Summer Wasteland

For a single parent with a low income, summer is hell.

My first stint of single parenting was from 1995-96. I was a rural pastor, on minimum salary, with very few resources to drawn on, and my children were very small: 2 and 5 at the beginning of the divorce, 4 and 7 by the time I remarried almost two years later. During the school year, they were with me weekends and holidays. During the summer, I alternated entire weeks. Early on, I discovered a painful reality: on my parenting weeks, I had no freedom. I could only visit people who enjoyed children. I had to do all my office work from home. And I could forget about exercising. They were just too small to be by themselves, and I didn't know my new congregation well enough to ask for babysitting help.

Fortunately, rural ministers enjoy far greater flexibility than practitioners of almost any other trade or profession I'm aware of. I survived my first summer largely unscathed, and by the second, I had gained enough experience and confidence to fare far better on my parenting weeks. Three years later, when I became a single parent once more, the summer question was moot: the kids were old enough to go to camp. I also didn't see much of them the first summer of the second divorce for reasons I will not go into in this space. The summer after that, I was no longer a minister, and had all the flexibility I could ever want. Ever since, my summers have been blessed with an absence of work responsibilities, whether it was because I was without a job (2000-2002) or had completed my reentry into public school teaching, and wasn't working summers, anyway.

Still, I look back on the summer of 1995 as an especially hard time for me and my children. Apart from adjusting to the divorce, there really was no way to adequately juggle my professional and parental responsibilities. Had I held a job that involved reporting to a workplace during office hours, I would have been in dire straits, and I knew it. I felt fortunate to be able to work around my children's demanding schedule, rather than having to fit them into mine.

This gives me an extra dose of empathy for Debra Harrell, the South Carolinian mother who was arrested, and had her daughter placed in foster care, for letting the child spend the day in the park while Ms. Harrell reported to work at a McDonald's a mile and a half away. The nine-year-old child had a cell phone, but was otherwise completely on her own. At lunchtime, she walked back to her mother's workplace to eat, then returned to the park for the afternoon. This apparently happened for several days in a row before a concerned citizen called the police.

One can speculate on the racial aspects of this story (Ms. Harrell is African-American), and note, as does the poorly-written TV news story, that the state does have child care programs assistance programs available to low-income parents. But thinking back to my own single-parenting on a shoestring budget, I'm reminded of how hard it was to think during my parenting weeks. In retrospect, I'm sure there were plenty of surrogate grandparents available to watch my children, perhaps even on a regular basis, not to mention my own parents who lived just ten miles away from the town where I was appointed; but the stress of adjusting to a new congregation, of creating a single-parenting life from scratch while in the midst of a painful divorce, and of simply being with small children 24-7, overloaded my thought processes to the point that I just could not think clearly.

The experience of having too many stresses in one's life to be able to think clearly is called bandwidth poverty. The concept is simple: the more survival challenges the brain must cope with, the less it is able to engage in higher-order reasoning. Parenting without a partner is a huge stress all by itself: there's just no time to oneself. I came to treasure nap time, the only time all day that I could concentrate on writing sermons, making phone calls, planning worship services, not to mention taking a little time for myself. Now take that stress and compound it with the task of working at a minimum wage job without child care. If it were me, I suspect I'd have to have a social worker sticking a pamphlet under my nose and reading the information about child care to me, then helping me fill out and submit the forms, before I'd be in a state to apply for such a thing. There's just too much on this woman's plate for her to think clearly.

And now to that terrible bit of parenting: leaving her daughter at a park all day. The summer I was 10, I had very few summer programs to participate in. Rural Filer, Idaho offered a few arts and crafts classes to children, and I played little league baseball, but for the most part, my younger brother Stephen and I were on our own. Our mother had her hands full with the two other boys in the family, who were aged 1 and 5. So we rode our bicycles (no helmets!) all over town, played in vacant lots, went to the library, hung out in the youth room at our father's church, met up with friends, used the playground equipment at the elementary school, all of it without supervision. We did spend some time at home--we had a swing set and sandbox in our back yard, and were both voracious readers--but whether at home or on the far side of town, we were completely on our own, setting our own agendas, playing our own games, coming home for lunch and then heading back out for another adventure.

Our parents thought nothing of this. Now, if we were out too late, there would certainly be trouble--I remember one evening when my brother Jon was so late coming home after school that my mother became extremely distraught--but such things hardly ever happened. The one accident I had occurred in our own back yard, when I broke my arm being stupid on the slide. We were all schooled in "stranger danger"--there's nothing new about this variety of paranoia--but in truth, such incidents were so rare, and our parents knew this, that they lost no sleep over it. So our summers were magical times for practicing independence.

A lot has changed since 1971. Parents no longer feel secure letting their children roam around town. Those who can afford it send their children to camp, whether it's day camps they are dropped off at and picked up from, or sleep-away camps they stay at for entire weeks, or even months. Camp is a wonderful experience, one I was fortunate to have as a teenager, and I don't begrudge at all the structured, mediated approach to giving children some independence from their parents. But it's expensive, and there's no way a minimum wage worker like Debra Harrell could afford it.

Some schools in low-income neighborhoods offer day programs for children during the summer that provide them with meals, activities, and literacy and math coaching, but for the most part, these children and their often single parents have nothing to fall back on. If they're lucky, there may be extended family members who can care for them while their parents are at work. If they're not, they may well find themselves alone in an apartment, left to their own devices.

Just as I was.

This country needs to take a long, deep breath, and think about what we do to our children when we project our darkest fears about stranger abductions on them. Children are three times more likely to be abducted by a family member than a stranger, and vastly more likely to be injured or killed in the back seat of their parents' car. The simple reality is that the world is nowhere near as scary a place as modern parents think it is; in fact, it's actually a much safer place than it was in our own childhoods. Bicycle helmets, child-proofed playground equipment, proliferating pedestrian crossings, and everywhere, including in the hands of even poor children, cell phones. And don't even get me started on how quickly a random adult will call 911 if he or she believes some strange child is at risk by, say, being alone at the park for too long. Yes, we need to lighten up and let children have adventures away from their parents' all-seeing eyes.

Of course, we also need to start supporting low-income working parents with affordable child care, better wages, and benefits, but that's another story. The moral of this story is simple: get a grip, and let kids be kids.


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