This is a piece by a friend of mine, Jen Freund, about the decisions (and sacrifices) we parents might make — if we are fortunate enough to have the resources to do so — to ensure that our children can access the educational experiences outside of a classroom that will shape their lives and their identities. I’m also a parent who spent 8 weeks of 7 summers of my life attending traditional sleep-away camps, so I can very much relate to the emotions Jen chronicles here, as my husband and I struggle with whether we can — and whether we want to — send our daughters to sleep-away camp.
Jen holds an MSW. She is a school counselor in an alternative high school, where she works with students who have a wide variety of social, emotional, and behaviorial challenges. Prior to working in the schools, she worked in the camping industry as a counselor and later as an assistant director of the 92nd Street Y day camps. As a child, Jen spent 7 summers in sleep-away camp and now spends a great deal of her time trying to convince her husband that sleep-away camp is an incredible learning and growing experience for their daughters. — Sarah
by Jen Freund
It was February 14, 2005 and my husband was driving the slowest, and most cautiously he ever had. We were on Pleasant Valley Way headed toward our home in Montclair, NJ. I remember everything about that day: the other cars, the radio being off so my husband could fully concentrate, and me in the back seat, holding the tiny hand of my new favorite person. We were driving our first child home from the hospital, for the very first time. We had precious cargo.
And in a blink of an eye, ten years later, I found myself on a very similar car ride. This time I was sitting in the front, while in the back was another favorite person, born three years later. And this time, which was June 27, a few days ago (3 days, 12 hours and 16 minutes to be exact), my husband was driving extremely slow again. We were back on Pleasant Valley Way, headed to the parking lot of the Livingston Mall to bring our daughter, that same baby whose hand I held like ten minutes ago, to meet a bus that would take her 75 miles away….to another state….for seven weeks. She was headed to sleep-away camp for the very first time.
My husband did not want her to go. I agonized over the good-bye, over not seeing her, not feeling her, not hugging her, not hearing her for so many weeks. We all agonized over this. Well maybe not so much our younger daughter who kept replying, “I want to go too, “ to the older one’s “I’m going to miss you.”
He drove slow….real slow.
Sleep-away camp is a foreign concept to many. It does sound utterly insane to send your young child away for so long with such limited contact. But for those who went to camp as a child and experienced the wonder, the spirit, the bonding, the independence, the community, the tradition, the outdoors, the songs, the inside jokes, the customs, the friendships, the creativity, the raw fun, the energy, the love and the culture that is camp, those people have camp in their blood. And when camp is in your blood, you get it. You get why sending your precious cargo off to a camp 75 miles away is a good thing.
I have camp in my blood. My husband does not. But just for the record, I did tell him before we were married that our future kids were going to camp. How could they not? If they didn’t want to, that’s one thing, but if there was any desire, then how could we deny them such an extraordinary experience?
My husband thinks he went to camp. And to be clear, he did go to music camp (actually more like a program) for one summer, for one month. Not the same thing….right, camp people? It’s just not the same as going to the same camp with the same people, summer after summer. He still says he’s not on board and if anyone asks him, he’d say he wants his girl home with him.
So the decision to send my first born to camp was an easy one for me and while he didn’t like the idea, he did not protest (too much). What’s not easy is being a parent who had to say good-bye to her good natured, sensitive, innocent love of a child, one who cuddles, who chats, who shares on a daily basis the thoughts, feelings, fears, and concerns that live in her amazing brain and enormous heart. That was slightly heart-wrenching.
Oh please, you must be saying…she is not going to jail. She is healthy (knock wood), she is there to have fun. Yes, but just how parents cry and get all nostalgic when their babies go off to college, this, I believe is a little worse on the parenting nostalgia scale.
All milestones are bittersweet. Letting go that first day of pre-school, saying goodbye to your kindergartener, end of elementary school, middle school graduation, high school graduation…college goodbyes. All these milestones are beginnings and endings. And as parents, while happy, we are also sad that an era has ended, that our babies are that much more independent and more detached from us. And while college is a good eight years away, I imagine it will be the most intense of milestones, for that is really it. The end of the era of childhood.
But this is why I think the sleep-away camp goodbye is more gut wrenching: you can text, call, or even visit your child whenever you’d (or they’d) like when your child is in college. You can hear how they don’t like their roommate, hate their classes and got lost on campus. You can communicate. And they are self-sufficient. They have credit cards. They can drive. They can vote.
In the world of sleep-away camp, we get two phone calls with our child (once she has been there for a week), one visiting day and old-fashioned letters. I’ve written six so far and received none. Tomorrow is day 5 she’s been away. Where is my freaking letter?
I have no idea what is going on with my 10 year old. Well I know she’s playing soccer and cooking because I see her in pictures on the camp’s website, but that is secondary to what I really want to know. I find myself intently staring at her smile, and expression in these pictures to really try and know how she is feeling. Is she comfortable? Does she feel connected, included with the girls in her bunk? Is she happy? I got a “check in” phone call on day one saying she was “all smiles,” but is she still smiling, and is it genuine? Only my husband and I know her that well to know.
On the night before she left, my mind raced with things I should have talked to her about or re-talked to her about: don’t forget to clear your mess from the dining hall, remember to wear a tank top under certain shirts, do you really understand how to put a fitted sheet on a bed, remember to brush your hair, remember to keep your planters wart covered, when you audition for the musical, you should sing one of these songs, remember to put on sunblock, don’t feel bad that you can’t do a cartwheel but embrace the fact that you cannot, if you fart, own it and make a joke, if you feel left out, don’t try too hard to be included, know that you are an amazing, funny, smart, sweet, caring and special kid that always makes great friends, but sometimes it can take time. Remember you may miss home and that’s normal, remember to make others feel good and always be inclusive, remember to not eat too much dessert, remember to write your sister, and remember to try new things. And know that you may not love camp at first, or at all and that’s ok.
Having your kid away like this magnifies every fear, every concern a parent may have. Is she the tallest in the bunk and is she feeling awkward? Will her developing athletic skills, (um, not so good) shake her confidence? Is she brushing her hair or will she come back with dreadlocks? Is the knee pain she started feeling recently gone or should I have taken her for an x-ray before she left? Will she be quiet or outgoing? Will she get to shine? Will she have one of her right before bed-time existential crises about death and want to discuss her tear inducing fear that the world will one day go on without her in it? What if she gets hurt or gets a tick bite and no one notices? Because really, who but a parent sees the small things that need to be checked out? What if she loses a tooth? We still do the tooth fairy. Damn.
The scene at the mall parking lot could have been an opening scene to a Judd Apatow film about camp. There were coach buses everywhere and parents clinging to their children while small talking with other parents. It was raining and not a ray of sunshine was in the sky, yet 98% of the mothers were wearing sunglasses, myself included because I got strict orders from my sister-in-law to not cry in front of my daughter. Sunglasses were a must.
There were kids in tears and older kids boisterously reuniting with camp friends. Fortunately, my daughter was excited and not feeling nervous or sad. During my last hug to her, it was hard to speak. I told her to have the best time and that I loved her so so much and she pulled my sunglasses off to see if I were crying and when she saw my eyes, we just laughed. She got on the bus and my husband, younger daughter and I stood there waving for twelve minutes to a blackened window where she was presumably sitting until the bus pulled away and then I quietly lost it.
And just like that she was off. For seven weeks. Part of my soul was on that bus.
And here’s the thing that I know as a former camper, and as a past camp counselor, and as a mental health professional, and even as a mother: I know that even if she has her feelings hurt, fails her deep water test, doesn’t get a part in the play or feels homesick, she will come through it all stronger and more resilient. She will have tough days, I know this, and she will learn to navigate them without me by her side and for this she will gain something I could have never given her myself. As our camp director profoundly told us new parents, “at camp, we can give your children a kind of confidence, autonomy and independence that you, as parents, cannot.” And for this, I hope she comes home with camp in her blood.