Our son went on a camping trip with his 5th grade class last week. He was gone four days, spent three nights bunking with eight of his classmates and a high school chaperone. They shared a cabin (with heated floors and a private bathroom), one of many scattered around Camp Arroyo, nestled in the eastern foothills of the San Francisco Bay.
High drama days before he left. Lots of spontaneous hugs. He’d grab me on the stairs, or in the kitchen while I stood cooking at the stove, wrap his arms around my waist, bury his face in me and say, “I’m going to miss you, mom.” And, of course I returned the sentiment, which seemed to sate him, and me momentarily. I put on a brave front, but as his day of departure drew nearer I dreaded how much I’d surely miss him.
Other than rare sleepovers at local friends, my son’s first overnight experience without mom or dad was the previous weekend on his first Boy Scout campout. He didn’t seem all that enamored with camping. Dirty and tired when he got back (after less than 24 hours away), he endlessly repeated, “It’s so great to be home.”
My son was not the only kid feeling nervous about the 5th grade campout. Two of his friends admitted feeling scared, one never having had a sleepover anywhere but relatives. Several parents laughingly confessed to feeling anxious about missing their kids over the four days they’d be gone. Many had yet to be away from their children for more than a weekend at most.
I, too, felt apprehensive. My child wouldn’t be safe at home where I could watch out for him, be there for him if need be. A long time ago, when I was in my late teens, my mother told me she never fell asleep all the way until her kids were safely ensconced in their beds at night. Only then would she be able to rest. At the time I figured she was trying to guilt me out for coming in late a lot. But as I helped my son pack for camp the night before his departure, I anticipated three restless nights without him.
Dropped him off at school the next day like any other morning, except for the sleeping bag and pillow he put down on the curb so he could hug me goodbye. He held me hard, and long, which was weird right in front of his school and classmates like we were. I hugged him back, tried to transfer my love without too much drama and left. Heavy sigh as I drove away, watching him in my rear view mirror struggle with his gear and then disappear into the school.
And quite unexpectedly, I burst out crying.
My son was growing up. He needed me less and less. As he moved into his teen years we’d naturally separate, until he’d no longer be completely immersed in my life. We’d been bonded for 11 plus years and I could feel it coming to an end. And sadness consumed me on my way back home, but only for the first block from the school.
As suddenly as I started crying, I stopped. The next four days I didn’t have to stop working at 2:30 p.m. (and 1:00 p.m. every Wednesday) when he came home from school. I didn’t have to be the constant nag, reminding him every other minute to study, practice guitar, do his homework or his chores. The dinner menu didn’t need to be altered to my son’s particular tastes. Sushi was a distinct possibility since our daughter was generally open to trying different foods. And best of all, I didn’t have to play ref or break up their petty sibling rivalries.
The four days my son was away with his 5th grade class passed in the blink of an eye. I published two new articles, finished the second chapter of the final, final, final…etc. draft of my second novel, finished the French screens I was building, found and set my daughter up with a great new 2nd grade math program, and shared with her some of the best Japanese food ever—turning her on to a brand new cuisine. There were no sleepless nights while my son was gone.
He hugged me when I picked him up from school after his trip last Friday. His embrace was warm, and tender as usually, but over quickly. He pulled away, looked around and then picked up his stuff. I carried his pillow to stop him dragging it along the ground as we walked home. He told me about his time away, but I had to prompt him a lot, and though he insisted he was just tired, I felt a contextual difference between us, a distance imposed by him, or me, or both.
We were quiet for quite a bit of the walk, but it didn’t feel awkward. He seemed introspective, more grown up than little kid. His youth, like much of our time together was passing, as it should be, but none the less, there is sadness in this. The upside is as my son moves on, I get to as well. As he embarks on life on his own, I can get back to mine—the life that became secondary when my kids arrived on the scene. From the day they were born they’ve been my first priority, and though perhaps they always will be, their daily demands are getting less as they become more self-sufficient. And as we all grow and mature, I find I no longer fear, but accept, and even welcome the separation occurring between us.