Being the mom of both a teen and a tween, I am experienced with sending them off to summer camp. It’s the fifth year I have sent at least one of them away for close to a week. They have never needed a nudge to leave us and go have a great time. I was a clingy child who would have been overcome with premonitions of home sickness if my parents had suggested such a thing back in my formative years, so their confidence makes me smile.
Back when camp ran for less than a week, most of the parents, me included, took it as a well-deserved, guilt-free break. One year a bunch of us planned a celebratory Mom’s Night Out after the kids were tucked away in their woodsy cabins. Another year, my husband and I took the opportunity to try out one night at one of those cheesy Poconos couples retreats. There were five days with no one to pick up after, to remind of chores or to drive to activities. When our youngest child came along, the camp week meant she got uninterrupted, one-on-one attention including a special trip to Chuck E. Cheese and lots of extra snuggling.
The icing on the cake was the nightly call or text full of happy news. Each day was another adventure. There was zip-lining, the high ropes course, archery and canoeing. Some years they regaled us with stories of braving the polar bear swim, and other times they shared tidbits from scary story night. Nothing could top the fun of campfire night or creating and performing skits. Their friendships blossomed and they were truly themselves in this natural, kid-dominated habitat.
Picking a happy child up from sleep-away camp is a bittersweet experience. They are grungy and wild-looking; tanned, gritty and one with the landscape. Catching sight of them, with the rolling hills, rustic cabins and breathtaking lake as back drop, a feeling of not belonging would wash over me. This is their world. They would wave excitedly and then happily show me around their turf. Then they would get a look of melancholy and appear torn when it was time to step off the cabin porch and head for the car. By the time they got their first wave of air conditioning as we rolled away, the talking spree would commence.
They have so much to say and I’m appreciative that they have the opportunity to accomplish things without me present. Both confidence and joy are at all-time highs. They have made countless memories that I am not a part of. I’m incredibly proud, but a little bit stricken.
This is what we strive for. We have taught them successfully how to leave, thankfully for short periods at this point. But I love having them in my daily life. Sure, they are a lot of work, but so much fun! A trip to Target, Wegmans or the library takes on a whole new meaning when I have them with me. What was a chore becomes often amusing, and always an adventure.
But now they no longer leave home for just one week. This summer, it seems they are always leaving. There was the old familiar girls’ residence camp they love and aspire to be counselors at some day. Next came the specialized pole vaulting camp on a college campus. There was the week in upstate New York with cousins that included life-changing moments such as a performance by the New York City Ballet and a day boating on gorgeous Lake George. There was the trip Lauren was lucky enough to be invited on to Washington, D.C. and beyond with a friend’s family, and Dani’s invitation to the shore with another special friend.
When I drop them at yet another exciting destination, there is a palpable hole in my heart as I drive away. While they are gone, I go about my normal routine, running errands and going to work, and I think of them. For the first time, I live vicariously through them. I envision them jumping off a dock into a lake, hand-in-hand with friends. I see Dani running full-speed at an 11-foot high bar, pole in hands. I see Lauren stepping foot into the White House, taking it all in with wide-open eyes.
Years ago, I worried about them being home-sick. Now it is me who is a little camp-sick.
This letting them leave is an evolution of sorts. It happens in stages but still takes us by surprise. When I first left them in a cabin in the woods five years ago, I didn’t realize how quickly this leaving would become a thing. It was a novelty then, a gift to a worn-out mom. Now, as my oldest heads into the high school in a month, with big dreams about her future, it’s hard not to dread the hole that will be left behind.