Yesterday, I became a camp parent.
As we had been planning for what felt like decades but was really just a few months, my 8-year-old daughter headed off to GUCI, which podcast listeners (and pretty much everyone else in my life) know is the camp I attended for six formative, unforgettable summers.
I was beyond thrilled when, after researching and debating and discussing the various camp options, my daughter chose to attend GUCI. There was only one problem. There is no easy way to get from our home in Washington, DC, to our home away from home in Zionsville, Indiana. We could do the 10-hour drive, but I’m not big on road trips. My sister and her kids would be driving from Cleveland, but that was still six hours away from us and they had no room in their car. It didn’t take long to settle on flying.
I emailed with the Camp Registrar and learned that, typically, when kids fly to camp, staff members pick them up from the airport and then help get them settled upon arrival. I didn’t want to send my 8-year-old on a plane by herself, so I booked two tickets for us to fly out together. I then planned to return home the same day, presumably after making sure she was all set with the camp staff doing the airport pick-up.
I’m not sure why — maybe it was based on some faded or distorted memory of my own or maybe I’ve seen too many camp movies — but I was quite sure that my daughter was going to be picked up by multiple staff members; that these staff members were going to be retrieving a number of kids from a number of flights; and the whole crew would head from the airport to camp via bus or at least a large van. In this scenario, it was simple and totally logical for me to leave her with the camp folks at the airport and get on my flight home.
The reality, however, was when we came through the security checkpoint, there was one lone staff member there to greet us. As it turned out, this staff member was making four trips to the airport on opening day and, on this particular trip, my daughter was the only camper she was fetching.
It also turned out that my flight home was delayed, and once my daughter left, I would be sitting in the airport by myself for quite some time.
It was at this point that former camp counselor me had to have a very stern talk with parent me. It went something like this:
PARENT ME: Huh. Maybe I should just hop in the car with them, help her get set up in her cabin, help her unpack, and then I can catch a ride back on the staffer’s third or fourth trip to the airport today.
COUNSELOR ME: But didn’t you tell your daughter you’d leave her with staff at the airport?
PARENT ME: Yeah, but that was before. This makes more sense now. Plus, this way I’ll get to visit camp and maybe see some old camp friends.
COUNSELOR ME: But won’t you get to visit camp when you pick her up in two weeks?
PARENT ME: Sure, but —
COUNSELOR ME: And don’t you think it will be easier for her if you guys stick to the plan you settled on months ago?
PARENT ME: She’s remarkably adaptable. And I’m sure it’s hard for her to say goodbye. This way I can stay with her just a little longer.
COUNSELOR ME: But she’s going to have to say goodbye at some point.
PARENT ME: Yeah, but later is better.
COUNSELOR ME: Is it? The longer you put it off, the harder it’s going to be. For both of you, but especially her. You know that.
PARENT ME: But this way I can help her make her bed and unpack her stuff.
COUNSELOR ME: You’re sending her away from home for two weeks and you don’t think she’s capable of making her bed and sticking her clothes on a shelf?
PARENT ME: Well, sure, but —
COUNSELOR ME: And don’t you think you’d be doing her a disservice by sending her the message you DON’T think she’s capable of doing that stuff?
PARENT ME: Now that’s just —
COUNSELOR ME: And don’t you remember how, when you were a counselor, all you wanted the parents to do was GET THE FUCK OUT so everyone could start getting used to camp life?
PARENT ME: I don’t think I was quite that militant about it but —
COUNSELOR ME: Yes you were.
COUNSELOR ME: She’s going to be fine. You want her to have this adventure. Let her start this adventure.
Parent me listened.
It was incredibly difficult, but I helped load her luggage into the oh-so-camp Impala, gave her a big hug and kiss, then watched her drive away, already talking the staffer’s ear off.
Two hours later, my sister (who drove her kids to camp and was therefore actually on the premises) texted me pictures of my daughter already settled in, everything unpacked and in its rightful place on a shelf (for now), delightedly playing a game with a bunkmate. Had I insisted on going with her, I definitely would have taken over the unpacking which she was clearly capable of handling on her own, and possibly would have prevented her from having some key bonding time with a new friend.
I’ve known for a long time that being a camp counselor is extremely hard. As it turns out, so is being a camp parent.
But I think it’s going to be so worth it.