Motherhood is a fickle business. As someone who has always felt a strong connection to my own childhood, raising girls is a push – pull ride where I often feel I am being stretched in two directions at once. Emotions bubble to the surface easily as I empathize with my children’s feelings and needs, flashing back to my own experiences whenever challenges arise. On the one hand it makes me a compassionate parent who listens carefully and encourages them to tell me how they feel. I try to make things right for them when I can without shielding them from inevitable hurts. On the other, sometimes I get hurt, or let my own baggage about childhood color my reactions to things they’re going through, and I’m not sure that really helps them.
I took my older daughter Grace to camp two days ago and all sorts of feelings came up for me. She was nervous as we got ready to make the ninety minute drive to southern Vermont and she literally circled me as I tried to do some yoga in preparation for the drive, peppering me with questions about my own camp experience. Did I make friends the first day? Was I sad at bed time? Did I like my bunk mates? Did I have trouble sleeping? And on and on. I made reassuring comments as I tried to ignore my own anxieties about being away from her for so long.
When Grace was a baby, my best friend who was a few years ahead of me down the parenting road advised: “Parenthood is just one long letting go.” I am now somewhere between dropping her off for her first day of kindergarten and taking her to college in a few years. On her first full day of school I had stuffed down the urge to cry as I hugged her good-bye, which surely didn’t help her feel confident about being on her own. I could remember my mother leaving me at school for the first time; the pang of fear in my chest, and the smile on my teacher’s face as she tried to distract me by showing me where to put my things and what would happen next. Driving to camp Grace and I talked about her nervousness and decided there was nothing to fear. It was just the not knowing and never having been there aspect of camp that was scary. We didn’t discuss our common anxiety about being apart, and it was my job to put on a good face and tell her I knew it would be fine. I had learned to contain my own anxiety until I left her.
My husband likes to remind me how important it is not to let your kids be your entire life so that when they leave you don’t lose your sense of self worth. I’m so glad to be an artist because I have always needed to make things for my own mental health. I get very grumpy when I neglect my own work, so I make time for it. But I also know that the day I take her to college will be one of the hardest of my life. Taking her to camp, and kindergarten, are just warm ups for that day. First full day apart. First two weeks. First several months…
While she is at camp for two weeks, non-emergency phone calls are limited to Sundays and without internet or cellular service we won’t be checking in via social media or texting. It felt strange driving away, knowing I wouldn’t talk to her for at least a week and I vowed to write her a letter the next day, which I did, and it felt really good. The woman at the post office said it would only take a day to get there and I imagined Grace opening my letter on Tuesday, having been away for two full days. By then she would be settling in and I hoped enjoying herself. My letter might pull at her emotions and make her miss me more than she would otherwise, but I also knew how much it would mean to her that I had written right away.
The interesting thing is that I’m sure it’s harder for me than it is for her. I miss her terribly, more than I imagined I would, and more than I have when she has gone away for a few days on a trip with friends. In those cases, I knew she was having fun and even if we didn’t text or call, I knew we could if we wanted to, which made a difference. Part of my missing her is wondering how she is. I have no way of knowing if she’s really having a good time or just putting on a good face. Are there girls there she can relate to? Is she feeling lonely or left out? It’s hard to stop mothering her just because she’s not with me.
Shortly after we arrived, late, having gotten lost, Grace went with the other campers to round up the horses from the fields and bring them back to the barn. Grace and I hugged briefly and I felt this welling up of emotion, a mix of regret and sadness and fear that probably matched her own feelings but then she walked off easily. I know she will be fine, just as she was in kindergarten and will be in college. I stood and spoke to the director for a while and felt very reassured that the culture of the camp will be a good fit for Grace. A lot of the camp is focused on taking care of the horses and riding which, in the words of the director, “demands a lot of kindness, respect and clear communication. The girls tend to treat each other with the same level of respect that the horses require.”
A lot of preparation had gone into getting there. We had to buy a lot of riding gear- boots, chaps, breeches, gloves, a vest and her own lead rope- and make sure she had enough warm clothes and various things like warm slippers, a good flash light, her own set of towels and two sets of twin sheets. She needed muck boots and a laundry bag. I spent weeks online in the spring getting all the gear, making sure it fit, sending it back and reordering until she had everything she needed. We had spent the day before she left washing clothes and marking each and every item she was bringing with her name in black sharpie. “My mother had to actually sew labels into all my clothing because they didn’t have sharpies back then,” I told her. “Come to think of it, my mom tried these iron on labels the first year I went and they all fell off in the wash. I told her she had to sew them in like all the other mothers had, and the next summer did.”
We drove in rain that came and went with the varying dark clouds overhead as we trundled down the interstate. I had clicked on a link on the camp’s website for directions and the page was up on my computer which Grace held on her lap. We listened to Justin Timberlake and sang every song together-It’s like you’re my mirror, my mirror staring back at me, keep your eyes on me…- for the fifty odd miles to our exit. I reached over and rubbed her arm, asking how she felt and she said she was still excited and getting more nervous. When we exited the interstate she read the directions off the computer which had us take several roads and routes for sixteen miles until we reached the last step and there was no camp. “Let me see that,” I said, pulling over to the side of the dirt road with farms on either side of us and took the computer onto my lap. “Shit.” The directions had us at a random location that shared one word of the name of her camp. “I should have double check these directions. What an idiot.”
It was 2 pm, the time we were supposed to be there, and the only thing we could do was drive the sixteen miles back to the interstate and hope that we would have cell service enough to get the address of the camp and use the map on my phone. It was sprinkling and Grace was calm. “It’s fine Mom. It doesn’t matter.”
Grace was very upbeat as we fumbled around on the roads trying to figure out our way, back tracking and turning around more than once. “It’s actually good we had to go through all this,” she said, “because I’m not nervous anymore. I just want to get there.”
When we finally arrived an hour and a half later, it was raining hard. Her roommate showed us their room and I offered to bring her things in while she went to an orientation meeting already in progress. I lugged the heavy bin full of all her stuff up the stairs and into her small shared room. As I stared at the bed and the empty chest of drawers that would be hers I considered unpacking for her and making her bed, since the other girls had already done that. But I realized she would be fine. She’s old enough to do it all by herself. Maybe her roommate would even help.