Sending my 9-year-old son off to sleepaway camp involved ardent discussions between my husband -- who wanted him to learn independence -- and moi -- who worried I would miss him too much.
After realizing that sleepaway camp offered a roller coaster ride of non-stop fun with all his favorite sports, I relented.
In jest, I turned to my husband and said, "Well, you'll finally get your girlfriend back."
Now four weeks later, I can say that not only is camp the best thing for my son, it has turned out to be the best thing for our marriage.
Unlike the annual "sanity" vacation or the Saturday night date night, sleepaway camp makes it possible to live together as a couple. Companionship isn't scheduled or forced.
For the past nine years, I have considered myself a Cosmo girl living a Family Circle life. I'm deeply proud of the home I've created and my ability to whip up meals with the speed of a short order cook and be a playful, inspired parent.
But so much energy in relationships ends up focused on negotiations and decisions about our children -- who's picking Parker at baseball practice, school forms, doctor appointments, overseeing homework -- that instead of truly talking to each other we turn into co-counselors on family patrol. Plus, parenting has become so culturally revered that it is put up on a pedestal without a warning sign blaring, "Danger!, danger. This can turn your vital relationship into stone."
One night before my son went to camp, I read him an R.L. Stine book. He then looked up at me and asked, "Mommy, will you scratch my back?" With unabashed enthusiasm and love, I stroked his milky white skin until he fell asleep. Afterwards, feeling serene and fulfilled, I climbed into bed with my husband, the man I adore and admire, and when he asked me for a back rub after a particularly hard day, I felt a stab of guilt because my primal response was not the joy it should have been, but dread at being required to do yet another thing.
With my son in camp, we now go to bed as we did years ago, comrades in arms, piling into the overstuffed covers laughing and still continuing a conversation from dinner, a discussion that had no interruptions and flowed as naturally as a Colorado river.
Unlike my husband who can be blissfully unperturbed that our son is sleeping down the hall, I was always aware that during our private moments together I might hear pint-sized feet scurrying to our room. Now while my son is away playing tennis, soccer, football and baseball, we are engaging in the sport of total spontaneity. I am a girlfriend again, giving my husband total attention and in turn, he is paying more attention to me.
What amazes me is how just an hour or so can make such a difference between fatigue and affection. The nighttime rituals of convincing my son that green vegetables are not aliens from another planet, showers are not optional and reading is required along with a 9 p.m. bedtime, does take its toll.
But now free of that, I have also become a new woman in another way. It has helped me reevaluate myself as a mother. From the moment my son was born, I have savored every minute, showering him with love and anticipated his every need and emotional hurdle. An internal alarm clock chimed in last winter when I was putting his school uniform into the dryer before he got dressed so his clothes would feel warm and cozy. Hmm, I thought to myself, some woman will hate me one day for coddling him too much so I better stop.
That was not the only doting that needed to be reined in. Is it possible to be addicted to your child? I think this forced withdrawal is helping me break bad habits. He has now been away from television and video games for a month at camp -- and this will also give me the strength to limit the amount he watches which to be honest, I think I've been too lenient about. This separation has emboldened me to be stricter about things that do matter aside from my bonhomie -- discipline, chores and learning the word "no" more often.
Also, my work has flourished. It is such a luxury to be able to wander in the wilderness of words without handcuffs. I can work until the wee hours of night without feeling neglectful or worrying about picking him up at a school bus, finding playdates or feeding him chicken fingers at an assigned hour.
My divorced and my married friends have all sheepishly admitted that they too are enjoying this newfound freedom after such a long time of non-stop mothering. We are able to go out as friends without wrestling with the guilt of wondering whether we should have spent these precious free hours with our kids. In fact, one joked how we can change the Beatles tune to, "Camp Buy Me Love, Love, Everybody tells me so..."
Another unexpected benefit? Sleepaway camp has also given my husband and me a vision of what life as an empty nester will be like -- way before we have to face it. The gift is that the separation is temporary. I am acutely aware at how fleeting these magical years with Parker are which is why I pour so much of my energy into savoring all the daily utterances and experiences when he is home. But an annual break rekindles the flame that nourishes the raison d'etre of our relationship - which in the end benefits my son too because it keeps us together as a family.
That doesn't mean I don't miss him and think of him often. But this month, I've reclaimed and created new boundaries for work and play, motherhood and wifedom. I'm going to be a girlfriend more often. When my son comes home from camp this weekend, he will have benefited from his independence, and so have I. Now if I could just learn to do all this while he's home.