Help my wife not go insane.
June 14, 2012 10:56 AM   Subscribe

How can I best support my wife, a stay-at-home-mom, during the summer when she's home alone with a sometimes difficult ten year old boy?

My wife is a stay-at-home mom. Our son is ten and an only child. Most of his friends will be away at camp or otherwise unavailable for most of the summer. There will be play dates occasionally but they can be difficult to set up. For a good chunk of the summer it will be just the two of them. I work full time, with an hour commute each way. I am a very supportive and active husband and father when I’m available.

School ended yesterday and she’s been dreading the summer since about April.

My son, a great kid, is ten and sort of halfway between being a kid and being a surly pre-teen. Responses to questions are often one word or grunts. He would be happy playing Minecraft all day long. We limit his screen time (it will be extended a bit over the summer, of course) and want him to be a well-rounded kid with outside time, reading time, etc. For the most part he is. We plan to give him additional “productive” screen time with things like Khan Academy and/or programming tutorials. He enjoys these things but seems to have a limited attention span for them.

My wife is adventurous. She has plans for the summer. Camping trips, day trips to the beach, etc. There will also be some periods of day camp for my son. They won’t just be home all day, every day. However even with day trips she says she feels like she’s in the car alone, as our son will just stick his head in a book for the entire trip. It will mostly be just the two of them.

The bottom line is they’re both going to be lonely and occasionally sick of each other. There will be some time with friends but not much. “Go out and play” doesn’t work all day, every day, especially when most of the kids his age are unavailable. Most of my wife’s friends work so she’ll have very little interaction with adults. I’ll have vacation time later in the summer, but other than that I won’t have too many other options. I might occasionally be able to take a day or an afternoon off but that won’t be too often.

How can I help her/them? How can I support her so she doesn’t go insane? How can she support herself? I realize this is a pretty open question. I'm looking for practical advice ("surprise her by hiring a sitter for a day") as well as ways of helping her cope emotionally ("Go on dates every Friday.")

We are in the Boston area, if that matters.

Please note this is not a parenting question. I don’t want to hear about the pros and cons of limited screen time. The fact that you were able to entertain yourself for the whole summer back in 1973 is irrelevant. Additionally, hiring a nanny while my wife goes out and works isn’t an option, certainly not in the short term. For now she chooses to be a stay-at-home-mom. Therapy and depression are questions for another day, and have been addressed when/if needed. This is a question about supporting my wife during a long couple months when she has few options. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well you note that a lot of his friends will be at camps... have you looked into this option? If you don't have the money there are probably still day camps that last a week or two around. This would give her some time off, especially if it's well timed to be 1/2way through the summer to split up the time nicely. Check with your son's school -- I'm pretty sure the day camp I went to growing up was through the school district and they offered both full weeks and pay-by-the-day type of things.
posted by DoubleLune at 11:00 AM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Send him off to camp himself for a few weeks?
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:00 AM on June 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

When my sisters and I were around this age, my family joined a neighborhood summer pool club, and we spent a lot of our summer days at the pool. Mom could sit and suntan, we swam until we were exhausted.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:02 AM on June 14, 2012 [9 favorites]

As far as the "silent" car trips, perhaps your wife and son could pick out an audiobook to listen to together? They wouldn't be conversing, but the reading might then be a shared experience which they could talk about later.

Does he have any cousins around his age? My second cousin and I were almost exactly the same age and would take turns visiting each other (she lived in upstate New York, I lived in Philadelphia). This might mean more work for your wife, and there might be days when all the two of them did was play Minecraft, but they'd be doing it together, at least.
posted by tully_monster at 11:08 AM on June 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

He needs some structured activities with other kids. Look into tennis lessons, swim lessons, summer camps, etc. There should be some options that are fairly low cost through the local school and recreation people. He won't be the only kid in the same situation.
posted by impishoptimist at 11:16 AM on June 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

Some kind of camp might be really great for him. Alternately, my local YM-YWHA and the local community college offers classes pretty cheaply, and it's something my mom did with my younger sisters when they were camp-averse. A few hours per week doing something cool together might be nice (or the kid can be dropped in one class while mom gets a pedicure or goes swimming). Around here there are classes in different cultures, stuff in art studios, various kinds of sports, swimming, etc.

(One of my sisters enjoyed this kind of thing so much as a kid/pre-teen that she ended up volunteering and then working at the YWHA when she was a teen.)
posted by shamash at 11:17 AM on June 14, 2012

Give him responsibilities. 10 year old level. In the car, have him read a map to help with directions. At home, have him walk around the house making note of all the windows that need washing. Then pay him 5 minutes of computer time for every window he washes. Have him help plan and help cook dinners. Have daily routines that take time such as walking or driving to Dunkin Donuts to get a donut and a chocolate milk.

To me, the key is defining a line between being an engaged parent and being his entertainment and play pal.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:23 AM on June 14, 2012 [7 favorites]

i am the type of partner that likes to "fix" when my spouse vents or expresses frustration, i get hung up on coming up with a solution. sometimes she just wants me to hear her and be sympathetic. my suggestions are 1) be a good listener 2) when you do get home from your very long day, try to entertain your kid in a way that gives your wife a little down time 3) if your wife drinks alcohol...make sure there is always a tasty chardonnay in the fridge for that ever important early evening glass. i hope this does not come across sarcastically because we have twins (only 3 years old though) and these are tricks that work for me.
posted by orangemacky at 11:24 AM on June 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Make it your habit to take over the second you walk in the door -- use your long commute home to mentally decompress so that the moment you're home you're available. Send your wife out, if that's her style. Or, take your kid out for a walk or something, if she's the type who'd just prefer to have a moment at home for herself. Ask her to plan an evening out with her girlfriends and happily babysit during that period. Send her out for a pedicure -- you get the idea, tailor your treats to whatever she likes.

Can you hire someone to clean the house once a week? Once every other week? Once a month?

Can you call frequently during the day to check in? If those long cartimes are boring for her, how about getting her an iPod and downloading her favorite music and/or podcasts that she can listen to.

Basically -- JUST STAY ON IT. It's easy to be kind to her during the first two weeks of summer. How about the next 8-10 weeks.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:28 AM on June 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

things like Khan Academy and/or programming tutorials. He enjoys these things but seems to have a limited attention span for them.

How about a programming or game design class at a local school instead? When I was his age, my parents sent me to various summer school classes in topics I liked (art, photography, sewing), as well as some more "enrichment"-type classes (science classes at the school that hosted my art classes, a series of classes at the nature center in a local forest preserve). I wouldn't have sat still alone at home for more than 15 minutes working on those things, but the classes kept me busy for at least a few hours a day. I'm sure if you'd asked me at the time, I would have said I preferred to be able to just stay home and watch TV all day, but I have positive memories of those classes.

If he's in half-day classes, your wife can tackle a personal project at home, take a class herself, or find activities where she could meet people who are stay-at-home-moms or otherwise have a similar schedule to hers.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:32 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

There will also be some periods of day camp for my son. They won’t just be home all day, every day.

Are there any high school boys (neighbors, sons of coworkers, ask at the local high school for a nice kid who needs a few bucks) who could be enticed with a nominal honorarium and pizza to come over to your place and rough-house/play Minecraft/watch ESPN/kick a soccer ball around/etc with your son for a few hours (say three or four? If you include a meal that's pretty doable.) a few days a week (say three?). And maybe take your son to the park, arcade, etc sometimes? Even two hours twice a week would be a break. It would sort of occupy a space between babysitter, mother's helper, and friend. I'm thinking a maturish 15-year-old would be perfect, especially if he's done some cool thing that your son finds interesting (mountain biking? sports? video game tournament? robotics team?). An extra bonus would be if this is an exceptionally polite 15-year-old who says yes ma'am and no ma'am and will scoff, "Not cool, dude," when your son is a bit surly to your wife.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:38 AM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Free Fun Fridays!

I would also suggest she plan non-car trips. Like, seriously, the two of them should look at a map, pick a train station off the commuter rail, do a little research about what is around that train station, and hop on it.

Gloucester and Ipswich have great beaches close to the commuter rail. Salem has tons of stuff by way of ghost tours and the like that a 10 year old might like. Plimouth Plantation is not far at the Plymouth train station stop, etc. And riding the train can sometimes be more interactive than sitting in the car.

There's also the view from the top of the Prudential Center with a neat little immigrant museum-y thing there, and Somerville has the Museum of Bad Art that could be funny for a 10 year old.

They could also ride bikes on the Minute Man path in Arlington for a day, have lunch somewhere, and then ride back along the path. There's parking available at the path if you're to far from Arlington to walk.

There's a lot to do in the Boston area for kids his age, and a lot of it can be free and can sorta force some more interaction between them. Though I think on key thing here is that your wife is going to have to be assertive enough to say, "We are doing X, Y, or Z tomorrow. Which of these would you like to do?" Giving him some choices in what to do while still making something to do happen might be a good approach.
posted by zizzle at 11:43 AM on June 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

I started a paper route when I was ten (the boyfriend started his at SEVEN, proving that my parents were not the only slave-drivers around). I know those are kind of non-existent nowadays, but is there any kind of business he could start? Offering to mow lawns for neighbors, walking their dogs during the day, watering plants while they're on vacation? Maybe he can teach himself to design websites if he's into computers.

Also, I had a brother, but by the time the oldest of us was 10, we spent our summers alone at home. Relatives were nearby and would stop in or we could call them if we had an emergency, but he might be old enough to spend a few hours a day by himself while your wife does her own thing.
posted by jabes at 11:48 AM on June 14, 2012

Are there projects they can work on together?

-A vegetable garden if you have a backyard, or a community garden plot if you don't.

-Home repair projects like painting, building shelves, whatever. If your wife has no such skills maybe they can find a class to take together.

-Volunteer activity they can do together.

-Physical fitness goals like both working up to running a half-marathon.
posted by mareli at 11:58 AM on June 14, 2012

I like doing the free(ish) Summer break stuff -- Library, hiking, disc-golf, yard games, ....
posted by ducktape at 12:08 PM on June 14, 2012

Things I would want from Mr Corpse were I in that situation, which is not entirely unfamiliar to me:

- Knowing when he's going to be home in the evening
- "Buck up, soldier" texts
- Scheduled time to myself, e.g. I can have mornings until 7:30 so I can go for a walk or to the Y or what have you
- He takes the kid out to do stuff on weekends occasionally
- Sympathy
- Lunch dates for the whole family

I love your small-type aside
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:27 PM on June 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

I wonder if the problem here isn't so much a surly kid problem as a lonely mom problem. That's not to say that I'm not empathetic--kids that age can be beasts, and I'm sure it's especially painful if they were close in the past and your wife gets a lot of definition out of her role as a mom. But your son sounds pretty introverted and your wife seems unhappy not necessarily wholly due to stuff like staring at a screen but also positive solo activities like burying oneself in a book.

So I'd encourage her to find a meet-up group of moms of teenagers (or maybe found one, if there's none in her area!). She might try to find people to meet at a local bookstore or library. That way, she can chat with some peers, and your son can comb the stacks for new reading material. I think a community pool is good in the same way--he can hang out and read or draw or whatnot while she gets some social time or some exercise in. At ten, he's going to be starting to individuate from your wife, big time, and the more her emotional needs are met in other ways, the smoother the transition will go.

Honestly, I think much of this will be much more bearable for her if she lets him take a more active hand in planning activities. What's he into? What would he like to do? Would he be willing to go for hikes or long evenings walks with your wife, maybe once a week? Are there any TV shows he wants to get into that they can watch together? I'm fine with no Minecrat time, but were I a modern kid, I suspect stuff like Khan Academy during summer would feel a lot like homework. What's he passionate about that he doesn't get to do during the school year? Sports, history, robots? Unstructured time can be a boon for a lot of kids, who don't get a lot of agency over their schedules otherwise. And this is a chance for your wife to get to know your son as an individual, and to start meeting him on his level. The less compulsory it all seems, the more enthusiastic he's likely to be.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:32 PM on June 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

What about some board games that they can play together? You can probably pick some up cheap at the Salvation Army store or a garage sale if you don't want to invest a lot of money in something you're not sure Son will enjoy. I have many fond memories of whiling away Summer days around that age when it was too hot to play outside of playing Mille Bornes, Waterworks, Clue, Sorry! and similar games with both my two brothers and my Mom (it was always more fun when Mom played with us). Mom and your son can chat between turns and the counting/strategy involved is a fun way to keep the ol' brain active.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:33 PM on June 14, 2012

Nthing pool time if there's any way possible. It was a perfect activity when my son was this age because there are built-in kids to play with, it requires a minimum of supervision from Mom, there are other mothers there to chat with while you're watching your kids swim, and it burns an incredible amount of kid-energy.
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 12:49 PM on June 14, 2012

I'm coming at this from a different perspective, I guess, because I'm a homeschooling mom, and I'm with my kid always. She's about your son's age, and while we do have scheduled activities, it's summer and a lot of friends are on vacation, some regular things are on hold for the season, etc. First, she's more self-sufficient than I would have thought (could be she's used to it, though).

What my husband does for me to make things easier for me: he spends a lot of time with our daughter when he's off work. He does this because he wants to, but it means I can check out to varying degrees when he's home. He listens when I need to whine, without judging and without trying to fix anything. He knows I need to let off steam, but that I will specifically ask if I need help.

I agree with people who said to involve him in planning. If she's planning a trip, have him help with every aspect, from mapping, figuring out supplies to take, things they will do, every bit. It will seem a lot more exciting for him and he will feel like they're on an adventure together rather than she's taking him somewhere.
posted by upatree at 12:52 PM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am currently in your wife's shoes (with a toddler who I have to keep my eye on EVERY SINGLE MINUTE and my son--for age reasons--is just about as communicative) and the things that my husband does that really helps are:

Looking for and passing along ideas of things we can do/explore during the week.
Pretty much taking over primary childcare on nights and weekends.
Empathizing about how hard it is and expressing appreciation.
Listening to me complain, whine, and dissect how hard it is to parent our son and why.
Understanding when I ignore him so I can get my paying work done while he is home or Toddler Murrey is asleep.
Reiterating that he is glad that I am his son's mom, hence reassuring me that I am not as inadequate a mom as I feel I am.
Encouraging me to get out (alone or with friends) as often as possible.

As for surprising her with a sitter, I would rethink the surprise part of that. Let her know when she is going to have free time so she can plan to do something she wants. Having time off from the kiddo is great, but not knowing in advance so I can schedule a date with friends or to make an appointment for a pedicure, for example, makes the time off less beneficial. But the hiring of a sitter (often) is a great idea.
posted by murrey at 1:06 PM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Please don't make the sitter a surprise. Plan it ahead, so she knows when she gets to go and can make plans to make the best use of the time, whether it's meeting a friend or scheduling a massage or whatever. It sucks to have a sitter come and not have anywhere to go; there's no faster way to feel useless.

Make the sitter a regular thing if possible, like "every Thursday night" or whatever. This lets her know that she can make plans a fair bit ahead too, which is sometimes important for planning social activities.

Ditto your time together. If you can have a sitter regularly on Friday or Saturday or Sunday nights as well, great. That's your date night. She knows she can look forward to that, and you guys will have plenty of time to plan so you can make good use of the time.

Help her research appropriate day activities for the kid, if she needs help. There is a huge range of costs and activities available. Everyone will be happier if he has structure to his day, social activity and new stuff to think about.

I love the "books on tape" for car trips idea upthread - have him pick some out, whether it's novels or, even better, something from iTunes U - it'll give them something to talk about after the trip as well, and hopefully cut down on the "are we there yet" factor.

For yourself, make sure she knows when you are coming home every day (even if it varies day to day, or even if you need to give her updates at 4 pm or whatever.) When you come home, give her your full attention.

Thank you for asking this and understanding the stay-at-home challenge!
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:25 PM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

However even with day trips she says she feels like she’s in the car alone, as our son will just stick his head in a book for the entire trip. It will mostly be just the two of them.

The bottom line is they’re both going to be lonely and occasionally sick of each other.

Your wife is a stay-at-home Mom, so right now, when your son is at school, she is alone all day already, right? Is she lonely now? You don't mention it, so presumably not. I think we can put the loneliness to the side.

The main issue is really that right now your wife is used to (and probably enjoys, I know I did as an SAHM!) some quiet time to herself before your son gets home from school, time which she uses very productively, and she's going to lose that. I think she is dreading the Summer even more because she also seems to feel that she will have to entertain your son all day, every day.

She's already planned all these activities, but she doesn't seem too confident about them from the tone of your question. Sounds like the two of you have very specific ideas about spending free time productively, and the stuff he wants to do, like "just stick his head in a book" or play Minecraft, doesn't fit into that agenda as well as outdoorsy, "adventurous" stuff or Kahn Academy. Given that framework, I can see why your wife is dreading the Summer, because she knows she's going to end up battling with your son all Summer long, and that's emotionally draining.

To answer your question, then, I see two ways for you to be supportive.

The first is to adapt a "don't sweat the small stuff," attitude and suggest to your wife that she let your son either do his own thing more often over the Summer or, as PhoBWanKenobi said, let him have more agency in planning the activities he and your wife do together, so that your wife won't feel like she is being hammered with an attitude all Summer long (and your son will have a more carefree Summer, too, as an added side benefit). That will take a lot of the dread and the pressure of Summer planning off of your wife.

The second way, which is probably preferable given the small print in your question, is to provide very strong emotional support for your wife by accepting that her job as a SAHM is a difficult one and you recognize this. When you get home, ask her how the day went. Encourage her to vent, and offer support, encouragement and empathy rather than trying to "solve" anything (offering "solutions"when she is venting isn't really helpful, as emotionally she won't be ready to implement them then, anyway). Pickup dinner whenever you can, do chores on the weekend that she might not be avle to get around to now. Also, if you can afford to take a Monday or a Friday off of work here and there for a long weekend, that will go a long way to making the lomg stretch of Summer seem less onerous to your wife.

Try to stay upbeat, too, and remind her that Summer is only so long. I always looked forward to the kids being out of school, but by the final week or two, I think it's just inevitable for everyone in the family to feel a little tired of all the togetherness!
posted by misha at 1:47 PM on June 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am an SAHM to a very challenging nine-year-old, and I feel her pain. The best things my husband does to help:
Taking the kid out on the weekends so I can have time to myself
Being parent in charge from dinnertime to bedtime
Being emotionally supportive

The things I do to keep my sanity as best I can:
Housecleaner every other week
We live in a subdivision with a pool, so lots of pool time
Get out of the house every day no matter what
Restrictions on screen time are shall we say very relaxed during the summer

Things that have helped break up the summer in the past but we're not doing this year:
Day camps
Vacation travel

Good luck!
posted by Daily Alice at 3:28 PM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd just say have a loose schedule and enjoy the days. I was home with two kids last year; we did chores for 45 min or so, an activity (baking, craft, Lego) took a packed lunch to swimming, swam, ate at the park/beach, played, came home and then the elder had free time and eventually dinner came along. One day a week was library, and Fridays we had "adventures" - ate out, went to museums, built a massive sandcastle, etc. I would suggest a rhythm. And the rhythm can include downtime for mum. Mum reads on the hammock during video game time sounds fine to me.

Also the kid's cottage book is out of print but there must be similar ones - books with games and things.
posted by Zen_warrior at 3:28 PM on June 14, 2012

How about a programming or game design class at a local school instead? 

This. When I was fourteen my mother enrolled me in a summer typing course (around 1984). Holy cow, I'm so glad she did. Maybe his keyboarding skills are already great, but something that would serve him well all his life--keyboarding, basic programming, something cool and awesome--he will remember forever.
posted by tully_monster at 6:27 PM on June 14, 2012

Have you told your son that he needs to be nicer to his mom and less difficult, and that's his job as part of your family? He's old enough to recognize the effect he has on you guys and learn to be a part of the family.

Definitely make sure your wife gets respite.
posted by discopolo at 8:02 PM on June 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

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