We did one of the hardest and best things for my daughter yesterday: we took her to her first extended sleep away camp.
I started attending camp when I was six years old. (And get this: it was for an entire month! I still can’t believe my parents were brave enough to send me away for a month. Or maybe not brave, just desperate for time away from three kids?)
My first camp was the same one my brother and sister attended every summer, and I begged my parents to send me to Camp Cherokee. I was finally old enough at age six, and I loved every single minute of it. I loved being able to make my own choices: arts and crafts today or archery? Maybe canoe time after rest time? And I loved “roughing it” by sleeping in a cabin, bathing in the lake, and drinking Bug Juice every day during snack time.
Yes, there were hard moments: I had one of the most vivid nightmares of my life at camp. (It still ranks in my top five worst ever.) And I remember being so homesick. In my little girl mind, I couldn’t imagine any pain in the world worse than being away from Mom, Dad and home. And then an hour later, I would get distracted and move on to the next activity or swim or skit night practice.
Going to camp taught me to be self reliant. It taught me I really could canoe and backpack an entire night’s worth of supplies to a “remote” area for overnight camping. Going to camp taught me choices and consequences are inseparable. It taught me how to make friends with people I wouldn’t normally seek out. It taught me independence from my parents, and gave me freedom I had never before experienced in my life. At camp, I found such incredible joy in receiving mail every day; I still have that joy with mail even today!
I went to camp every single summer until the last summer before my senior year in high school. I didn’t get to spend many summers at Camp Cherokee, but I still went to some sort of camp every year. There were two summers when I went to Girl Scout camp, which I hated. It wasn’t like “real” camp to me (Camp Cherokee), because there were too many rules and not enough freedom. My parents found a new camp for me to attend called Camp Toccoa. It was similar to Cherokee (with one major difference: BOYS!), and I loved it almost as much.
One of the things I always knew I would do as a parent was send my kids away to camp. So last summer, I decided to give Katie a shot at Girl Scout camp. She paired up with a buddy and they did two nights at a camp about an hour away. I think I was more excited about it than she was! When I picked her up after the two days, she said it was a great time. She and her friend sang the awful camp songs they learned, told us about silly stories they heard, and showed us the crafts they made. However, she hated the platform tents they slept in (“There was a big spider!”), and vowed never to go camping again. That’s when I vowed to find one she would really love!
I asked around and some of our friends told us about the camp they attended as children – and now send their own children. (In fact, their 16-year-old daughter is a counselor this week while Katie is there.) The time and the price were all right, and yesterday was the big day.
For the last few days, Katie has been telling people about how excited she is to camp. We arrived and she was happy and picked out a bunk and was ready to go explore. Her friend arrived (the only other person she knew prior to yesterday), and she was excited.
But then nerves crept in out of nowhere, and she started unraveling. She was in the bathroom and a silly problem with the toilet flushing shattered any confidence she had left, and she came unglued. I knew the longer we stayed with her (we were there about an hour and a half), the worse it was going to get. So I put on my brave mommy face and told her it was time for us to go. We gave hugs and said goodbye, and she asked me if I was crying (sweat was running down my face). I told her no (even though I felt like I wanted to!), but it’s okay if she felt sad. I gently directed her to her friend and she started walking away with the friend and the friend’s mom. I got in the car and Dan put it in gear and went about 6 inches when we saw her charge toward the car with her face screwed up into a look of panic. Dan stopped, I got out of the car, and I held her. Then I told him to wait and I walked with her and found her friend (who was also at her parents’ car, begging them to take her home).
I grabbed both their little hands and we walked down the road so the friend’s parents could leave. I found our friend’s daughter (the 16-year-old counselor) and told her the girls needed some love. Then I gave Katie a hug and a kiss, told her I loved her, and walked away. Oh, the pain!
On the drive home, Dan and I talked about being homesick when we were younger. He spoke about being at camp his first time and missing his parents. I told him how desperate I was to go home after my parents drove me from Georgia to Missouri for college. I remember calling home, begging my mom to let me come back for just one weekend instead of having to wait for Thanksgiving break. She said no, and now I know exactly how she felt when she hung up the phone. It’s the same way I felt when I drove away from my baby yesterday afternoon: full of guilt and fear, yet knowing that it’s my job as her mother to prepare her for a life without me.
I am working myself out of a job. It’s heart-wrenching and also so perfectly right.