For me, the single most challenging part of sending my kids to sleep-away camp is fretting about their well-being, knowing that I’m pretty much powerless to impact how things are going each day. They’re on their own.
This is really just a more severe case of the peculiar parental anguish of separating from your kids in all sort of situations.
When M was a toddler, I would leave her screaming at daycare. Intellectually, I knew that it was likely that she’d get distracted by one of her teachers or a snack soon enough, that it was quite possible that she was happy for most of the day. But the entire day of work, the lasting image I’d retain was of my daughter, screaming and miserable.* No wonder we’d drive to daycare pick-up so fast.
These days, when one of my kids is grumpy and slamming doors on their way out to school, I imagine them having a horrible, rotten, no-good day. Sometimes they’ll be angry specifically at me, and I dread the arguments that are sure to come in the afternoon. And then they arrive home, sunny and pleasant, the morning forgotten entirely. Every morning this happens, I try to remember that they’re likely to have cheered themselves up before they even arrive at school, but it casts a pall over my day, anyway.
And sleep-away camp! We dropped off J at Circus Smirkus on Saturday. I know she’ll love it. Absolutely, I know it. . . how could she not love it? But, see, the “knowing” is a brain thing. In my heart, in the pit of my stomach, I’ve got that mental image of her as we dropped her off. She was nervous, tight-lipped, urging us to get out of there and on our way, more tense than excited. That little furrowed brow haunts me. It’s the vivid image that’s stuck with me.
Now, luckily, modern sleep-away camps know that anxious, anguished parents want to see their little darlings, and the smart ones share plenty of photos. I remember, years ago, stalking the WaWa Segowea Facebook page for evidence that M was happy. I only saw a few blurred snapshots, but in each one, M was next to the same girl, and I breathed a sigh of relief: “She must have made a friend!” And she had.
So it was shortly after we dropped J off that I was stalking Smirkus Camp for photos. I’d found their Flickr page and it was photo upon photo of very young children. And I started freaking out. Had I misunderstood the program? Was J going to be the oldest kid there, hating it because (of course) hanging around little kids is lame? There was mention of a SnapChat account, and in desperation, I texted M. I asked her to check SnapChat and also not to make fun of me for being so fussy and freakishly maternal. Her text back to me was:
Didn’t see J but I hardly saw any teensy kids. They all looked J’s age or older and it looked pretty fun. I’m sure she’s fine.
Ahhhh. I felt so much better about J. Later, I even saw some pictures of her to replace my image of the furrow-browed child we’d left behind.
And, then, suddenly, I also felt so much better about M. M just turned 14, and you know what’s happened, almost without us noticing it? She’s gotten nicer. Yes, I just knocked on wood. But really, she stopped what she was doing and checked on her sister and reassured her mother and was really pretty sweet about it. When did that child replace the M I remembered? How did I miss it?
J is coming into full-on tween-dom. That means that I’ve become magically stupider and more embarrassing. Now, I’ve been stupid and embarrassing for years thanks to M, but I’ll have to admit that when I first noticed this attitude from J, it stung a little. She was always my affectionate child. But I bore it bravely and kept my game face, knowing that this is a storm that will pass.
And meanwhile, without my realizing it, the M storm had passed. Now, you parents of older kids might be chuckling to yourselves that I’m really in the eye of the hurricane, but sshh, I don’t need to know that. The point is, right now, at this moment, M is an unexpected delight. I hadn’t noticed at first because my guard was up and I retained that image of the surly tween-to-early-teen that I’d known for years. It turns out that she has evolved and I hadn’t caught up yet. With that text as evidence, I recalled other surprising incidents. How, when J refused to even come near me at the store in the mall, M chuckled sympathetically and set out to retrieve her. How M hugged me in full view of two friends.
Sometimes it takes that tangible evidence to update your image of your child. When our friends sent a picture of M and her pals on the beach in their bikinis, it was poor Cute W’s turn for anguish. He’d been vaguely aware of the process of maturation, but the picture brought it home: this girl is a teenager.
It’s like so many other parenting phases. For months you’re sure that potty training will never happen, and suddenly it does. Your child has nightmares every night for weeks and then one morning you realize that you’ve slept two full nights in a row without even realizing why you were feeling so wonderfully energized.
It reminds me of that John Green quote from The Fault in Our Stars: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
That’s how kids grow up, too.
It’s so fast that any image I have of my child is a piece of historic ephemera almost immediately. On Saturday, we dropped off a tight-lipped girl who had never tried doing tricks using aerial silks. This Friday, we’ll be picking up our J, the spitting image of our daughter, a girl utterly transformed. On Saturday, M, who changed before our very eyes without our noticing, returns from her beach vacation.
And until, I’m grateful to rely on those who are kind enough to document their transformations for me.
*Now, as it turns out, on the very day when she finally didn’t scream at my departure and I thought that we might be getting good at this daycare thing, someone from the daycare called to tell me that she’d literally been screaming for most of the day, every day, since we’d started, just as I’d feared. They hadn’t told me because they thought she’d adjust, but she just never adjusted. And that is why I work from home. But I’m sure your kids do great in daycare. That kid is just . . . special. One of the daycare teachers said, “I’ve never had one like her.”