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School summer holidays are great . . . for the kids

Jennifer O’Connell: I love long vacations – when I’m participating in them

We recently took our first real, full-length family holiday in five years. By real and full-length, I mean not the kind of American-style vacation we might have been forced to adopt if we had continued living in the United States.

There, holidays have to be organised like military campaigns, in which participants are forced to trudge through 11 European countries in five days – with no idea where they are at any given moment as Amsterdam whizzes past, and then Copenhagen, until they find themselves in Kerry, wondering if they can get tickets to the Louvre or if this is the day they’re going bungee jumping in Dubrovnik. They have to treat their holidays like this, as they only get nine days a year.

Instead, we took two weeks and stayed in one country for the whole time. For those couple of weeks, I became a younger, lighter, more likable version of myself. I stayed resolutely off Twitter and Facebook. I read nothing with the word "Trump" in it.

I skipped all the cathedrals and museums in favour of reading slightly trashy novels, drinking slightly trashy rosé, wearing a slightly trashy swimsuit that, disappointingly, turned out to be practically modest in Italy, where the bottom half of a bikini has become so slight it's now officially optional. I swam in the Mediterranean and in verdant river pools.


When I say “swam”, I mean lolled about partially submerged, wondering what would be so wrong with having a midlife crisis and becoming an Italian goat herder or a ricotta cheese maker. I became the kind of smug European bellend who uses words like “verdant”’ and dreams of making cheese.

Long school holidays

By the second week, a low-level thrum of panic had begun to take hold in anticipation of the logistical nightmare awaiting me when I got home: otherwise known as the eternity of leave that Irish schoolchildren get every summer.

Don’t get me wrong. I love long holidays – when I’m participating in them. And I don’t mean participating in the sense of sitting at the kitchen table with three spreadsheets and the brochures for seven kinds of camps arranged in front of me as I try to calculate how to make our combined eight weeks’ annual leave stretch to cover my children’s apparently never-ending school holidays.

Taking your work with you to the beach isn't really an option if you're a vascular surgeon or a shop assistant

Summer camps and grandparents are supposed to fill the gap created when it stopped being socially acceptable to hunt your children out of the back door at 8am, and lock it behind them with instructions not to come home before 5pm. But camps have inconvenient habits – like refusing to take toddlers, costing somewhere between €60 and several hundred euro a week, and finishing at, say, 2.10pm every day except Wednesday.

Besides, most children will tolerate basketball tournaments or learning the lyrics to West Side Story or, if you're that kind of parent, personalised debating coaching, with a bunch of kids they've never met for a week or two at most, before they stage a rebellion and beg to be taken home to their Xbox. Grandparents, meanwhile, have inconvenient habits like having lives of their own.

Holidays are all very well, but when both parents work outside the home, “summer” means a series of minor childcare emergencies, stop-gap solutions, favours called in, children left to fester in front of screens, articles filed from cars parked outside swimming pools.

At around this time every year, someone will crop up on Facebook with an inspirational meme pointing out that you only have about 18 summers with your children, and you should stop being a total killjoy and just enjoy them. They tend to be lighter on advice on how you’re supposed to negotiate this with your employer.

It’s tricky enough if you’re a remote worker, but you can always get by with the help of wireless hot spots and lots of bribes. Taking your work with you to the beach isn’t really an option if you’re a vascular surgeon or a shop assistant or a goat herder.

Financial crumbs

Endless summer holidays are a construct of the days when mothers were always at home, houses cost about €35 so only needed one income to pay the mortgage, and organised childcare meant Saturday mornings in front of Anything Goes – and when children were supposed to help out on farms, not spend their eight or 12 weeks of summer holidays playing Fortnite.

The only way to navigate the summer is to approach it like you're perched at the top of Space Mountain about to begin your descent

I’m not calling for the abolition of summer holidays. I fancy taking lots more of them myself. But if we’re going to keep giving students and teachers up to three months off, we need to throw a crumb to their parents – a financial crumb.

When I worked in the US, to make up for our paltry nine days' annual leave, my employer subsidised a scheme I could contribute to tax-free and claim back €500 towards summer camps. In Silicon Valley, that equalled roughly one week in Lego Minecraft camp, but it was better than nothing.

In the meantime, the only way to navigate the summer is to approach it like you’re perched at the top of Space Mountain about to begin your descent – hold on tight, screw up your eyes and scream. It’ll be over soon.