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School's out and it's no holiday for mum and dad

Over the last few years in Canada, they have been rolling out all-year schooling, thus shedding the traditional months-long school summer holiday that most Irish kids still enjoy. If you're a working parent with children of school-going age, that news makes your heart lift, right? Lift with hope, before it's brought back to Earth with a pang of guilt.

For most primary school Irish children, the summer started last Friday. Which means that for most working Irish parents, a certain conversation has been running for weeks now. Running with other parents: "What are you doing with them? What camps are they doing? How are you going to manage?" And running internally: "How am I going to manage? Why can't the camps run until 5pm? Jesus, why aren't there any camps in August; not everyone has the time off/holiday home/an au pair?" And both conversations are followed, often, with the same thought: that this is no way to think about your children.

The problem is, though, that in a country where both parents have to work, those nine weeks off are incredibly difficult. And long. So while Canada points to research that says that two-month summer holidays lead to "learning loss", while the new, '45 days on, 15 days off' model does not, Irish parents might see it from a different point of view. Anything, they cry, to save them spending another panic-ridden evening researching suitable summer camps.

It's easy to complain that kids nowadays don't know how to be idle and have to be occupied all the time, but we've done it to them. They can't be idle because we need them minded because we're all working. And, as they get older and have opinions, minded means doing something that suits them and not just you and your working hours.

So, parental panic increases in proportion with the children's age. They decide that tennis might have been good last year, but this year they'd prefer to do an art camp, and the fact that tennis camp runs for two hours longer than art camp is really of no concern to them. And why should it be? As far as the kids are concerned, the parents' interest is in giving them the best summer ever. Unless they've overheard or picked up on the anxiety around what to do with those pesky kids for all that time off.

Anyone overhearing how we talk about the summer holidays would imagine that we hate our children. They sound like the greatest inconvenience, sent to thwart our carefully balanced lives and careers. But if you work, it's a struggle not to slip into that mindset. You tell them - and yourself - that if you didn't work, they wouldn't get that family fortnight away, but kids don't do that kind of rationalising. And adults find it a stretch, too, let's face it.

Because the balance feels all wrong. It feels like that Harry Chapin song, Cat's in the Cradle, that seemed to be always on the radio in the 1980s. The father was consumed with working, always too busy for the son when he was a boy, and then, when the son was all grown up, he was too busy working to have time for his old dad. And his old dad saw that all that had really mattered was the son he had fobbed off and missed out on and who grew up faster than he expected.

Our children are small and willing to have anything to do with us for such a short time, but what we're doing with that time is wishing it away. And, if we're not careful, they'll grow up utterly aware of this.

The problem is that really we haven't worked out the childcare-work thing at all in this country. We are great at talking about egg-freezing and the right time to have a child, but we fail to face up to the fact that it doesn't matter how you plan for having children, or how you get your career sorted before you have them, they turn things upside down once they come. And the biggest thing they want from you is your time, and we really haven't worked out how to create that time for working parents.

Most working mothers would testify that a part-time work model would be their ideal, but that's still regarded as playing at working. And most fathers will testify that saying they have to leave work early to collect a child from school, or be with a sick child, is regarded as slacking off. Which makes a child who's footloose and fancy-free for two months a nightmare proposition.

That's your child: a logistical nightmare. Ah, family memories are made of this.

On paper, the two-month summer holiday enjoyed by Irish primary school children is a bit mad. It's a long time, particularly in a society where both parents work. But think back to your own childhood and your own two-month break from school. It was the best. It was the making of some of your best memories. It was lazy and meandering and even the being bored was the best. It's an indulgence, but when again in life did you ever feel as deliciously aimless? How could you steal that from your children, just because it doesn't fit your adult 9-5, 48-weeks-a-year work schedule?

"Learning loss" is a great 'for the sake of the children' way to rationalise it, but you have to wonder who such a shift in the rhythm of childhood serves. Maybe it is a crime that our kids forget a chunk of their maths, spelling and reading ability over the nine-week summer break, but that only really matters if you're hung up on the rat race that channels them, from the earliest age, into attaining the best exam results, the best college, the best job.

That is to say, the very same course your own life took, the very own course that led you to a place where your children's school holidays are far from halcyon and more of a headache.

Sunday Independent