The contract is signed, the payment has been made and there is no turning back. Panic, fear and anxiety set in and you can't breathe. Your child is going to sleepaway camp.
Sleepaway camp can be a rite of passage, and the decision to send your child away is a big one. The first summer, (and the preceding months) is especially big. Kids learn responsibility without a parent rushing to solve every crisis. They take care of themselves and work things out on their own. My son, Ben, was ready last year, but letting go of my first-born proved much harder on me than him. I'd left work a decade ago to focus on my kids and one was already leaving me. It was a mini "empty-nest syndrome."
When D-Day (departure day) arrived, Ben showed his first sign of fear, "I'm not sure I can get on the bus." The voice in my head shouted "stay home, don't ever leave me, I'll take care of you forever," but I got my shit together, told him all the other new kids were anxious and once he got there it would be fine. Slightly terrified, he got on the bus, waved goodbye and he was gone. I then did what any sane, rational mom does; I took daughter to a 9 a.m. movie, got her popcorn, M&M's and cried as she enjoyed Monsters University.
I won't pretend I didn't spend all day for two weeks hitting refresh on my computer looking for pictures of him and analyzing every picture posted for signs of happiness or misery. I won't pretend I didn't check my mailbox every day waiting for that first letter. And I'll admit that I cried when I did get that first letter, and every one after. That's more or less how it goes for seven weeks.
In the end we all emerged from battle war-torn but better for having served. Ben had a great time and grew in ways both expected and unanticipated. My daughter missed him but mostly enjoyed her time at home alone, queen of the castle, and recipient of well-needed second child attention. It was a good summer. If you're where I was last year, here are some tips for making the transition easier for all of you.
Before the summer...
1. Picking a Camp. There are countless camps to agonize over, options a plenty: co-ed, single sex, close to home, far from home, special hockey program, state of the art gymnastics facility, lake, pool, split session or full session. A friend/owner of a sleepaway camp wisely told me, "At the end of the day, they are all just cabins in the woods." Decide on your top "musts," tour a few camps and then trust your gut. As long as a camp falls in line with a few of your top priorities, after that, they are all cabins in the woods.
2. Try and connect with a kid in your area before camp starts. Having a familiar face helps and it's also great to get the real scoop on camp. Returning campers can clue you in to a few key things you need to get that no camp packet or online guide will tell you. Do this a few weeks before camp so you can stick the extra stuff into his duffle bags and he won't have to carry it on the bus.
3. You will be given a list of camp essentials, follow this list and do not get anything new that you absolutely don't need to. Stained socks from baseball season, that almost too small fleece that won't fit in September, perfect! There is no guarantee what will come home and the condition it will come home in. The exception to this rule is the one trend that all the kids will have. Last year it was Nike Elite socks. If it's reasonable for you, let your kid be in on it. Don't agonize over the rest of it. Which shower caddy you choose really doesn't matter, trust me.
Once they're there...
4. Don't sweat the small stuff. SPF, showers, nail clipping, hair brushing... camp moms/directors will make sure 85 percent of this happens. My son came home with a little more sun on his face than ever before, dry patches and an overall stink. I just power washed him as I did every single item that made it back and all came out smelling fresh, if a little worse for the wear.
5. They will get skinny, they're eating, calm down. At camp, kids run around for seven hours straight, seven days a week for seven weeks. There isn't enough fuel to keep up with the activity. If your child has an eating issue talk to the director. Otherwise, counselors will let you know if your kid isn't eating well and in the absence of that alert, don't freak out. Or, freak out but know you're prepped for it. As soon as they get home they will gain weight. Ben came home with a huge head and rail-thin body. He promptly gained 10 lbs. and was back to his fighting shape.
On Visiting Day...
6. Ask the right questions. Are you lonely, when do you get the loneliest? How is your bed, are you the first to fall asleep or the last? What are your friends like, are you left out? How is the food, are the counselors cool? Do you cry, how much do you miss us? If I let you come home, would you? Do you talk to anyone? It's so tempting to poke the bear. DON'T. The first words that popped out of my mouth after three weeks apart were "are you ok?" "Yeah mom, I'm cool." He gave me thumbs up and walked back on the field. All I needed to know was summed up in two words, "I'm cool." There will be a time to get the answers to all your questions and it's a few weeks after they get home, not the first visiting day.
7. You will be tempted to turn your car into a mobile Dylan's Candy Bar. Don't. Find out what your camp policy is regarding candy and crap. Some let kids keep it for a week, some take it away the next day. Bring your kids' favorites and bring one thing for the bunk to share, a Cookie Cake is a great idea. You can buy one at the market or go nuts and have a bakery custom make it in camp colors. A little something small for your kid is nice too. A new baseball hat or sports jersey can pep a kid up.
8. Do NOT inspect the cubbies or bathrooms. They will be a mess and they will be gross. I have a feeling the girls' bunks may fare better than the boys but it's all going to be a shit show. Spare yourself.
9. Leave fast. When the bulk of parents start to leave, grab a bunkmate and a counselor. Hug goodbye near the bunk and leave, looking back only once. We were a classic rookie family, making a classic rookie mistake: We had let it linger. It's easier for you to leave him than for him to be left.
Back at home...
10. I've heard some kids have a hassle of a time upon re-entry and that the only thing that helps is time and space. Ben arrived home like he never left. As much as I missed him, after all the agonizing, it slipped away and 48 hours after he came back I was ready to ship him out again.
Finally, a month or two after camp ends is the time to have the talk about everything you wanted to know. Over dinner one October night, you can finally unleash all the question you bottled up. The experience is still fresh enough in his mind to answer 75 percent of your questions. Seventy-four percent don't even matter. Ask if they want to go back; it's the only question you need answered. Ben's response? "Oh yeah, I'm going back."
Sleepaway camp isn't just a great way for a kid to take some safe space and gain independence, it's that for a parent as well. And you will survive.
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