Last Sunday morning I put my 11-year-old son and five other boys he had never met into a van driven by another stranger for a six-hour road trip to Camp Sleepaway, on the shores of Lake Wait-Did-I-Agree-To-This?
Camp Sleepaway has a strict no-electronics policy, so I told Connor he and his compatriots would just have to play License Plate Bingo all the way there. “You’ll make best friends before you even get there!” I brayed, perhaps a bit too merrily, because who wants to spend six hours in a car? (Not me. Hence the van.)
But as soon as the other boys gruffly bid their mothers farewell and climbed in, three out of the five immediately pulled out their smartphones. And headphones. And Connor was amidst them all, already trapped in the way-back, and his eyes said “help” and “uh I don’t know if I want to go now” but I kept smiling and waving and shouting “Goodbye! Goodbye!” like there had never been anyone anywhere I was happier to bid farewell.
I was gritting my teeth, though, at these other parents. Who lets their kids have smartphones all the way up to a door of a camp that doesn’t allow them? Are we all really that addicted?
That opinion remained steadfast until ten minutes after their departure, when the 15-year-old riding up front texted his mom to ask whether they wanted the Hutch Parkway north or south, because the GPS was confusing.
45 minutes later, another mom emailed the rest of us parents to say that the Find My Friends app she had surreptitiously installed on her son’s iPhone indicated they were just north of Westport.
An hour later, another mom emailed us all to say that they had stopped at Burger King for lunch and that the trip was going well so far.
Basically, I got real-time GPS and breaking rest-stop news on my son’s entire journey to camp, mile by mile, at least until they were ten miles away. At that point, the driver went old-school and actually called me to say they were nearly there safely. “But there’s no cell service up at camp,” he said, “so I’m calling you now.”
A few minutes later, the Find My Friends mom emailed us one last time. “He texted BYE,” she said. “And now his phone is off.” And just like that, I went from getting way too much information about my son’s whereabouts to absolutely none at all.
This is a good thing. Tracking our children’s every step and emotional state is the reason they have to get away from us in the first place. I mean, hello, have you seen Hunger Games? But when you’re used to that constant information (and reassurance) the sudden silence is all the weirder for the moms at home.
Before we attempted sleepaway camp, I used to roll my eyes at the mothers who’d send their kids packing for six weeks and then moan about it on Facebook the whole time as if it hadn’t been their signature on the check that paid for it all. But now I get it. It’s not that I can’t live without my sixth-grader for three weeks. It’s that having NO IDEA what he’s up to for that whole time is antithetical to everything a modern mother is supposed to be doing.
When I went away to drama camp for 5 weeks in 1986, it was a dollar a minute to call long distance, and no one was expected to waste perfectly good money on that unless they had a head wound or something. And that was pretty much the only away-from-home communication option we had (aside from letters, already hopelessly old-school in the eighties). My parents didn’t get texts from me every five minutes, didn’t have daily Vine videos and Pinterest boards to peruse for pictures of me. There was no expectation to be in constant contact. My parents didn’t want to be the Gamemasters of my summer even if they could have been.
Now, that’s what we expect. And when we can’t have it, we mothers must content ourselves with scanning every millimeter of the handful of grainy photos the camp sends each day for proof that our children haven’t been eaten by bears.
My friend’s son was in two out of the five pictures in Monday’s welcome email from camp. She texted me ten seconds after the email hit our inboxes.
I didn’t write back, since I was already frantically searching for Connor in the same five group shots and not finding him. My phone buzzed again. It was my husband, texting me from London. (A continent away, and we’d been texting all morning musing about what Connor was doing RIGHT NOW.)
HUSBAND: i see the back of his head in one of them
I reviewed the photos again. Texted him back:
ME: i don’t see it
HUSBAND: gray hat
So I look yet again. Spent more than just a cursory fifteen minutes this time. Nothing, and I mean, I was really jonesing to see the back of that hat. Still, I remained calm, because I’m not one of THOSE mothers, and the next day’s email would have a picture of my child for sure.
Tuesday morning’s camp email arrived. No picture. I had no choice but to email the camp. I belabored the wording of my email for some time: it must seem lighthearted and polite because I know you’re busy but OH MY GOD IS HE OKAY.
This camp has probably dealt with a mother or two like me before, because not even five minutes later, I was emailed this picture.
I email my husband the photo. Subject line: He’s fine! Phew!
My phone buzzes almost instantly.
HUSBAND: can’t tell much from this picture
ME: …he is smiling in it
HUSBAND: it’s posed
Well, yes. Quite posed, now that it was mentioned. It looks like they read my email, said “oy, find this kid,” found him, had him take a knee like it was Yearbook Picture Day, uploaded it, and emailed it to me, almost instantly. I had been quite impressed with the service (and reassured they knew where to find him at all). But maybe it was taken under duress?
I text my friend, the one whose son had been in two of Monday’s pictures, and two more on Day Two, grinning madly in each one.
ME: you’re so lucky. Liam looks so happy.
FRIEND: yes plus his fingers are crossed
FRIEND: i told him to cross his fingers if he was smiling in a picture so i could tell he was really happy and it wasn’t fake
How had I missed that memo? As a parent of a sleepaway child, you need to not only see your kid in a photo, or
see your kid in a posed photo smiling, or
see your kid in a unguarded, candid photo smiling, but
see your kid in an unguarded, candid photo smiling AND giving you a secret sign that he is really happy and not having his personality slowly dismantled through various forms of psychological torture.
I had nearly given up hope when today’s camp email bestowed on me a great treasure.
No gang signs being thrown, but that kid holding his wrist guard instead of wearing it (sigh) looks like he’s really smiling to me. Perhaps I can exhale at last, knowing that my child might actually enjoy these next three weeks.
But I am once again left with increased respect for my own mother, who put me on a plane to Chicago for drama camp 26 years ago with no hope of such emailed photo with her child’s smile, coerced or not. No Vimeo of the day, no Stalk-Your-Camper app, nothing but an empty mailbox. Gee, I hope I remembered to write.