This summer, my 9-year-old went to sleep away camp for the first time.
Standing on the curb, I watched Tamara board an enormous bus bound for New Hampshire and sobbed.
I would've been embarrassed except that all the parents were bawling. Wearing dark sunglasses and passing boxes of Kleenex, strangers comforted one another. We tried to stay strong as our kids embarked upon their summer adventure, but it was hopeless. The kids, on the other hand, were fine. With iPods, playlists to check out, and luxurious bucket seats to settle into, they were in heaven.
Before Tamara left, I broached the topic of homesickness. "If you miss home--"
Tamara rolled her eyes. "I'm fine, Mom. But you're going to be 'parent sick.'"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
She refused to elaborate. "Talk to my turtle when you get lonely."
"But who will hug you when you get to camp?"
Tamara sighed. "You've been hugging me for weeks. I'm hugged out."
As the bus disappeared down Columbus Avenue, one of the moms introduced herself. "I'm Molly," she said, offering tissues. "This camp thing's rough on the parents. Are you a first timer?"
I nodded and blew my nose.
"Me too. I'm forming a support group. We'll get through this," she promised. "Here's my cell."
We exchanged numbers but despite making a new friend, on the ride back to Brooklyn, I couldn't stop crying. "Am I a helicopter parent?" I wailed to my husband.
"Tamara's going to New Hampshire, not Afghanistan. It's only three and a half weeks. She'll be back."
"We won't be able to talk to her--"
"She doesn't need to talk to us every second. We don't even need to talk to each other every second," he murmured.
It was time to confront myself in the mirror, take a hard look at the parent I'd become--although preferably when my eyes weren't so red.
That night, staring at my mascara-streaked face, I wondered, what is it about my generation? Like Navy Seals, the "Mom Squad" stands at attention, ready to swoop down and scoop up our children at a moment's notice. But from what? From growing up? Do we spend too much time with our kids and need to get a life -- as the expression goes? And how is it that menopause coincides with our brood leaving the nest? Does everything have to go all at once?
I love hanging out with my daughters. Everything I do with Eliza and Tamara is larger-than-life. Shopping at CVS takes on biblical proportions when we argue over shampoos. Discovering a cockroach in the basement is a moment of bonding in the face of terror, changing the turtle tank is an undertaking. Put me on the couch next to my girls and I'll surrender to watching Hannah Montana.
My husband consoled me. "They post pictures. Go on-line if you miss Tamara."
And then I remembered! The camp had professional photographers to document the girls' activities 24/7 -- like NBC's coverage of the Olympics. In this electronic millennium, my parental obsession for daily images and information would be catered to. I could get in-depth reports of Tamara rock-climbing, close-ups of her at archery, a discussion of tug-of-war ethics. I could be at "virtual" camp beside her.
"So how did it go?" my parents asked, knowing I had been anxious.
"It was hard," I sighed, "but we'll have updates." I explained about the Internet.
My dad scoffed. "In your day, we were lucky to get a letter."
"But what did you do?" I asked.
"What do you mean? You were in camp. You were fine."
"Turn up anything?" My new BFF, Molly, contacted me the next night. We had exchanged dozens of texts. Her daughter, Lilly, was in the same bunk as Tamara. "The first parent support group meets this weekend. Bring pictures of you guys on vacation. You know, 'happy family time' together."
Ahead of the game and "parent sick" (as Tamara had predicted) I had already surrounded myself with dozens of family scrapbooks.
"By the way," Molly continued, "I haven't seen any photos of our girls. Are they at this camp?"
It was true.
In the 24 hours Tamara had been gone, I hadn't come across a single cameo. I sensed a conspiracy at work, a plot on the part of our daughters not to give in to their mothers' neuroses. Relentless, I scrolled through bucolic images; the lake at dawn, other peoples' blonde-haired children, pine trees. "Where's Tamara?"
My husband groaned. "You don't need to see her to know she's there."
And then I remembered my daughter's advice. "I'm going to play with the turtle."
"Why don't you try writing a letter instead?" he suggested. "By the time it gets there, she'll be well adjusted. Maybe you will be too."
I wasn't sure. But there was my parents' support group to look forward to!