Don’t get me wrong, I love my children. But sometimes, I like it when they’re not around.
On second thought, don’t get me wrong, I love that my children are spreading their wings, having experiences outside of my immediate orbit, and growing independent in lots of new ways. But sometimes I want to say, “Hey, wait a sec. Where do you think you’re going, growing up—and away—so fast? Come back!”
I guess we really never can ‘have it all.’ Either that or the grass is always greener. Or pick one of any number of cliché expressions.
This summer was our ‘Summer of Separation.’ My eldest, the 10-year-old, went to sleep-away camp for the first time. He returns this coming weekend, after seven weeks away.
Yes, just let that soak in. My first baby was far, far away from me. For. Seven. Weeks. In other words, he was gone for an eternity.
When it comes to the concept of sleep-away camp, it either clicks or it doesn’t. I was lucky enough when I was growing up to be able to go away to camp for a full summer. Grateful now to have the opportunity to send our son, it was a no-brainer for me that he would go. He’d have the chance to grow and mature, forging new relationships while experiencing the kind of traditional sports and camping idyll in the mountains by a lake.
On the other hand, my husband (who’d never been to camp) and my in-laws at first thought I was insane for thinking seven weeks away from home was an appropriate thing for a 10-year-old to do.
I couldn’t wait, I was so excited for him. I organized all the things he’d need to take, sewing labels in every single piece of clothing he’d take, including both socks in each of the 24 pairs the camp suggested we pack for him. I was envious of the waterskiing, the campfires, the camp sings and color war, wondering why there was no such thing as camp for 44-year-old moms someplace out there too.
My son was excited too, until the day he left, when he suddenly grew pretty nervous. He didn’t eat breakfast and didn’t really want to talk about anything having to do with camp. But as soon as he saw the buses and the other kids getting dropped off by their parents, suddenly something clicked for him. I watched him transform, turning to face the kids he was meeting for the first time, slowly taking step after step away from us, until he was gradually swallowed up by the dozens of kids pressing forward. I spotted him for but one more brief moment, as he climbed the stairs and walked onto the bus—without even turning around to wave goodbye.
I had pushed him out of the nest, and he had flapped his wings and flown. What had I done?
Luckily, there’s a technological phenomenon that’s been developed in the years since I was a camper. Nowadays, camps take hundreds of pictures of their campers having fun every day and post them on their websites for parents ravenous for a glimpse of their children. So now, like the thousands of other mama birds who similarly pushed their chicklets out of the nests, I search each night for pictures of my baby’s time away from me. Of course, I see he’s thriving (not to mention two inches taller and looking much more world-wise).
I knew he would thrive, and that’s why I wanted him to go. Yet I can’t bear that he’s out of my sight so much that I obsess over the computer screen for any possible photographic proof that he’s doing okay without me.
Believe me, I fully see the irony in all of that.
My daughter is also experiencing her own version of separation, which sadly comes in the form of separation anxiety. She’s spent a lot of the summer missing two very important people, with her brother away at camp and my husband travelling quite a bit for work. As a result, my girl has become pretty darn clingy. She cries just about any time I leave her, and getting time and space to write these columns, take a shower or make a phone call has become something needing a great deal of tactical, advance planning.
Which brings out that inner conflict: I miss the peace and quiet and solitude when my kids are there, and yet it’s them I miss when they’re away.
With Back-to-School time coming up in just a few short weeks, I know lots of parents are feeling those same mixed emotions. Two years ago, when I wrote about the rumored possibility of full-day kindergarten, some parents disagreed with my hopes that the rumors were true, saying they preferred to spend more time with their little ones. I wondered: Did it make me less maternal that I didn’t feel the same way?
I know some moms in a neighboring town who throw a little party on the first day of school every year, with yummy pot-luck brunch dishes and bottomless pitchers of Bloody Marys and endless mimosas. They’re clearly celebrating the start of another bit of increased separation from their little ones. Cheers! They’re out of our hair!
I guess I’ll have to take my cues from someone very wise—my very own son. When he was five and I explained what ‘going away to college’ meant, he looked at me like I had suddenly sprouted horns.
“That’s crazy, mama. I’ll never leave you.”
Just last spring, shortly after he turned 10, he asked me which colleges had great soccer programs. He thought he could get a jump start on scouting them now.
It seems the idea of leaving wasn’t so crazy anymore.
I guess as my children grow more able to take on the ebb and flow of life as time marches on, so too do we as parents learn to adjust to the reality of what the transitions ahead will hold.
As long as they know the way home to come visit, the nest will always have some space for them. And I promise to make the time.