I hardly slept a wink the night before Sophia’s first day of camp. Larvae squirmed in my intestines. Butterflies hatched and struggled against the walls of my stomach in a desperate attempt to push their way out. At least, that’s how it felt as I lay there, sleepless and anxious.
It’s not like I haven’t had her out of my sight before. She’s been with a babysitter from infancy, though it’s always been someone in the home, while I worked a few feet away in our study. The arrangement allowed me to breastfeed and later...to be a constant, semi-unobtrusive presence.
I had control. I knew what was happening. I had relationships with the people caring for her. Even at my mother’s nursery school, where I sent Sophia two days/week this past year, I was downstairs, working out of the church basement, on hand for diaper changes, “look what Sophia just did” moments, and preschool productions. I had known the teachers for years—some since I was a preschooler, myself. And, of course, there was my mom just one classroom away, a frequent-peeker who couldn’t resist the lure of her granddaughter so close.
But this was different. Earlier that day we had orientation at the camp. I walked into the room and was surprised to count off twenty toddlers. Yes, there were five “counselors” as well, two certified teachers and three smiling college students. But the chaos—the noise—it felt like a baby warehouse.
I couldn’t stomach the thought of leaving her alone there. Three days a week. Three hours a day. During which, I had no access to what she was feeling or experiencing. Or how she was treated. Or how she treated others.
This feeling was familiar. I hadn’t felt it in years, but I recognized it right away. It was the same feeling I had before MY first days of school. Every year. As long as I could remember. If I’m really being honest with myself, it’s the same feeling I had every Sunday night—the anxiety of having to return to school. A place I dreaded, where I felt anonymous and alone.
I still don’t have a lot of insight into this. I’m not sure if it was simply separation anxiety, my introverted personality, a degree of social unease, jealously of the one-on-one time my mother was spending at home with my younger sister, extreme boredom, the gradual grinding down of the spirit that school seems to exact on most children, the family discord that leaked into all corners of my life. But it was persistent. Intractable. And now it’s back.
After my restless night, I fetched Sophia, changed her diaper, coated her with sunscreen, snapped on her bathing suit, dressed her, fed her and secured her in her carseat. She proudly held her new pink polka-dot backpack and was smiling broadly. As we drove the 10 minutes to camp, I verbally prepared her, with fabricated enthusiasm, “Today is your first day of camp! You’re going to have so much fun. They’ll be swimming, and other kids to play with. And that beautiful kitchen you played in yesterday. Mommy will drop you off and I’ll pick you up in a couple of hours, OK?”
“OK!” said Sophia, completely unperturbed.
“I want you to listen to your camp counselors and do what they say, OK?” I hate how I end every sentence in OK?
“OK” said Sophia. Did I detect a note of adolescent exasperation in her voice?
I felt the familiar sting in my eyes when I pulled into the parking lot. Holding back the tears made me sneeze. “Let’s go!” I hoisted her out of the car with more false enthusiasm.
I walked into her “bunk” and instantly felt overwhelmed. There were toddlers milling about, some crying. Parents were coming and going. I helped Sophia hang up her things, reminded her counselors to please reapply the sunscreen, and bent down to kiss Sophie good-bye. “Mommy’s going to go now, OK?”
“OK,” said Sophie, distracted by the considerable activity in the room.
“Love you.” I walked out the door and hung around for a minute, peeking in. Sophie just stood there, surveying the scene. I imagined her feeling the way I did. Abandoned. Scared. Unsure how to join in what was swirling around me.
I left just as the tears started flowing. I called my friend Nancy first. She could barely understand me through the sobs. She was reassuring. Not in a bland, “she’ll be okay” way, but in clear, specific ways that really did make me feel better—reminding me of what other friends have said about the program. That I’ve left her before. That Sophia is generally happy everywhere, with everyone.
Then I called my own mother, who recalled her experience of dropping me off at nursery school for the very first time. She had cried too. I hadn’t even looked back. What happened to me between that first time and Kindergarten? When I resisted crossing the four-lane highway in front of our house to get on the bus in the morning and my mom had to drive me to school. Where, she would leave me, both of us sobbing; Mrs. Kuzma gently taking my hand, assuring my mother that I would be fine. I remember she once said to me, “Melissa, you’re going to cry so much you’ll fill the classroom with water and all the kids will float away.”
On this, the fourth day of camp, as we were eating breakfast, I asked Sophia if she liked camp. “Camp is amazing!” she told me. And later, after camp, she sang me the “balloon song” they had learned, and said she took turns with her friends on the slide, and that they swam in the indoor pool, and ate pretzels without cream and sprinkles. And it occurred to me that she might actually be having a good time—no matter how large or chaotic it seemed to me. And maybe the separation anxiety was mine and mine alone. And maybe it should stay that way. And maybe I have nothing to be anxious about after all.