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Her kids go to camp — and she’s the one who stresses out

for The Brooklyn Paper
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It seemed like sleep-away camp would be a test of my boys’ independence. Little did I know, it would be as much a test of mine.

We’d gone shopping to the dreaded sporting goods store with a long list of items to buy — sleeping bags and flashlights, extra bathing suits, blankets and duffel bags big enough to hold 14 days’ worth of underwear, socks and clothes.

As we discussed what they’d realistically need, my boys began to fess up about their penchant for testing the limits of decency, telling tales with sly smiles of wearing the same pair of socks for seven days, the same pair of underwear for… I put up my hand then. I didn’t want to know. It would be up to them even more so at camp, there was nothing I could do. I weighed in simply, “You really should change your underwear, often.”

In that store, I saw my two little baby boys grow taller. Maybe it was just in my mind, like an internal time-lapse film, but they seemed to stand just a little bit straighter, bigger and more solid, as I asked them to make choices for themselves. It was practice for the two weeks ahead when they would be in the care of counselors watching out for a slew of kids.

I stepped away to look at something and when I returned, the boys excitedly showed me the goggles they had chosen.

“Of course, the most expensive…” I began, only slightly in jest.

Oscar nodded his head angrily. “No!” he said defensively, and pointed to the display. “We chose the ones in the middle ACTUALLY,” he said. “The most expensive are a rip-off and the least expensive ones — like you always buy — always break.”

Eli agreed. “Yeah, Mom. We know what we’re doing…”

I was impressed. They’d actually put some thought into their decision, weighed their options, looked at prices and come to a pretty reasonable conclusion. It was more than I could say for myself most times, so I commended them. As I was feeling proud, another feeling crept in: fear.

Holy $#!+. These kids didn’t really need me so much anymore!

It wasn’t as if it was an epiphany. It occurred to me fairly often this summer that they had begun to rely on my opinions less and less, not defiantly, but more just because they were learning to form their own not necessarily exactly the same as mine, that they often decided when to go to bed and when to wake up, what to watch and read and do without bothering to consult me.

I was fostering this, of course, purposely trying to give them the confidence that comes with knowing you can make good decisions for yourself (or, conversely, deal with the ramifications of bad decisions), but still. What, exactly, was I supposed to do with all that time and energy I’d spent deciding and doing most everything for my kids? Much as I complained about it, lamented with other mothers about the challenge of it, worrying about my kids and what they should do took up a fair bit of my focus.

It was nice to see that Eli still needed me, opting out of the packing of his bag despite my yelling at him to at least help a number of times. He still understood that part of me liked to feel useful like that. Oscar on the other hand, proving his mettle as the younger one, had his bag packed neatly in no time. Actually, after he gave me a lesson in how best to fold a shirt, he began to help me pack up his brother. Clearly, he had far less emotional baggage about the task. He just did it.

The next day, as I sat on the steps outside the boys’ conjoined cabins, I heard Oscar grunt and groan as he tried to make his top bunk.

“Now I know how my Mom feels, this is hard…” I heard him say to his new friend.

I smiled. Maybe they weren’t quite done with me yet. I hugged them both hard and said quick good-byes, staring at their tanned long-haired little selves. They’d expressed their nervousness and reservations about going it alone, but there were no signs of it now.

A friend whose son had gone to the same camp the year before — and loved it — saw me as we walked out to the parking lot. “They’ll be fine,” she said reassuringly.

I looked at her. “Them? Oh I know they’ll be fine,” I said, “I’m more worried about me!”

Once alone in the car, Big G and I were unclear on what to do first with our newfound freedom. We looked at each other, slightly mystified, almost like strangers.

“So…” he said.

“So…” I said.

We sighed. It had been so long since we had only ourselves to think about, only ourselves to entertain. The feeling came rushing back: so many options, so what? Restaurants, theater, work? Nothing seemed quite so exciting now, in this moment, as the flush of enthusiasm on my little boys’ faces as they encountered something cool, as the feel of their little bodies as I grabbed them for a hug.

“I think this is why we had kids,” I said. “So we had something to do…”

A week and a half later, I have become much more accustomed to doing my own thing, to eating on my own schedule, working on my own schedule, to doing as I please. The Big G and I have dined out, hit some wineries we had longed to visit for tastings and lazed about much as we did in our days before kids. It’s been a precursor to the empty nest we will face before long. There are nice aspects, I won’t lie, but I have a lot to re-learn about living without the pull of little hands.

Maybe I’ll have to have another one…

Updated 5:25 pm, July 9, 2018
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