It sounded like the best gig ever.
My 11-year-old son, Joe, would go to the YMCA‘s exceptional North Woods Camp for Boys for two whole weeks, while I would live with my bestie, Kate Lemay, who happens to be the Director of Programs for the Camp…as well as for the other three amazing Camps – Pleasant Valley Camp for Girls, Sandy Island Family Camp, and Laughing Loon Day Camp – that coexist on the nearly 300-acre property in Mirror Lake, NH, right on magnificent Lake Winnipesaukee.
Joe would play, learn, discover, make friends, try new things, and GROW in a safe and supportive environment, and I would soak it all in, take pictures and short videos, play with digital storytelling, and see how my content marketing and social media skills and experience might best serve the camps and their online visibility efforts.
My son would be away from home for the first time on his own, and I – I would be around. You know, just in case…because I’ve never let my child out of my sights for so long, and baby, it ain’t easy.
I’ve been here a week now, so I’ve got some tales to tell.
Grab a cup of bug juice and a s’more, and I’ll give you the dirt, as seen from the Mommy-lurking fringes of the first week of overnight camp.
First, I’d like to give a shout out to Mother Nature for setting the scene so divinely. Check-in was idyllic! Blue skies dotted with puffy clouds served as the backdrop as young men greeted their new campers and the parents and families who love them with warmth and ease. Within minutes, Joe was off playing ping pong, chatting away with a crew of other campers, and I lingered awkwardly for a few minutes until I finally acknowledged I was no longer needed (or wanted) there. Reluctantly, I left.
It was at this point that Kate told me I was to have as little contact with Joe as possible, to ensure he had the best camp experience. Hmmmm – I thought I was going to be able to cheat that system under the guise of Mommy Blogging? Alas, after a few lame attempts to shift her thinking on this, I agreed to behave “to the best of my ability.” (Ha! Notice how I built in the opportunity to cheat the system with that qualifier!)
Everything was great, though, and I was more than a little relieved.
Even though Joe is a picky eater, and he occasionally has trouble sleeping at new places, and he’s about as self-sufficient as a mollusk at a disco, every time I caught glimpses of him in the midst of his camp adventures, he looked like he was having a blast. And, MAN, this camp is all about bringin’ the FUN to lucky kids! Joe has been playing tennis, doing archery and riflery, hiking, and diving into the world of Magic: The Gathering, and other card games, with new friends. He’s also been playing epic games of full-field dodgeball, capture the flag, and countless other team challenges and feats of awesomeness. Other kids have been showing off their skills on the many basketball courts, going through the rigors of the YMCA lifeguard training and certification programs, horseback riding, waterskiing, building things, swimming, kayaking, canoeing, and just being FREE, without the confines of parent supervision.
Then there’s this surprising element: The built-in mentorship part!
Every time I had the chance to talk to one of the teenagers – the LITs (Leaders-in-Training) and the CITs (Counselors-in-Training), they’ve blown me away with their presence and maturity. Four years, five years, eight years – these kids have been coming here since they were little lads, and now they’re psyched to show off their hard-won chops with the newbies and up-and-comers.
All of these seasoned gents had stories about how camp has helped them become stronger, smarter, and better human beings. What’s more, they really care about the younger boys, and they understand what a big influence they are on the campers, because they themselves are just a few years out of being one themselves. These sweet souls are here to help, guide, and support my son, and I love it! More than a few times I’ve felt my Mommy blood swirl with pride, whenever I see the teenagers taking campers aside to offer advice, listen to issues, and share their own experiences. It’s a beautiful thing to behold. Truly.
And then last night happened…
I was walking by the dining hall, and the boys were coming out. My Mommy senses perked up, and I found myself frantically scanning the landscape to find my son. Sure enough, there he was! He came running over to me – and I noticed his lower lip was trembling.
“Mom, I wanna go home.”
“What’s the matter? Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I’m just really, REALLY homesick. I wanna go home.”
“Are you having fun?”
“Yes, I’m having fun – it’s not that. I just miss my bed. I’m having trouble sleeping. I miss you and Dad. I miss the house. I just wanna go home.”
Crap. His beautiful blue eyes were pleading with me behind a suspended sheet of tears.
“Let’s head to your cabin, Joe.”
As we walked, my efforts to reframe this situation for him sounded as useless and unconvincing to me as they surely did to him. No matter what I said – “You’re halfway through! Only a week left! You’re doing so many cool things! You’re meeting great friends! You’re living it up!” – he wanted none of it. I couldn’t hug him or press pause and let him just cry it out. He fought back the emotion with every bit of his being, but the more he talked, the worse it got.
Ultimately, I told him to talk to his counselors.
“No! I’m embarrassed. I don’t want them to know I’m feeling like this.”
“Go through the proper channels,” I said, forcing myself to keep a safe distance and show as little emotion as possible. “If your counselors think it best for you to leave, then I’ll be right up the road, and I’ll get the call.”
It’s now 24 hours since that conversation. No one has called. I have no idea what happened, who said what, or how anything was handled. I’m sitting in a restaurant with wifi, five miles away from camp, doing my best to stay away from Joe’s sights.
“Camp is fun, but camp is HARD, too, and no one talks about that.”
That’s what Kate said last night, as she was trying to console me. Kate’s been immersed in the YMCA’s philosophies, trainings, and passionate missions for 15 years. She went to overnight camp as a kid. She’s watched campers become beautiful and happy adults, and families return year after year to bond and play and grow together.
“Camp is where you grow, and growing isn’t always easy. You’re forced to figure things out on your own. You’re forced to ask for help from relative strangers, to get out of your comfort zone, to feel insanely uncomfortable and work through it. These kids are go-go-going all day long. They’re having a blast, and they’re mentally and physically exhausted. Many – if not most! – of them are missing home immensely. And yet, years later, they’ll credit camp as the place where they discovered their own strengths and mettle. This is where kids learn they’re much, MUCH stronger than they think they are. Once they realize they can – and do! – survive this time in one piece, they build confidence muscles that serve them their whole lives. They become incredible human beings, and camp is part of that evolution.”
Okay, Kate. I see it. I believe you. I get how this could be a wonderful thing AND horrible at the same time. Wonderful because my amazing first-born child needs an environment where he can spread his wings AND toughen up, amaze himself AND work through the chunks of fear and anxiety that chip away at his self-confidence.
And it’s horrible because growing IS hard. Parents know this – I know this! – and sending our beloved and trusting babies into the wolf den of tough love feels like taking a dive into a 12-foot deep pool of cow manure. Yes, this is hard for the kids, because two weeks can feel like 20 years when you’re feeling homesick and lonely and ready to call it quits.
Thing is, camp is hard for parents, too.
My husband and I miss our son. Now, it’s a little different in our situation because I’m living on camp property, and seeing me was the catalyst for Joe’s cracking. If I wasn’t at camp, I may have had an easier time choosing obliviousness over heart-wrenching worry, self-doubt, and cellular maternal aching.
But Kate tells me Joe is definitely not alone with his feelings. She’s had many phone calls with anxiety-ridden parents who received letters from their kids, saying they’re uncontrollably homesick, begging their parents to come pick them up.
Our only choice is to trust what the counselors and Directors and staff are telling us:
Our children are FINE. More than fine. They WILL get through this. And when they do, they’ll be better humans for it.
In fact, it all comes down to one of my least favorite truths about life: The only way out is through.
So my job as a parent is to allow my child to figure it out. The counselors are working their pitooties off to distract all the kids, keep them engaged and amused, active and busy. The setting is glorious, filled with fun and adventure and freedom.
I asked one of the 16-year-old counselors what he did or said to help first-time campers overcome their intense desire to quit camp early.
“I take a deck of cards, and ask the kid how many cards are in a deck. ‘Easy, 52!’ they’ll say to me. Then I take two of the cards and place them down next to rest of the deck. ‘See these cards? These represent weeks in a year. These two are the only two you have here at camp. The rest belong to school and your family and all the responsibilities of your life at home. These two camp weeks are the only time you get to be YOU, in a place designed exclusively for your maximum FUN. Can you see how little time you have here? Make the most of it! It’ll be over before you know it, and believe it or not, you’ll be wishing for what you’ve got here.’”
I’ve got one more card-week left.
Then I’ll be able to nurture and spoil and laugh with the 11-year-old kid in my life who’s becoming more of a man every day, whether I like it or not. As much as I’d like to think his family is all he needs to thrive in this life, I know this isn’t the case.
It’s a big world out there, and Joe needs a great toolbox of experiences and resources to draw upon to be successful – to be happy, healthy, confident, creative, centered, brave, positive, helpful, and connected to the power, magic, and mysteries of being a spiritual being having a human experience.
Luckily, this is exactly what the YMCA is famous for, worldwide.
I didn’t get the call yet. I think he’s going to make it.
If he can make it, so can I.
(Though I sure do wish I had a few camp songs and counselors in my arsenal to distract me!)