I have been thinking a lot about my daughter’s return from sleep away camp this week. Last summer, when she came back from camp, she cried for a week and said things like: “This place is evil. I don’t belong here. I belong at camp.” Please don’t imagine the worst of our home. We have a loving and imperfect family where our children are fed, clothed and hugged in equal measure.
My daughter was responding to this simple fact: at home she has three brothers and at camp she has 159 sisters. She attends an all-girls, seven week camp in Maine and for those seven weeks, she is a girl amongst girls. She can sing her heart out and no one will to tell her to be quiet. She can make up dances on the soccer field and no one will tell her to pay attention. She can give herself a bug-juice mustache every day of the week and no one will tell her it is gross. She has 159 girls to choose from for sitting on a lap or holding a hand.
And it’s not just about returning to our home from camp, it’s also about returning to her co-ed school in New York City. After seven weeks of feeling uncensored, my daughter goes back to a place where she feels like she needs to self-censor or risk feeling like an outsider. Her enthusiasm and idiosyncrasies, beloved during the summer at camp, are less valued during the school year. While she watches girls conform to whatever standards are being dictated by the gods of television, film and social media about how to dress, how to speak, what is cool and what is weird, she struggles to maintain her true self in the face of that pressure. She climbs an uphill battle in expressing her love for sports, long shorts and quirky sense of humor.
This summer, we are more prepared for her return than we were last summer. We know to expect the sudden tears when a song comes on the radio that reminds her of camp. We know that she may not want to talk about camp because it makes her feel too sad with missing it. We know she may find her brothers annoying, disappointing and gross. We know that the hugs we normally give her to make her feel better may not be enough in this circumstance. We know that the first month of the school year will be a major adjustment where she is navigating herself back into an old reality.
I think the first weeks home will mostly involve our hearing a lot of stories and songs from camp. It will involve setting up a group chat with her camp friends from around the country. It will involve figuring out how much stuff she is allowed to hang on the walls of her bedroom she shares with her younger brother in the name of self-expression. It will also involve helping her treat her brothers with respect, even if she would prefer to be sitting with her camp friends at the breakfast table. It will involve guiding her in how to channel feelings of sadness and disappointment into feelings of creativity and inspiration. And mostly, it will involve our doing A LOT of listening and very little solving, which as parents is one of the hardest things we can do.
Instead of the usual “WELCOME HOME” banner we usually hang on the front door when she comes home from camp, I think I might try something new this year. Maybe something like this:
“WE HEAR YOU. WE SEE YOU. YOU BE YOU.”