I Sent My Twins to the Grandparents’ for the Summer: Here’s the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

grandparents for summer grandparents for summer
courtesy Jenna Mahoney

Before I even had kids I knew I wanted them to spend the entire summer at Cape Cod. My most cherished childhood memories are of the beach community east of Boston where I lived every summer from age 2 to nearly 22. Days were filled with swimming and sailing lessons, theater classes, and long afternoons at the beach.

About a decade ago, a friend sent one of her (four!) sons to spend the summer on Cape Cod with her parents. My mom asked me if I’d consider that arrangement and I said: “Done. Deal.” I was thrilled at the prospect of my children being given such a meaningful gift.

Fast forward to present time and we’ve packed up my nearly three-year-old twins Buddy and Bunny (whom I collectively call #thegrems) to go live* with their grandparents at the beach. Caught that asterisk did you? Well, summer with Nani and Papa Ref (yes, that is what my dad is called) isn’t exactly sleepaway camp. It differs in that my husband and I are expected to show up every weekend because—and I quote— “grandparents don’t work for you, they help you out.” Fair enough.

Meanwhile, plenty of friends have asked me why we went for it and did the whole summer instead of a 1 or 2-week “taste” the first time around.  To me, summer is an entire season. When I was a kid, my mom took us out of school early every year (you are all done learning) put our stuff in garbage bags and drove us over the bridge. We stayed in a cottage with no walls and no oven and no phone until the night before school when we drove home at like 6pm and started the school year.

So… what was it like to send the kids away for the summer? Remember the intro for the OG Real World? Here’s what happens when people stop being polite and start being real… Well, I’m about to go there. And names have not be changed to protect the moody. Kidding, mom.

The Good 

OK, so we live in NYC, and if you’ve never experienced August in New York City, you’ve been spared the garbage-scented humidity that makes the under-the-sewer lair of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles look posh. The biggest impetus for giving #thegrems the gift of a summer away is so they can actually play outside. The heat can be so oppressive in the Big Apple that standing outside feels akin to being submerged in an alien oozing liquid. And the slides (and smells) in the parks… let’s just say the phrase “sizzling hot mess” is apt.

On Cape Cod, though, days are spent breathing the fresh, salty air and exploring nature. Mornings are for gathering raspberries in the garden and visiting the chickens that live next door, followed by long walks and scootering in the conservation marshlands behind the house. #thegrems have visited local seals, a historic farm, and a butterfly sanctuary. Endless hours are spent splashing in local lakes, salt-water rivers, and the ocean. Sandcastles and rock-skipping are daily activities. Evenings are for sunset-viewing and exploring tide pools or running around and gawking at the boats at a nearby marina.

courtesy Jenna Mahoney

On the afternoons that my parents can’t find the strength to get two very active (are there any other kind?) toddlers to the beach, Buddy and Bunny play in the house with its wide open floor plan filled with my old toys. Or they hit the yard to the kick a soccer ball, toss some baseballs, and throw footballs and Frisbees around.

courtesy Jenna Mahoney

The Bad

With the relaxed country air comes relaxed country hours. My #grems have always been great sleepers, but there’s something about being at Nani and Papa Ref’s house that gets Buddy cock-a-doodle-doo-ing at 5am. Why can’t he stay asleep for two more blissful and necessary hours?? He blames the noisy birds, but, also he’s figured out that he can snag some pirated TV time early in the AM. At home, the twins get PBS Kids for about 20 minutes a day, but as they quickly discover, life at the grandparents’ is a little different, and screen time is just part of it; there’s also more cheesy pasta (yes, mom, I know it’s Annie’s Shells and Cheddar, but still) than I’d ever allow.

Limited sleep for my kids means limited sleep for my parents, and that means frayed patience. My mom has been very hands-on with childcare since the beginning; she lived with us the first few months after the twins were born, helped daily for the entire first year, and has taken on weekend duty so my husband and I could get away. But 60 uninterrupted days and nights is different. The constant go-go pace of twin toddlers has eroded her nerve endings, and my dad’s, too. They’re quicker to make verbal snaps, and not just at the kids.

Similarly, my husband and I are spent. This wasn’t what we expected when we gloated about our upcoming child-free summer. The reality of doing a several-hours-long commute 10 weekends in a row of a is taxing. We’ve overstretched our schedules, our patience, and our car (which kept stalling out on Interstate 95).

So while this is a summer romance, it’s one that is not airbrushed. Which brings us to….

The Ugly

For about seven full, long days, the storybook summer was swapped out for a horror film. The short story is that my daughter Bunny spiked a fever and was prescribed antibiotics for an ear infection from a local pediatrician. I took the week off work and headed to my parents’ because Bunny was a total and complete screaming maniac.

The night my family will remember most, though, is the one when Bunny cried, wailed, and screamed for five uninterrupted hours. There was no getting her in bed, there was no getting her to take a sip of milk/water/juice/whiskey (don’t @ me—the last one was a joke). Reading books didn’t help. Nor did playing music or even showing her the iPad. And since Buddy is very protective of his twin — especially if she is crying — he had to add some screams of his own. Then he wanted to be held. Then he wanted to be comforted with milk/water/juice. Then he wanted to listen to music. Then he wanted to watch Daniel Tiger.

Did I mention this was all at about 4AM?

My mom tried to help. But she was so tired from the full-time care, she snapped. She yelled for everyone to stop yelling. Then my dad got into the mix. He raised his voice at her, at me, at Buddy, at Bunny and I think the Virgin Mary to whom we prayed when we were wishing for babies to bless our family. And since never in the history of calming down has anyone calmed down when told to calm down, there was more screaming, more crying, and a load of choice words thrown in my direction about my parenting skills. Eventually sheer physical exhaustion lulled the twins to sleep.

Turned out Bunny had an allergy to the medication. We tossed the meds and she returned to her happy, inquisitive, agreeable self.

And my parents hired a babysitter to help out every afternoon.

And… The Beautiful

Years ago, when my husband moved in with me he brought nothing more than two suitcases and two photos. One photo was of him as a child with his grandfather.

Now our kids are deepening their relationships with their own grandparents. They have private jokes, a daily rhythm of rituals, favorite songs, and an only-for-them language. My parents have been front and center for many of my babies’ firsts: first bouncy house, first parade, first fireworks, first faces in the water. The quartet have a deep understanding and bond together. And at the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, that totally and completely warms my heart.

courtesy Jenna Mahoney

So… as this magical, exhausting, sepia-toned, crazy summer comes to an end, the question hanging in the air: do we dare sign on for another 10 weeks of this for next summer?

We’ll consider it. An entire summer is a long time for me to be away from #thegrems! And they’re a lot for my retiree parents to handle. But the experiences are precious and one-of-a-kind, and maybe the best part, for me: my kids creating some of their favorite childhood memories on the same stretch of golden beach that I did at their age. Maybe next summer, we’d aim to mix in some structured activities—day camp, anyone?—with all that special grandparent facetime—and no, that’s not the Apple kind.

Like what you see? Sign up for our weekly newsletter!

Jenna Mahoney is a Brooklyn-based magazine editor and writer specializing in travel, weddings, beauty and healthy lifestyles. She's been on staff at Bridal Guide and Fitness magazines and her work has appeared in Shape, Self, Allure, Redbook and New York Magazine, among other places. She's the author of Small Apartment Hacks.