Sending my daughter off to sleepaway camp for the first time

     Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer's daughter (right) enjoying camp. (Courtesy of Camp Eden Village)

    Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer's daughter (right) enjoying camp. (Courtesy of Camp Eden Village)

    When my son, now 12, was just a few months old, I was lucky to have a good friend who’d also had her first baby within weeks of mine. Happy, excited, nervous and more often than not zombie-eyed from lack of sleep, we met up for weekly stroller walks with the babies and talked openly about the fears and joys that came with being a new mom.

    One day my friend shared, “In my darkest moments, I think it’s only seven years until I can send him to summer camp.”

    I laughed — but her face showed me that she was serious. My friend had grown up in Philadelphia and spent four, six and up to eight weeks every summer since age seven at a sleepaway camp. For me, a Philly transplant from central Pennsylvania, the seasonal ritual of saying bye to elementary-aged children was totally foreign.

    Summers growing up in my hometown were like summer camp — days at the neighborhood pool, evenings playing softball or chasing fireflies with kids in the neighborhood. I didn’t know any kids who went to overnight camp. My first experience spending a weekend away from my parents was for a youth group retreat when I was in eighth grade — and by that point, my parents and I were good and ready to say bye to each other for 48 hours.

    Fast forward to now: my son, who has special needs, has not yet gone away to overnight camp, but my typically developing daughter, who is nine, will go for a six-day “taste” of overnight camp this summer.

    She’s going with a friend and we’ve chosen a camp that’s excellent at nurturing kids’ creativity and spirituality. She’s excited — and we all feel good about this opportunity for her to try new activities, meet new friends and test her chops at being away from mom and dad.

    So why do I get a queasy feeling when I think about dropping her off? I’m going to really miss her is it —and know that I need to prepare myself for our separation.

    “Every camp is different with goodbye rituals,” said Lori Rubin, Director of jkidphilly and a program specialist at Camp JRF in the Poconos. “A quicker goodbye is better — so that your child can get acclimated to camp.”

    Rubin, whose college-aged children are now working at the camp where they grew up going, also suggests that parents establish a post-drop-off ritual for themselves. “Go for coffee, take a walk…take a moment before jumping back into life,” she said. “Know that you have picked a place that you trust and where your kids will be okay.”

    That is what’s getting me through — knowing that we’ve made a careful decision and that if I have more tears than my daughter does, this is a good and natural thing. I am eager to find out about what this six-day of stretching will be like for her and am confident that she will be just fine, even if she does have some teary moments of missing home.

    Post-script: My daughter enjoyed an amazing six days at Camp Eden Village. She had some stretches of serious homesickness, made new friends and loved hanging out with the goats and chickens at the camp. I sobbed a good part of the car ride home.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.