I WAVED TWO OF our three daughters off to summer camp last week, one of a multicolored chartered bus, and the other on a gaily painted airplane. Never mind that I nobly skipped paying a few bills and hocked a painting to do this; never mind that I wrecked by budget to buy all the things the camp said the children must bring -- including green shorts of only a certain shade and enough underwear to cover a female battalion. Never mind, because I did it in self-defense. I did in for our annual Great Release from Parenting.
The problem of parenting takes a lot of time these days, especially when increasing numbers of dual-career parents are busily carving out careers, not merely holding down jobs, and single parents function as both mother and father. Two Harvard psychiatrists have just reminded us of the strain on our children and our responsibility to deal with the "anger, hostility, rebellion and feelings of abandonment" that our absence can cause. If the strain is hard on the kids, the parents' thoughts of endless nuturing need a yearly letup, too.
So we loaded down two of our daughters with backpacks and riding hats, hiking boots and M&Ms unashamedly to buy ourselves some time. Like millions of other Americans fortunate enough to engage in this luxurious middle-class indulgence, we let camp become a substitute parent and swallowed our fears for their safety and homesickness, to gain our succor and strength for September and beyond.
There still is one child at home. But she's old enough to work and drive a car and that means she's able, with a little supervision, to fend for herself in her continuing experiment in Growing More Responsible.
The Great Release is as succulent as sweet corn, and comes in stages that, barring disaster, grow sweeter as the summer progresses. The trick, however, is to control your guilt over taking a vacation from parenting, to flight the feeling that if you need such a vacation it implies inadequacy. In my weak moments, I rationalize and remind myself that my children need a break from family life, too.
The first relief comes in not having to get up at 7:30 to carpool them to summer rehearsals of the D.C. Youth Orchestra. It's no reflection on this fine program that comes our way via the D.C. Public Schools. Of course, there is no guarantee that my inner alarm won't propel me upward at the same hour like a trampoline, but relief from having to perform the chore sure beats gulping a Valium.
Suddenly there's also no pressure to stock the shelves with peanut butter and Ritz and the refrigerator with ice cream. There's the assurance that Wednesday's leftover fried chicken will be available for Friday lunch, not to mention the absence of empty boxes of Famous Amos chocolate chips wedged beneath the sofa cushions in the family room.
The space in the house expands. Young teens occupy space far greater than their immediate 100 or 120 pounds. When the phone is silent and the stereo is at rest and the TV is not blaring and the front door is not slamming and requests are not coming, a tall skinny house in the city feels like a contemporary split-level in Potomac.
Then there's the added energy that accrues from not having to supervise the dear ones. Harnessed is the energy expended in telling them why they must perform certain tasks and shun certain places.
Parents are thus propelled by the desire to take good advantage of their children's absence, to use this simpler time well. One couple confided recently to a camp director that their 4-month-old baby resulted from their two sons' trip to camp the previous year. A few hours after I stood with my arms around my daughter, waiting for the last trunks to be shoved on a green truck, I was sitting in a theater, and not far away were several couples I'd seen earlier in the day watching the chartered buses roll off.
Some parents split the scene so completely that the camps have trouble locating them in case of an emergency, and that clearly is a case of taking guiltlessness to the extreme. But summer is a time for time out, a time for letting go, to cease the relentless occupational striving, if only briefly. If is a time when parents can possibly find a little time to deal with their own deep feelings.
And if we're lucky, in losing ourselves, we may find ourselves.