Sleepaway Camp and the Precocious Empty Nest Syndrome

Sleepaway Camp and the Precocious Empty Nest Syndrome

Scroll through your Facebook this time of year and you’ll notice a lot of buses, luggage, and tearful hugging displayed throughout your feed.

Your friends- and you- are likely saying goodbye to your little cherubs, off to their sleepaway camps now that school’s over. Tears of sadness flow down your faces, as you hold on to your child, hugging them one final, extra long time, savoring the moment with that ultra tight squeeze. Last minute virtual checklists usually spin through your head at this time, like Santa on Christmas Eve, already loaded on his sleigh and ready to go- as he realizes he’s left something behind with a frustrated shake of his head. In your case, it’s usually a special something that you purchased, and for this very exact occasion. Oops.

Forgetting something at home and remembering only once you're at the bus saying goodbye- part of the routine of sleepaway goodbyes
forgetting and regretting- not fulfilling the checklist

Mental note is hereby made to send forgotten item via mail in that always necessary package of love- often prepared well in advance of their actual departure, and filled to the brim with cavity-inducing treats and games they usually bring back home at summer’s end, still in their original wrapping.

Back to our scene, cell phones, whipped out by all adults present, snap one, two, or more realistically, seventy-four photos of the bus, as it pulls away, leaving any trace of your child save the puffs of exhaust trailing behind.

Before it leaves- right about the time your child is climbing up into the abyss of that sleepaway bus entrance (what happens after that sharp turn past the driver, anyway? It’s as if they’re swallowed up by the magic powers that be, ones that only they are aware of)- you as the parent can’t help but feel an emptiness inside, much like the first day of kindergarten, when that same child walked off into the classroom, and left you standing behind, wiping away not only your tears but also their babyhood.

And with the snap of a finger, they’re gone. The bus takes off, and gently rolls on its way, turning a corner and out of your sight.

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You’re left minus one. Or two. Or three, depending on how many of them normally make up your team. Either way, you’re less than where you started off and it leaves you lonesome on the inside. This transition- the feeling conjured up as you settle back home into the eerily quieter surroundings, reminds me, on a smaller scale, of teenagers leaving their parents behind when they leave for college. In both scenarios, after all, you’ve made the necessary mental preparations (which may never be enough) and then spread your wings and said goodbye.

The storm before the calm. Preparing for a child's sleepaway experience.
the storm before the calm: the scene before any child’s preparation to go away..

No matter the scale of the ensuing separation- no matter the time period in which you’ll be checking for their presence online, refreshing again and again, looking for even the slightest of details- that funny mole on their arm in the corner of that picture, or the new hat you got them especially for this trip (or rather, where is that hat and why are they NOT wearing it?) – they’re gone. And although they’re coming back, there’s still a big void they leave behind. It’s termed ’empty nest’ when we speak of our older children, but it applies so beautifully here, too- to us sleepaway parents. I call it the precocious empty nest syndrome. We’re dropping them off in someone else’s hands, trusting this third party entity, and hoping the kids fare well and fend for themselves with ease- or else learn a lesson or two in navigating through their experience.

In some aspect, it can feel even harsher in the precocious nest setting than in the real thing. This is because in most cases, sleepaways don’t allow communication between parent and child.

*Insert gasp here*

Yes, it’s true. No talking to your child- the usual rule at sleepaway. A complete separation from the fam. A jail sentence for both sides, with no final call, no last rites, and only a mental image of their final ascent into the aforementioned abyss playing over and over again in your head. This no-contact rule is usually heavily enforced and always met with at least a handful of conniving children, who cleverly manipulate the system to somehow break it (either by sneaking cell phones in or pretending to be sick and coercing the doctor on call that speaking to mom is medically necessary in their made up ailment of choice. I should know- I’m on the receiving end). These are the future politicians of America!

And yet, is it at all possible that those tears of sadness that flow down your cheeks, are made up by, at least in part, a little bit (the teensiest, weensiest little wee bit) of joy, at the impending weeks of temporary peace and quiet? I’d venture a guess that they are. But I’ll just leave it at that. Delving into this point is like stepping into no man’s land- a place where parental guilt takes phantom form, hovering above you and haunting you through your attempt at a good ‘ole time.

Because, after all, you are now at the start of precocious empty nest syndrome. As you say your goodbyes, and head home to scroll through your equivalents’ bus photos, clicking the gasping emoji, or the heart, or the one with the tear, the sulking has officially begun. But while you’re sad, and down, and missing that minus one, or two, or three, do me a favor and start making some plans. Plan something big. Something you’ve been wanting to do. Swipe away that phantom guilt and make that plan. Sure, you can cry it out at first, and take your time doing it, but then wipe off those tears when you’re through, pick yourself up, and then go do it. Leave that empty nest behind because it’s going to be filled again before you know it.

Then one day, down the road, when you’re actually upon the heels of the real empty nest, you’ll be emotionally experienced to set them free like a pro.

In line to enter the abyss, aka the part of the bus following the angle past the driver- your child always disappears into it as he climbs onto the bus
waiting to climb into the abyss

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