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Sleepaway Camp: Parenting a Child from Afar

Camp offers many wonderful opportunities for my daughter. But what about me?

My summer began when my daughter arrived home from sleep away camp. Her absence was a whirlwind of letter writing,  package sending and good old fashioned maternal worry.

I naively believed her time at camp would free up my own time, but this is her third summer away—I should know better.

By now many of you have viewed the Xtranormal You Tube video (posted with this story) where one mother explains to the other what it is like to have a child away at camp. Her friend asks her why she keeps repeating the words "refresh, refresh," and she explains that she spends her days pressing the refresh button at the camp's website  to hunt for photos of her son.

These searches were my number-one time drain, as I scrutinized the background of every picture for a hopeful glimpse of my daughter's  big toe. I knew she lived when I  spotted an identifiable body part. This is time consuming work, a kind of "Where's Waldo" unless you get lucky and your Waldo becomes chummy with the photographer.

If I was lucky enough to see her on a bicycle, at least I knew how she spent her day. And somehow, my free floating maternal anxiety lifts when I have a mental picture of her engaged in activity.

And when she was on the outs with the photographer, my time was stretched more as I e-mailed her friends parents to inquire if they had any tidbits that would give me a glimpse into her camp life. After three years I have learned which friends write newsworthy letters. This is how I was apprised that her glow stick exploded on her bed and she had to sleep without a blanket for two nights. The news actually made me happy. I knew she probably got a good laugh, so I allowed myself a chuckle, too.

It's not that she doesn't write herself. In fact last week, I got a letter that read,

"Sorry it is a required letter writing day, but I have no time to write."

And she didn't always wait until a trip to the camp's canteen hinged upon her writing home. My daughter, when she had the time, believed that letter writing was a way to issue demands.

"Please send my robe and facial cleanser ASAP."

Or, my personal favorite:

"Please leave my brothers home with Grandma when you come to pick me up. It's not that I don't miss them, but they are annoying on car trips. Also, can you e-mail the camp director and ask if you can bring the dog?"

It appears that being forced to agree with her brothers on a radio station is far more irritating than dog drool.

That request was easy to ignore. But parenting from a distance really consumed me when I decided to entertain her strongly worded requests. An e-mail arrived one Thursday afternoon that said

"Please send jazz shoes, size 7.5. I need them by Monday for the play."

She clearly doesn't grasp that the postal service has millions of other costumers, but she should know that there was no way I was going to pay overnight shipping that would cost more then the shoes.

The truth is, if she were home, I would not indulge her. But she is not home, and e-mail communication has a 24-hour delay, which doesn't really allow for teachable moments. With her out of reach, I find myself acquiescing, but not after an hour of self-inflicted mental torture about whether I should.

So, I spent my afternoon calling area dance stores, and then drove forty minutes to get the shoes, all along cursing myself for yet another day spent parenting a child who was supposed to be mastering self-reliance as she frolicked in the mountains.

People often ask if I miss my daughter while she is at camp. It is a seemingly simple but strange question, one that I have difficulty answering. Michael Thompson, Ph.D., recently published a book called "Homesick and Happy" where he pleads the case for parents to let go and send their children away from the pressures of the academic year and give them the opportunity to master homesickness and grow confidence and independence from the experience.

I want her to be at camp, relaxing and developing in a way that she cannot when she is home with her parents. I trust the camp to keep her physically and emotionally safe, and I believe she can handle challenges she encounters at camp.  I think about her—constantly—but that isn't the same as missing her, which implies to me that I would want her home. I don't.

However, in three summers she has mastered the art of being away from home. I, however, have not mastered having her away. I want to write less, worry less. I want to take advantage of having one less kid at home and clean out that closet, or get a facial. But she is home and I am thrilled not to have to look at the website for photos, wait on-line at the post office for her or wonder how she is doing.

As for next summer, her bags are packed. So are her brothers.

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