How I Manage My Summer Blues as an At-Home Parent
Yes, summer seasonal affective disorder is a thing
The days get longer, the Florida humidity switches from annoying to relentless, the school year winds down, and my depression ramps up. These are all things I can count on as the calendar flips to May each year.
May is a tumultuous month for me. It’s my birth month, which used to be fun, I guess, but is now a trigger for my aging and death anxiety. It’s also the birth month of my youngest child, which serves as a reminder of my other recurring anxiety — my children growing up and growing away from me. Finally, school gets out in May, bringing with it a disruption in daily routines, more pressure on me to “perform” longer each day as an at-home parent, and increased financial anxieties stemming from increased bills for summer activities for the kids.
On top of all that, I live in Florida, so it is hot. Seriously hot. A kind of hot that claws at doors and windows trying to get in. Pushing to penetrate our climate-controlled oases. While many people suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in the winter months, perhaps it’s not so surprising that my blue season is summer (10% of those with SAD experience increased depression symptoms during the late spring and summer).
Florida winters are glorious. Bright sun, comfortable temperatures, and the alligators are much more chill.
On the other hand, Florida summers are long and brutal. If you want to find out what soup feels like, walk outside for a few minutes after a Florida afternoon thunderstorm in July. Then you’ll understand. Not what it feels like to be submerged in a giant bowl of soup. No, you’ll understand what it would feel like if your body was converted into minestrone and you had to traverse the earth in that form.
Anyway, while I’m feeling particularly soupy as summer approaches, I employ various strategies to help me get by.
Stay on top of my mental health
This sounds simple and very broad, I know, but as an at-home parent of three children ages seven and under, my responsibilities caring for others can make it easy to forget that I have to take care of myself as well.
During my more vulnerable periods, I need to be extra careful not to forget about my needs.
For me, simply being aware of my mental health is important. That’s why I try to “check-in” each day and remind myself that feelings I’m having — loss of interest in activities and irritability — are symptoms and transient ones.
Positive thoughts like “this is temporary, you’ve come through this before” help me regroup and restart.
Establish new routines
I’m big on routines. Routines keep me motivated and moving in the right direction. Routines help prevent me from overthinking.
Routines can also be difficult to establish and maintain with small children in the house. Particularly during the summer when school is out.
That’s why I try to establish new routines as quickly as possible once summer vacation starts. Typically, I leave a week after school lets out unscheduled to allow the kids and me to decompress and relax. Honestly, it’s mostly for the kids. I know they need unscheduled time to wind down. It’s easier for me to just keep going with our neatly scheduled days and nights.
After the first week, I make sure to enroll the kids in activities when possible. This year, my two oldest will do tennis camp for four hours in the morning, four days per week. While they are busy, I will take my youngest to the library or park or run errands.
Then we all have our afternoons free for unscheduled play and we can keep our dinner and bedtime routines mostly the same as they are during the school year.
This revamped schedule is the structure I need to stay motivated. Over the years I’ve learned that wide expanses of unscheduled time are not good for my mental health, so I take steps to avoid them.
Cut back on personal expenses
Another stressor for me during the summer months is personal finances. Summer activities for kids are expensive, but we choose to invest in them because they are valuable to us (both because they are fun for the kids and for the reasons I highlighted above).
Also, because I make money to supplement my wife’s full-time income by doing freelance writing and editing, summers can be challenging because I typically have less time to work. Thus, we get squeezed from both sides. We have more money going out and less coming in.
Our solution? Cutting back on discretionary spending. This primarily means fewer take-out meals and entertainment that costs money. Preparing more meals at home also gives me another task to complete, which is good because it gives me more purpose and structure. And cutting back on entertainment costs is easy because when you have kids, who really has the time or energy to go out for fun anyway?
Survive and advance
Finally, this isn’t so much a strategy as a mantra. Coaches often preach to their teams when they’re competing in the playoffs the only thing that matters is the result.
You have to survive and advance to the next round.
When the going gets tough. When the days get long. When I feel like I just can’t play toys with my toddler for five more minutes. When my kids are having a difficult day and just can’t get along with each other. When I feel my mental health slipping. That’s when the survival mantra does its work.
A little extra TV. A few minutes alone in the bedroom to lie down and regroup. Potato chips and popcorn for dinner. Some days I have to do whatever it takes to make it to the next day.
And that’s okay. Every day is important, but every day is not life and death. And that’s something I have to remember. Particularly during the summer.