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Staring down the Spreadsheet of Doom
Or, my ongoing struggle with summer care
I started The Spreadsheet of Doom back in January, when summer still felt like a very distant memory. But the question had already started gnawing at me: what were we going to do for summer?
Until the pandemic, this was a question I never had to ask. My daughter started at a day care center when she was about 4 months old, and happily stayed on for their summer-care program when she aged up into kindergarten. But when COVID hit, the summer program went away. And so The Spreadsheet of Doom was born.
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The Spreadsheet has 11 rows, for the 11 weeks of summer vacation that we get in New York, starting in late June and ending around Labor Day. Right now, it’s mostly full of blanks, and question marks, and when I look at it, I am filled with a sort of desperation and hopelessness, because turning those question marks into something more definite feels impossible on many levels.
Some blobby stats
Finding summer care is a vexing and deeply personal challenge for all the American families who don’t have an adult caregiver at home when school is out. And that means most of us: even with the pandemic pushing many people out of the workforce, U.S. Census Bureau data suggests that fewer than 3% of parents are staying home with their children.
This statistic is a blobby one, without a lot of detail. It doesn’t capture things like parents who work while their kids are sleeping, or at school; or parents who juggle work-from-home with caregiving; or all the parents I know in our college town who are 10-month employees and get time off in the summer. But it does suggest that nearly all American parents are juggling caregiving with work responsibilities in some way.
So what does that mean in summertime? For me, it means what it means for most parents, according to a 2018 survey: we “cobble together a patchwork of care and camps to make their summers work.” The survey found that nearly half of all families rely on vacation time and/or help from family members to fill in “the yawning gap of time that we’ve built into our school cycle” (their words, not mine, but I feel that yawning gap in my very bones).
About a quarter of families send kids to day camp — one of the options I’m considering — but fewer than 10% will send their child to sleepaway camp (also on my spreadsheet). And about 17% of families will leave their child at home alone during the summer — something I have flirted with too.
But a note of urgency has been added to the Spreadsheet of Doom this year, as it’s become increasingly clear that long days and nights sitting around home are not great for my kid’s mental health. No, she seems to thrive to her fullest when she’s out and about, around people, doing stuff and trying new things and engaging with the world around her. So, as much as it sounds great to have a free range summer, that also feels like perhaps not the right choice for this particular season of our lives. Thus, the Spreadsheet has been dusted off for yet another year.
Startled nocturnal animals
In her 2018 book “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America,” Alissa Quart of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project writes about the “falling middle-class vortex,” in which families like mine “feel like startled nocturnal animals” as incomes fail to keep pace with the expenses of family life, and parents worry about “tumbling out of … class position.”
When I stare at the Spreadsheet of Doom, it is that vortex that stares back at me. Outside the vortex are families that sit on either side of the ever-widening income inequality gap — and the cultural divide that accompanies it. As the sociologist Jess Calarco explained in an interview with author Anne Helen Petersen, “Most families that earn less than $30,000 a year depend on family members for child care, while those that earn more than $75,000 are more likely to enroll young children in day care.”
Regardless of income, we all somehow make it through all 11 weeks of summer. But there’s a big gap between $30,000 and $75,000. And I’m right in the middle of it, a startled nocturnal animal with a spreadsheet, tumbling into a vortex.
Last year I made the mistake of adding a new column to The Spreadsheet of Doom — one that totaled up how much all the different summer programs cost. When the SUM formula worked its instantaneous magic and I saw the total pop up in its cell, I had to lie down for a moment and think about all the life choices that had led me to this point.
There’s a big gap between $30,000 and $75,000. And I’m right in the middle of it, a startled nocturnal animal with a spreadsheet, tumbling into a vortex.
Because, in a way, this is a vortex of my own making — and one that puts me in the minority. As I read Calarco’s analysis of the summer-care problem, one statement shook me to my very core. The average American adult, Calarco says, lives only 18 miles from their mother. And 80% of U.S. adults live less than about two hours’ drive away. The exception to that rule, Calarco explained? “Dual-earner, elite professional couples.”
It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem, it’s me
“Most parents don’t take part in the ‘summer scramble’ to find and sign up for half a dozen different specialty and overnight camps before the slots disappear,” Calarco went on to say, adding, “And only 20% of US parents pay more than $3,000 for all of their kids’ summer care.”
I do not feel “elite,” and only vaguely “professional” on the best of days, but I know what Calarco means. My husband and I are college-educated, working in white-collar professions. So this thing that I had sort of told myself was just a huge problem for EVERYONE is really, maybe, a problem I have created for through my own choices.
And I can feel the sinking feeling in my gut as I read her words, and calculate the distance between my mother and me. The number of miles is almost identical to the number of dollars I will probably spend on summer care this year — and the distance has never felt farther than it does in that moment.
But like so many people I know, leaving my home town seemed like the right move when I was 20, and work, homeownership, marriage and parenting have kept me anchored where I landed ever since. I didn’t know then what I know now: that it would be hard to make friends as an adult, and harder to keep them. That I might have a kid who wasn’t content to spend her summer days running around in the yard, like I used to do. That not just expectations, but rules and laws, about supervising kids can change, so that what worked when I was a kid doesn’t really work anymore.
I know all that now. That’s why I have the Spreadsheet of Doom. But I wish I had something more — more choices, more affordability, more care, more community. Things that I can’t find in my late-night searches for summer programs. Things that I haven’t figured out how to get — not yet.