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When the kids are away at camp, parents plan to play

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; B01

See the woman at the bar? The one doing body shots? Fortyish?

PTA secretary, car-pool mom, soccer coach.

Or the guy who just muscled his way to the edge of the stage and is doing an out-of-control air-guitar riff with the band? Gray at the temples?

Class dad, household dishwasher, science project overseer.

Or get a load of the couple at Minibar, a D.C. temple of creative cuisine, feeding each other sea urchin ceviche with hibiscus and groping like they're on a first date. Geez, get a room.

Look out Washington, it's summer. The kids are away, and the parents are out to play.

"Oh, we have parents who go to the Dominican Republic, Hawaii; some really have a good time," said Alina Ackenbom, one of the directors at Camp Friendship in Palmyra, Va. "There's one set of parents we can't get hold of now at all because they're on an African safari."

Wasn't it just a couple of years ago that the big parenting story was about "helicopter parents," the kind who hovered over their children 24-7? Overprotective control freaks who -- if they could bear to send their mini-me away to camp -- insisted that webcams be installed in every cabin and on every pine tree, so they could remotely monitor little Emily's lanyard making?

"Yes, some of these parents still have a hard time letting go, especially if they're first-time campers," said Lauran Walsh, office manager at North Bay Camp in Maryland. "Some of the calls I got, even today, they want to talk to the kids, they want to ask how they're doing. For some, it's hard."

But plenty of North Bay veterans "drop them off and can't get out of here fast enough," Walsh told me.

The pendulum may be swinging back a bit, thank goodness. Maybe we're not "Mad Men" ready to have our little Sally mix daddy's drink, but it's about time that more parents learn to live it up a bit more.

I got wind of this healthier approach to parenting just a couple of months ago, when my stable of mommy friends began posting some outrageous Facebook status updates and photos. It was like college again! Concerts, bar scenes, romantic sailing trips, frolics on the beach. What was going on?

"I love camp. Bad Mommy," wrote one very involved and terrific mom who clearly had no problems reconnecting with her pre-kid persona.

Another mom, Meg Smith, who has three kids and lives in Alexandria, was a little timid about filling me in on her greatest kids-away-at-camp adventure.

"Umm. Jamaica. We went to Jamaicaaaaah," she whispered, before waiting a moment to decide whether to trust me with the rest of her debauchery. "With some adult friends, who also didn't have their kids with them."

Gasp!

"I have a friend who just gets a hotel with her husband downtown, just to pretend they're away," said Smith, who is so down with the benefits of stay-away camp life that she scouts out camps for an agency, Tips on Trips and Camps.

My children are too young for sleep-away camp, but this summer they are attending Camp Grandma for a week.

No fancy trip or exotic getaway for us; we're working.

But wait a minute. It's going to be a whole week of just one job, not two!

I found myself immediately on the computer checking concert schedules and restaurant reviews.

Oh. I am old. I don't recognize a single band playing at the Rock and Roll Hotel. But at the 9:30 Club, a nostalgia act -- Public Enemy. Sold!

We're planning movie nights, dinner dates and get-togethers with our childless friends, all deliciously within reach and without the tick-tock of the babysitter time clock.

Woo-hoo!

Of course, I can't resist the chance to knock a couple of things off my perpetual to-do list. I'm going to finally, once and for all, paint over the baby blue in the nursery, turn it into a home office, clean the closets, donate the baby clothes.

Painting the house is probably closer to reality for most parents with kids away for a week or two, said Hilary Bradley, who runs a catering business from her home in Herndon.

"We have these visions of romantic evenings in the summer. Ha! It's really just a time to catch up," Bradley said about the big plans she has when her 11- and 13-year-old kids are off to camp for a week. "I mean, we finally get to eat the food we like. No more pizza and chicken nuggets."

For some, the luxury of slowing down is enough.

Sure, one of her camper's parents went to Peru after dropping the kids off, said Barbara Smeeringer, registrar at River Valley Ranch in Maryland. But just as memorable is the stay-at-home mom who found inner peace on a less exotic outing.

"She called to tell me what a great day she had. She treated herself to Chic-fil-A, went shopping, had such a wonderful time alone," Smeeringer said.

Peru? Jamaica? Sea urchin ceviche?

"The possibilities are endless. Think about it, a week without them!" I told my husband the other day. "Um-hmmm," he said, over his laptop.

Something tells me the best we're going to do is painting that nursery. Maybe.

Are you planning to live it up when the kids are away? E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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