Two years ago, we dropped off my 10-year-old daughter at sleepaway camp for the first time -- the trauma still imprinted on my mind. Camp itself wasn't the problem. Leaving my daughter was.
My daughter's lovely camp is nestled in the White Mountains of New Hampshire on the stunningly serene Lake Ossipee. There really isn't a more idyllic setting. It's the sister camp of my husband's camp alma mater, where he still expounds the virtues of sleeping in a room with several stinky boys and not showering for weeks on end, all in the name of being in touch with nature and enjoying some independence. It was his love of camp -- and his desire that our kids experience what made him fall in love with it- - that made me acquiesce to send our eldest away.
As we drove up to the grounds, I was not sold by the friendly-looking counselors and their easy-going smiles. I wondered how they had been bribed to get there. Dressed right down to the clipboard and pen, they just looked a little too perfect, according to my "Crazy/Suspicious mom" alter ego.
My daughter's cabin was simple and quaint, shockingly small, yet somehow corralled five bunk beds (the counselor had her own), 11 footlockers and 11 sets of stand-up plastic drawers on wheels. I was surprised and touched to see actual writing on the wall. It covered the wooden risers, proclaiming teenage life truths like "Jennifer 2008," "R + A BFF," and perhaps the most telling slogan, "Hucksters Rule!" Even though I'd been very anxious about my Taylor going away to camp, I could feel that she was on the edge of something amazing: A wonderful experience that would foster self-reliance, develop friendships, make her miss us and the comforts of home just enough. The result would be a confidence and gratification that can't be replicated in day-to-day school and home life.
After touring the camp, getting a routine lice check and some logoed camp gear (I liked that part), we began to say our goodbyes, and a tremendous sense of dread welled up in me. I remember feeling physically weighed down, and so sad -- I had no parting words of wisdom or advice, hardly even a supportive "Have a great time!" for my sweet girl. I had to swallow that awful lump in my throat and say goodbye.
As my panic grew, I tried to rationalize why I was freaking out. Then it hit me. It was so utterly unnatural for me to say goodbye to my child in the middle of the wilderness and then drive away as casually as if I was heading off to buy groceries. How could any person in their right mind dump their kid in the middle of nowhere to sleep in a room full of girls she doesn't know? It simply felt wrong.
My mind continued in overdrive. What if my daughter gets a bad sunburn or is bitten by a poisonous snake? What if someone tells her she's not wearing the right tank top, or that her glasses look stupid and makes her cry? Or worse, what if she just has a crappy day and needs her mom, and I'm not there?
More to the point, why, after 10 years, would I all of a sudden, after driving over the state line of New Hampshire, stop wondering what to make her for dinner, or if she is cold, or what book she is reading? And please explain to me why I would pay someone to tell me that I cannot call or speak to my daughter for two weeks?
"This is one big ruse -- it's total insanity!!" I wanted to scream at the peak of my maternal insanity for all of Cabins A to Z to hear. It was probably a good thing that I really couldn't get a word out. As the rest of our family slowly walked away from Cabin U, I pulled it together and managed to ask one of the counselors in a whisper where the nearest teaching hospital was. I could see the pity in her eyes as she humored me -- another dumb helicopter mom who just can't let go.
Even a few days after drop off, mixed emotions still cluttered my mind and slowed me down, as if I was recovering from being sick. The house was a little too quiet. If I walked by daughter's room, or if I turned to ask her a question, I was repeatedly stunned to realize she simply was not there, but oh yes, that throat lump still was. It wasn't logical: The fact that she would be home soon was not a factor in that weird emptiness that only a parent can know. And did I mention I had two other children home with me wreaking havoc in the meantime? Still. Something was missing. I can't rationally explain that odd sense of loss, that unsettled feeling, even though I knew my daughter's absence was temporary.
Now, you can imagine how this turned out. I survived. My daughter did not die from a poisonous snake bite, and she made it home happy and grateful for an incredible experience. Fast-forward two years and several camp sessions later. A few weeks ago, we dropped my younger daughter, who just turned 11, at the same camp (my eldest one has decided camp's not for her after all -- I have no idea where she got that idea). But my younger daughter, my fearless Sadie, is not such a homebody. She couldn't wait to hit the pine needles and bunk beds with her egg crate, peace sign-emblazoned trunk and plastic bucket full of toiletries.
I tried to analyze on the long drive up why I hated the whole camp thing and what was so emotional about it (oddly enough, I went to camp for one year as a teenager and really liked it). I determined that the worst thing isn't wondering if my child is getting too much sun, or if she's sad or not eating well or even if I'm just bummed to be without her for two weeks. The reason parents like me hate camp is because the success of the experience is living proof that your kids don't physically need you anymore. Period. We all know this is imminent, but when it's staring you in the face, it's a hard truth to accept.
I'm getting better at this leaving business, though, knowing my youngest daughter is having fun and that camp is expanding her horizons in so many ways. But I still don't have to like it. I still hate it, in fact, every single time we drop one off. It doesn't feel right. It does help, however, that this daughter barely looks back at us as we walk away to our car.
I know I am not in this alone. I'm just one in a culture of moms and dads trying to be more grown up than we really want to be -- mature enough to let go and let out just enough tension in that imaginary cord that attaches us to our kids forever. We know, but don't want to admit, that soon we will blink, and that string will begin to unravel. We will be swallowing countless more throat lumps as time unrolls all the milestones that make life worth living: graduations, weddings, moves and a whole host of other temporary goodbyes.
Maybe camp is the precursor to all the little farewells, the necessary, poignant mini-heartbreaks that we have ahead of us. And perhaps if we take them in stride, in small doses, we'll learn to manage the aches and look at them for what they really are: parental growing pains from our babies growing up themselves.