The six hour drive home from Maine after visiting day weekend offered me significant opportunities for reflection. Full disclosure, much of my time on the drive was spent wondering why, without fail, the GPS lady always interrupts the favorite parts of songs to provide directions. How does she know to piss me off in that particular way? But the rest of those six hours were spent thinking about my kids and what went well over the weekend. Of course, I also thought about what I could have done better as a parent. This was my eighth visiting day, so I’ve gotten pretty good at the whole thing and can be a clinically accurate critic of where I fell down.
For those of you who have never experienced sleep away camp visiting day, the day itself can be divided into three parts: manic scheduling, playing “for fun” and heading downhill. When I first arrive at camp, like a pack mule carrying tote bags filled with the entire candy aisle from the supermarket, all I want to do is hug and kiss my kids. Generally they let me. They also look deep into my eyes to make sure I’m crying from joy to be seeing them. (To be clear, they want me to cry when I first see them. They do not want to see my tears when I leave them.) Once the initial squeezes are done, we slowly make our way to the bunks, lugging cases of soda and praying that my child has a sheet on his bed. Nine times out of ten he does not, but don’t worry, he “sleeps on top of his blanket.” I drop my bags by his bed (if you have more than one child, always leave your stuff in the youngest child’s bunk – it will be the cleanest.)
Then the heavy lifting begins for the day: figuring out our schedule, navigating who has what activities and who actually wants to go to their activities, who has an important game they want me to watch etc. I get VERY committed to the schedule we come up with, probably because it gives me the illusion that I will truly make the most out of every moment of the day. I lock in on that schedule hard and fast because it makes me feel better and more in control of a complicated day. But here’s the rub, when my kid wants to stop for a quick tetherball game so that he can kick my ass in 10 seconds, I hurry him along telling him we don’t have time. I’ve done it before and I did it this visiting day. WTF Mom? In my effort to make the most of my time with my kid, I’m hustling my kid past the thing he most wants to do with my in that very moment.
Lesson number one: I should make a schedule with my kids to give visiting day some structure, but I need to be flexible enough to make time for the unexpected moments together.
Once we’ve concluded our Geneva Convention to work out who is going where and when, we then head to the activities, some of which I watch and some in which I participate. Often there is some kind of intramural game, flag football or basketball, that has no bearing on the outside world but is literally the most important thing at camp. The parents all line up along the side of the field or court and I usually start out doing so in a very controlled manner. At first, I perfectly model what I tell parents in my program to do: I don’t coach my kid from the sidelines and I’m super positive. But as the game on visiting day gets more and more intense, my self-control begins to slip and I literally start to tell my kid what to do move for move, undermining my entire professional philosophy!!! “Shoot it” and “Cut to the basket” emerge from my mouth as if there is an alien inside of me that has taken over my body. My kid looks over at me in horror. I am eventually able to reign it in and shut up, probably because it’s clear my son’s team is going to win, but the slight sting of shame tinges my cheeks as I recognize that I have already screwed up and it’s only 10am.
This blunder as the spectator of a game is only a precursor to my most spectacular visiting day lapse, when I’m actually playing in a game with my kids. The lapse is all the more stark because it basically violates EVERYTHING I ever teach coaches and parents about how to positively engage kids in sports. Every year at my boys’ camp we play a big soccer game with parents, counselors and campers. It’s meant to be fun, low-key and encouraging , especially for the youngest campers, of which my youngest son is one. Many years ago I had to stop shooting in this annual soccer game after hitting the ball wide of goal and nailing a grandmother watching a tennis match nearby. (One of my most regretful moments in life, EVER.) So I no longer shoot in the game, but I do make an effort on the field, even risking being labeled a “try hard” by my 13-year-old son, because I think it’s important for boys to see a woman playing sports competitively. In these games, my sons tend to stand in front of the goal and cherry-pick, because remember, the game is meant to be ALL ABOUT FUN. I know this intellectually. I’ve also had EIGHT summers to get used to it, except, as I’m watching my youngest child stand in front of the goal and wait for the ball to be delivered to him on a silver platter while I truck up and down the field to play defense, I lose my shit. I turn and shout down field to my delicious, sweet, adorable, 9-year-old son, my in front of everyone, that “perhaps he’d consider moving to the ball” and “maybe he’d think about coming back on defense?” Well done, Mom. Not only do I start criticizing my kid in front of all of his buddies during a game we’re playing “for fun,” but I’m also doing it sarcastically. Double win.
Lesson number two: Camp visiting day is not the time to coach my kid or criticize his playing. I am a guest in his world and I need to honor the choices he makes on the field and KEEP MY MOUTH SHUT.
At this point in the day, I’ve watched my kid play ten different sports; I’ve eaten the delicious camp lunch while my kid eats potato chips and a dozen chocolate chip cookies; I’ve gone swimming in the lake (which deserves it’s own earnest and sincere piece) and now there are only a couple of hours left in the day. Metaphorical gray clouds appear in the blue Maine sky and the mood heads downhill. My normally chatty kid begins to get quiet and even a little morose. She starts to drag her feet in the pine needle path and begins squeezing me at random moments, as if to check I’m still actually real. I find myself countering the plummeting mood by becoming artificially upbeat, my sing-song voice chirping out inane questions about camp in a desperate attempt to keep the mood light. However, as the knowledge that I will soon be leaving my child creeps in and I can’t quite keep my own panic at bay, I counter that feeling by taking lots of photos with my kid. Although my daughter’s growing sadness is evident in her face in EVERY photo I snap in these last couple of hours, I continue to believe it is critical to capture every last moment by taking more selfies. Right up to my final moments with my daughter when her tears actually begin to fall, I still think that it is a good idea to click away. I literally have a photograph of my daughter looking at the camera and crying. Um, what part of my brain decided that was a good idea? WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING?!!! I finally stop taking photos, give her a huge hug, hand her over to a counselor and get the hell out of dodge.
Lesson number three: My panic at leaving my child is less important than my child’s sadness at being left. So I need to put my goddam phone away, give her a hug, tell her I love her and head home.