Over the past few weeks, I have had a lot of conversations with parents about the letters and emails that they have been receiving from their children at sleepaway camp. One parent received two letters from her daughter, each of which said: "I have an ear infection. It hurts so much. Come pick me up." Another parent got an email: "There is a girl in my bunk that ignores me and it upsets me terribly. I am going to the movies this afternoon with my best friends." Another woman I know got an email from her child that said, "I went to the nurse because I am terrible itchy. I think I have 30 mosquito bites and I can't sleep. Love you and miss you!! The food is good!" Another parent got a text, "I missed you so much I cried myself to sleep for two nights." As for me, my daughter wrote: "Mom I am having a good time but this camp is not for me and I won't come back next summer."
And we all continue to receive emails and letters that get better and worse. These emails and letters set most of us on an emotional roller coaster. As parents, how are we supposed to handle this sometimes cryptic, sometimes heartbreaking information -- and not feel stressed and worried? We wonder, Are our children having a horrible time? Should we call them at camp? Speak with the owner? Of course the parent with the daughter with the ear infection called the camp to make sure she was OK and the camp reported she was better and having a great time. I also know a parent that, after a few difficult calls and letters, decided her child was in a precarious situation and picked her up from camp. However, for the rest of us, getting these communications from our children that are all over the place leaves us in a kind of emotional limbo.
After sitting a few hours with a pit in my stomach and trying to imagine why my daughter does not want to go back to camp next summer, I came to the realization that these emails and letters are just snapshots of their experiences at camp. Most of our children are probably moving on to the next activity when we are stuck with the one moment that they described. So I have decided to turn to the idea of "Maybe" to get me through the next few weeks of emails and letters. I know my daughter is safe, she is eating and sleeping. I am carefully navigating around the trap of thinking that any one snapshot is her only experience. Maybe she was having a bad moment when she wrote me that email, maybe things got better or maybe camp is a mixed bag of good and bad experiences. But through those experiences, maybe she is learning that she has to deal with any aggravations on her own and she will become a bit more independent because I am not there to help her through every moment.
I know that the consensus is that an effective parent gradually lets go as a child learns independence. The hard part is not always shielding my daughter from pain. This experience has forced me to see that sometimes, the best I can do is love and support her with the hope that it will soften her pain and help her find strength to deal with the twists and turns of life on her own.
So I and all the other brave parents have decided together to do just that for our children. We write back emails and letters telling our children that we love them and we hope that they are feeling better. We send some jokes and some care packages and hope the love makes them feel warm inside as they navigate their new experience of some independence.
How funny -- I just checked my email while I was finishing this post. For the first time I got an email with no complaints! My daughter now says she's having the best time and she's so lucky to be there. I don't want to get too excited because it is early in the day and she may write me again later that something else is wrong. But either way I am off the roller coaster and staying in "Maybe" until I pick her up at the end of the session.