Misunderstood Expectations

I sent my oldest child off to sleep away camp for the first time this summer. It’s actually only half a summer—twenty seven days to be exact. My intentions in doing this were totally altruistic: an experience I knew she would cherish, a chance for her to make new friends, belong to a community outside her family, and practice the independence she yearned for. I would miss her, and the sisterhood her presence provided me in a home that otherwise consists of males. Her father would be sullen for sure, as his little girl went away, and there would be one less set of hands to care for her youngest brother. But these are the sacrifices we make for our children; we suffer silently as we let them go forth and make their way into the world.

But of course it would be dishonest if I did not admit that there are perks to her being absent that some tiny part of me fantasized about in the days before we dropped her off in the lovely Berkshire Mountains. One less person to cook for. One less schedule to coordinate. A little less laundry and a lot less mess. (My daughter is the household slob)  Most importantly, for one blessed month I could reclaim my spot on the sofa to watch my TV shows. Almost ten, my daughter has as of late, developed a pesky habit of wanting to sit with me and watch all my shows, which are entirely inappropriate for her, and by the time she crawls into bed I am ready to hit the sack as well. As a result, I have a huge back log on my DVR. These were the small pleasures that I would allow myself to appreciate while she was away at camp.

She has now been gone for 13 days, and four hours and my new reality has formed. The excess of time I had hoped to have does not exist. Silly me! I naively believed that her physical absence would present to me the gift of time, but it has only redistributed my time amongst some new duties. She still must be cared for, and prepared for, and I still have to clean up after her. Put simply, having a child at sleep away camp is a part time job.

First, there are the letters and e-mails which must be written daily or almost daily. If I skip a day I fret that my poor girl will be the only one in her bunk with out an envelope to open. This notion was confirmed when in a recent letter my daughter stated that she was “the only one in the bunk that didn’t get mail.” Although this seemed impossible as I had slipped something to the postman every day, I had my husband call the camp to confirm that our letters and packages had arrived. The office administrator assured us that Julia was getting mail, as she had sorted it herself, but what Julia probably meant was that she was not getting as much mail as the other girls.

“These girls get so much mail,” she reported to my husband.  So now, in addition to my own carefully crafted letters (I try not to bore her with details of my mundane existence, but at the same time not taunt her with tales of the circus we took her brothers to) I had to solicit the help of friends and family to participate in a letter writing campaign. Wanting to ensure success, I provided and delivered many of the participants with self addressed envelopes.

The irony is that if she had been home, I may have just told her to deal; some people get more letters than others. However, at a distance of 120 miles, I had to provide her with the maternal comfort that she may or may not be missing. I could not soothe her with my voice in accordance with the camp’s no phone call policy, so I would pacify her with my words and the words of 10,000 of our closest friends. I even asked my three year old’s counselor if she could help him create a beautiful piece of art to be mailed to his sister.

And when I have finished dispersing the fifty stamps I purchased, I glance at the book on my nightstand longingly, and sigh. Because before I immerse myself with summer reading, I need to log on to my computer to check BUNK 1, a modern day peeping Tom disguised as a camera that clicks away photos of your child at play, so parents can torture themselves several times daily as they sift through hundreds of photos in search of their child’s smiling face. It’s the equivalent of a Crackberry for parents of the sleep away set. Dangerous and addicting, it is the black hole of time suckers, complete with the highs and lows that drug addicts describe.  If I find my daughter linking arms with her new gal pal, I sail through the day, high as kite, but not before I alert everyone on my e-mail list that Julia is having the best time at camp. But if the camera did not look her way on that particular day, or I detect the slightest scowl (during the recent heat wave there were several of those) I crash and burn, counting the hours until the website is updated and I can get my next fix.

Thanks to my daughter’s neon wardrobe and perma-grin, the camera has not missed her often, but that does not mean I do not worry. For instance, why does she insist on wearing her shrug over her tank top in 95 degree weather? Why does she wear said shrug every day? How many times have I told her not to wear dirty clothes? Does she reek? Is that why the girl she usually hugs in all the photos was standing a few feet away in the last one? I consider dashing off an e-mail to her, begging her to wash that vile shrug, but it seems just a bit too voyeuristic. She is there to be independent and she will be fiercely independent if she doesn’t stick that thing in the laundry. Besides, her latest letter informed me that she wouldn’t be responding to any of my e-mails, as she “hates to e-mail process.” And by the time I get an answer from her about the shrug, she will be home.

The letters arrive twice a week, by snail mail and according to friends with kids at camp; I am one of the lucky ones. My gal actually gives information in her letters. I get a little verbiage to go along with the photos about the activities that she enjoys and the crazy antics that happen only at camp. Most kids give one liners and sign off. But of course reading a letter and then re-reading a letter and then calling my husband and grandparents to read the letter takes time.

And of course there is the matter of cleaning up the mess she left behind. One year of school papers, clothes outgrown, toys lost, toys no longer played with, beg to be extradited from her room. This gargantuan task can only be undertaken when she is hours away and the possibility of her breaking down the door and threatening to pummel me with the stuffed bear she hasn’t seen in years is impossible. I mistakenly allotted one day to overhaul her room, only to find myself still knee deep in her mess after almost a week.

Now, as I finish writing this, there are seven days left until she returns. My DVR is still full; my book dog eared on page 100. Her brother half jokes that he forgets what she looks like, and says that he is not sure he even has a sister. As her absence has consumed so much of my time this last month, I do not share his feelings. I have, however, noticed significant improvement in my coping skills. For instance, I assume she has washed her shrug and her neon colored tank tops because she hasn’t been in a photo for five days. My feelings about this are strangely neutral. It would be nice to see her, but I trust that she is happy, and with no image to stare at, I am free to extricate myself from the computer. I have also figured out that it is the act of getting mail that is important to her, rather then the content of the letters I write. (This I gathered from the fact that she has not responded to one piece of news I delivered about the family happenings while she is away, and has continually ignored my pleas to write her brother) So there are days I simply stick the comics she asked me to send in an envelope with a note that says I Love you, glad you are having fun! It may be too late for this year, but as this is the first of many separations, I am going to look forward to next summer when I can separate more easily. And, of course, hope that the camp installs a video camera in real time to live the experience right along side her.

Published in: on July 18, 2010 at 3:23 pm  Leave a Comment