The Thrill and Agony of Overnight Camp

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body” – Elizabeth Stone

I have some vague recollection of having previously heard this quote. It might have even been before I had kids. But let’s face it… no one approaches having kids with a full appreciation for what this means. Otherwise, human beings would cease to procreate altogether.

This week, I have had a real taste for what it means to have my heart go walking outside my body.  Our almost eight year old daughter left us last Saturday for her first ever week of overnight camp – sob!

Let me back up a bit… About 3 months ago, a friend told me that she had signed up her daughter for overnight camp and that she was nervous because her daughter wouldn’t know any of the other campers. I told her that I’d check with my daughter to see if she would be interested in going to camp. I was not prepared for her response, which was a very enthusiastic YES! And that’s all it took. The horse was out of the gate. She was hell bent on going to overnight camp.

As it happened, there was no space left in the camp where my friend was sending her daughter. But I did a bit of research and discovered that there was space available at a camp that our nieces and nephew had attended – conveniently located within a 30-minute drive from our cottage. Our nine-and-a-half year old niece was also interested in going to camp. Unfortunately, we learned that they would be in different cabins due to their age difference. But no matter, it meant that our daughter would know someone else at camp.

For the past couple of months, our daughter has spoken enthusiastically about her upcoming camp experience. In contrast, I had a sense of foreboding every time the topic was raised. I could never quite put my finger on why. It might be that I, myself, had an awful overnight camp experience. I attended “French” camp at a young age and still bear the emotional scars from the ordeal. It could also be that there was a cool factor associated with the die-hard camper set that I never quite related to. Either way, I knew that I did not share our daughter’s excitement for this experience.

This past week has been strange… It has been wonderful to spend some alone time with my son. Given that we have boy-girl twins, my husband and I have historically adopted a divide-and-conquer mentality which has often meant that he paired off with our son, while I was with our daughter. So this dedicated time together has been special. But I would be lying if I said that I felt at ease with our daughter’s absence. I am acutely aware of this hole in my life, even though I understand that it is temporary.

Before leaving for camp, our daughter began the negotiation process for next summer. She wanted to know whether she would be allowed to go for two weeks or even a month. I am not proud of this (especially because I pride myself on not judging other people’s parenting decisions – I truly believe that we all do the best possible job that we can), BUT I will admit that I am guilty of some judgement when it comes to overnight camp. It always seemed to me that parents who send their kids to camp for a month or more must be using camp as a way of offloading their kids. It never occurred to me that these kids love their camp experience and beg to go for multiple weeks.

A year and a half ago, our daughter suffered from separation anxiety. We had made the decision to put our kids in different schools and while our daughter initially seemed fine (even enthusiastic) to be separated from her twin brother, it clearly was not playing out the way we had hoped. She was particularly clingy to me, even displaying anxiety when she didn’t know where I was in our house. So I am astonished by her newfound independence and desire to attend overnight camp. I am at once terrified that this is a sign of things to come and fiercely proud.

I have received several pictures of our daughter throughout the course of this past week (we learned just before our daughter set off for camp that our 21-year old niece would be working there this week). In each one, she has a huge – and genuine – smile on her face. I know in my heart that she is having a wonderful time. I need to prepare myself for the upcoming negotiation. I have no doubt that the campaign for next summer will begin the minute our daughter gets into the car. It won’t be easy, but I know that I will need to find a way to gracefully acquiesce to her demands.  

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