This summer my kids got swept up in the excitement of sleepover camp. It seemed like everyone else was going, so my boys, at ages seven and eight, decided to go, too.
I hesitated at first. I thought they were too young, just plain not ready to be on their own. I was warned by my sister-in-law that if I sent them too young they might get turned off altogether and never go again.
But my eight-year-old decided on his own he was ready to go for six nights with his best friend. Then my seven-year-old insisted on going to a three-day program at another camp all by himself.
"Everyone else is going so I want to go, too," he told me.
"Josh, this is a bad idea," I told him. "I'd feel better if you waited and went with a friend."
"I don't care," he told me. "Sign me up."
Reluctantly, and against my better judgement, I did.
I bought everything on the camper packing list from new bedding to fans and flashlights. I wrote them letters. I even wrote fill-in-the-blank letters they could easily complete and mail to me. I filled my cart with junk food for the bus ride and was sweaty with embarrassment at the grocery store checkout counter as I paid for my sugary bounty.
"It's for sleepover camp," I informed the cashier. "I promise I don't feed my kids like this every day."
Apparently, buying junk food for the bus is what everyone does, so I did it, too. I hoped they'd have fun and learn some new skills. I even hoped they'd enjoy their junk.
In all honesty, sending my boys off was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Josh went first. His dad and I took him to the bus together, along with Ari. I felt sick to my stomach as I watched him board the coach bus alone. I worried about him drowning in a lake, of being lonely, of missing home.
I called the camp every day to ask for updates. They assured me Josh was settling in fine. But at home, his brother wasn't doing so well. Ari couldn't even look at Josh's shoes in the hall because they evoked such feelings of loneliness.
My hands shook. I felt horses galloping in my chest. I couldn't wait to hear about his experience and to hug him again.
"I miss my brother," he sobbed. "I'd do anything — pay any amount — to have him back," he cried.
"But Josh is having fun," I told him. "It's OK. And when you go to camp, you'll have fun, too. Camp is going to be great!"
I sent Ari off the day Josh was due back. "Bye, Mommy, see you in six days," Ari said. He kissed me goodbye and climbed the three steps onto the bus. I felt just as nauseous as I had when Josh left, but I was excited to have Josh home at roughly the same time as Ari would be arriving at his camp.
I waited for Josh's bus on my own. My hands shook. I felt horses galloping in my chest. I couldn't wait to hear about his experience and to hug him again.
When the bus pulled into the lot, Josh was one of the first kids off.
"I hated it and I'm never going back," he said. "Let's go." We grabbed his bag and left.
He told me he cried the whole way there, that he had to take Gravol to sit toward the front of the bus. The most egregious part was when his counsellor made him shower naked rather than allow him to wear a bathing suit in the shower.
"Did you at least make any new friends?" I asked, horrified to hear what really went on while I thought he was doing well.
"No, I hated everyone."
I hoped Ari was faring better. It wasn't the case.
"I don't want to sugarcoat things," Ari's counsellor informed me by phone the next day. "Ari has been crying a lot and he's not eating. Is it OK if I give him Ensure?"
My anxiety only intensified. I spent half a week debating what to do. Should I pick him up and rescue him from his homesickness? Should I leave him there to finish his session so he can have time to adjust and learn independence?
If I was a mess, Josh wasn't much better. He cried himself to sleep at night. "I miss my brother," he cried.
They are attached more deeply than I appreciated.
I realized then that my boys had never been apart in their entire lives. I suppose I assumed that being separated for a few days would be good for them, that it was necessary so they could learn to be individuals rather than a tag team. It was harder in practice than I'd imagined. They have been through everything together — divorce, meeting new boyfriends and girlfriends, sleepovers, new schools, recess. Literally everything. There has rarely been an experience they haven't shared or at least witnessed together. They are attached more deeply than I appreciated. At the very least, I took comfort in their bond.
In the end, Ari's dad and I agreed it would be best for Ari to come home on day six. We wanted him to feel a sense of accomplishment. And by the end, I was told he was adjusting, eating and having fun.
When he got off the bus, his face painted a different story. "I hated it and I'm never going back," he told me. "I just want to put on my baseball uniform," he told me on the way home.
At night after I'd tucked him into bed, I heard him murmuring to himself, "I'm safe now. Home. Home. Home."
He drifted off to sleep.
Now, camp is just a memory. A thing of the past. An experience they each survived. An experience I survived, too.
My kids might never go back to sleep over camp, and that's OK. It's not for everyone and I'm no longer going to submit to the pressure of what everyone else is doing. It turns out it's not the kind of thing you can push on kids, and certainly sending them at the right age is key. Sending them to the right camp and introducing them to it in the right way is essential as well. Plus, they have to be ready and willing to leave the nest. And I suppose I need a little more time before I'm ready to let them go, too.
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