My daughter has been at sleepaway camp for exactly five days, which, not coincidentally, have been the longest five days of my life. There’s something about being away from your kids that makes time stretch out like dog years, so that each day feels like the equivalent of seven. I swear, by the time she gets home after seven weeks, I’m going to be an entire year older.
I left her in front of a Target in a suburb of Philadelphia, where she tearfully climbed onto a bus headed for camp while I tried not to let her see me cry. As the bus pulled away, I waved until my arm practically fell off, too preoccupied with not falling apart in front of a few dozen strangers to care about my arm flab flapping back and forth like a loose sail in the wind. But it wasn’t until I landed back in L.A. later that night that the enormity of what I’d done hit me full on. As I walked through the airport toward baggage claim, I kept thinking the same thing over and over again: I took my nine year-old daughter to Philadelphia, and I left her there.
The worst thing about it, by far, is the radio silence. To not be able to talk to her or see her or ask her how she’s doing is excruciating. But things have changed since I went to camp in the ‘80s. Where my parents had to rely on letters from me for information (ha!), I am emailed a daily newsletter from camp that includes a brief rundown of the prior day’s events, so at least I know what activities she’s doing every day. And, best of all, every day the camp uploads a hundred or two hundred pictures, which I pore through and study like they contain the answers to all of life’s mysteries. To say that I am obsessing over these pictures would be, well, I think it would be pretty much dead on. It’s truly amazing what a mother’s mind can extrapolate from a few dozen isolated moments of her kid’s day caught on film. When her arm is around another girl and the two of them are smiling, I breathe a sigh of relief. But then I realize that it’s always the same girl in every photo, and I start to wonder if she’s making any other friends. When she’s in the middle of a group picture I’m happy, but if she seems to be sitting on the periphery, or standing by herself, I go into full blown panic mode. Is she feeling left out? Do the other girls not like her? Are there cliques that she’s not a part of? And God forbid there’s a candid shot of her not smiling. I have to take shallow breaths and talk myself down off the ledge. It doesn’t mean anything. Not everyone smiles during every second of every day.
Even worse than the silence on her end, though, is the noise on my end from all of the people who just don’t get it. When I reveal that my daughter is at sleepaway camp for seven weeks, I am often met with gasps or dropped jaws, followed by I don’t know how you do that which, in mom-ese, translates into “I am a much better mother than you because I would never send my child to live away from me, you evil, horrible monster.” So then I feel compelled to defend myself by launching into my schpiel about how it’s so good for her and it’s such a wonderful experience, and yes, I miss her, but I’m willing to sacrifice my time with her so that she can reap the benefits of a summer of independence. Inevitably, this is met with nods of fake understanding, and believe me, I am under no illusion that these people are not running home and telling their husbands or friends about what a horrible, evil monster I am.
But then yesterday I got my first letter from my daughter. Dear Mom and Dad, it said. Hi! I am having so much fun and me and another girl already made up a secret handshake! All the girls in my bunk are really nice. We are doing so many fun new things. This is the best summer ever. I am so excited!
And just like that, all of my fears and worries for her melted away. Okay, I would have preferred a few more details, but whatever. I may have taken my nine year-old to Philadelphia and left her there, but I don’t feel bad about it anymore. I put her letter in my purse, and the next time anyone tells me that they don’t know how I can do it, I’ll just whip it out and show them.