trying to replicate the absolute perfection of your childhood summers, when you probably didn’t notice your own parents struggling? Have you been thinking that summer should look and feel a certain way? And if it doesn’t, that you’ve somehow let down your kids? Have you thought of summer as a hurdle, something that your family just has to push through so you can return to the school routine that works, so you haven’t been looking for any beauty or meaning in it? Have you set such lofty expectations for yourself and your summering that there’s no way you can avoid exhaustion, shame, and parental burnout?

Sometimes it can help to identify the thoughts and beliefs that fuel your negative feelings. That’s when you can start feeling some compassion for yourself.    

Summer Survival Tips for Parents

  1. Summer isn’t just about big vacations. It’s also about microbreaks. For example, take a cold shower in the middle of the afternoon on a hot day. Skip a morning meeting in favor of drinking an icy beverage in the sun. Think about what you need to recharge specific batteries. For example, parents of younger kids might need a nap due to sheer physical exhaustion. Parents of adolescents and teenagers may need to vent to a friend because they’re emotionally spent from arguing over phones and freedoms. You can rue the fact that you’re not Gwyneth Paltrow and you can’t go to a luxury resort by yourself for a week, or you can shift your expectations and find little, mindful moments for self-care.
  2. Explore your community resources. Because you are definitely not alone in your parental desperation, the chances are high that your community offers inexpensive childcare options through Parks & Rec or the YMCA. You might be able to afford to treat yourself (and your kids!) to a week of fun activities, even if you don’t sign them up out of necessity because you’re working. Community organizations often host free family events during the summer, from outdoor movie screenings to kid-friendly concerts, so check your local listings and get some dates on the calendar.
  3. Use your evenings. The reality of summer is that we tend to stay up later and kids’ bedtimes inevitably get pushed back here and there. If you feel as if you’re missing out because you have to work during the day, then arrange more activities at night. Attend an evening baseball game or go out for ice cream and a walk after dinner. You don’t have to get sunburned to find meaningful time with your family. And your kids can return to their regular schedule in the week before school starts.
  4. Be willing to modify, not break, healthy habits. Your summers might not be as structured as your school years, and your routines probably won’t be perfect, but you still need to cover the basics: a nutritious diet, regular exercise, and ample sleep. But this still leaves room for flexibility. For example, maybe you’re used to jogging outside in cooler weather. In the summer, you might switch to air-conditioned workouts. And if you accept that your family will be eating more dinners out, you can plan to supplement those meals with healthier breakfasts. 
  5. Plan as best you can. Not every parent is an expert planner. Some moms and dads map out their summer a full year in advance, while others wing it from weekend to weekend. But it usually requires some forethought to plan a summer vacation and/or juggle camp and work schedules. If you have trouble with time management and long-term planning, ask a friend or family member to help you get organized. Don’t be ashamed if you get overwhelmed by looking ahead. You bring other strengths to your household. Sometimes planning and anticipating a future event can even deliver a rush of dopamine to a stressed brain. If you’re having a mentally taxing summer and don’t have any vacation days left, start thinking about the fall or winter holidays. 
  6. Get a mental health screening. It’s possible that your feelings of burnout, sadness, or FOMO are indicative of more than typical summer parenting stress. Depression can sometimes have a summer onset, called summer-onset seasonal affective disorder, reverse SAD, or summer SAD. Talk to a licensed counselor or therapist if you think you might need additional mental health support.

It’s Always Parenting Season

Parents can become “over-kidded,” overwhelmed, or burnt out in any season, not just summertime. All the days add up to seasons, and the seasons to years. Routines won’t stay the same as children age. So the best thing we parents can do is learn coping strategies to deal with change, the ultimate through line. We continue to love our children and find meaning in both their structured time and their chaos. And we continue to find ways of connecting, no matter how long or short the days.