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Sleep-away camp: Crazy things parents do to cope

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 7:16 PM EDT, Fri July 19, 2013
From racing on visiting day to combing the camp's website, parents of kids at sleepaway camp try to deal with being apart.
From racing on visiting day to combing the camp's website, parents of kids at sleepaway camp try to deal with being apart.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many parents find the separation hard to bear when their kids go off to camp
  • CNN Parents' Kelly Wallace and her husband joke that they'll stow away with their daughters
  • Visiting day at camp can be especially harrowing, with parents vying to prove their love
  • Parents also send extravagant gift baskets and scour the camp websites for photos

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She's a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- A common joke in our household is that when (if!) our girls go to sleep-away camp, my husband and I will join them by sneaking into their suitcases and bunking in a nearby cabin.

"No!" scream our girls, ages 5 and 7, making it clear they will want nothing to do with Mom and Dad once they leave for camp.

But there is always Camp Visiting Day, I like to remind them without sharing my fear of the event itself. That fear arose after watching this hilarious video from a few years ago of the moment parents were let into a camp on visiting day. Yes, it looks almost like the running of the bulls.

"There's nothing like it," said mom of three Sarah Maizes, author of the book "Got Milf? The Modern Mom's Guide to Feeling Fabulous, Looking Great and Rocking a Minivan," and all around funny woman on all things parenting related.

Visiting Day

Maizes, whose 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old twins are at sleep-away camp this summer, described the ritual in which parents are lined up, a whistle goes off and they essentially race one another to reach their children.

"You are running to show you care more than the other parents," she added, cringing as she remembered the one year she was late. It all seemed innocent enough. She was driving fast so she wouldn't be late for visiting day, when a police officer pulled her over. He didn't think speeding to be on time at camp was a valid excuse and handed her a ticket, which made her, you guessed it, late.

"Where were you?" her daughter asked, shedding a few tears, when her mom finally arrived. Mom said she was "mortified."

"It's stressful because it's ... like a summer's worth of love shoved into this one little day," Maizes said.

Did Somebody Break a Hip?

Sarah Maizes took this photo of one of the \
Sarah Maizes took this photo of one of the "massive" gift baskets she saw on visiting day.

Another way to show the love? Maizes said she's seen "massive gift baskets" on visiting day filled with games, makeup, candy, gum, jump ropes and those "foam things that fly through the air." "You'd think somebody broke a hip, I swear to God," she joked. "These baskets are so massive. ... They're like huge apologies wrapped up in cellophane. We're so sorry we sent you away. We still love you."

Refresh, Refresh, Refresh

My sister-in-law, Drucie Belman, a mom of two whose 11-year-old son went to sleep-away camp for the first time this year, says she would hit 'refresh' several times a day on the camp's website when her son first went away, hoping to see a picture. She hadn't gotten any letters yet. (She forwarded me a video, which satirizes the "refreshing" that moms of kids at sleep-away camp are doing, but be advised it does contain some offensive language.)

"You look every day for (the photos), and sometimes he's like a dot in the background, and I still send it to my mother-in-law," she said.

Jenny Isenman, founder of the blog, The Suburban Jungle, said she might be up until 1 a.m. some days "watching for the pictures to come in." "We are so overprotective at this point and so involved," the humorist, whose 11-year-old son went to sleepaway camp last year and the year before, joked. "It's like, God forbid you don't see your kid one day. Is he still alive? Is he having fun?"

The Phone Calls

Some camps allow kids to phone home and some do not. Isenman's son was able to call but just for a few minutes each time. "You get that phone call from your kid and it's you and your husband on the phone and all hell breaks loose," she said.

"The moms just get so frustrated with the dads. They get so frustrated with the questions they ask. They're not the right questions," she added.

She joked about how her husband asked his son if he received his letters, and when her son said yes, her husband asked which letters he got. "I'm like, what do you mean which ones?" she said. "I have friends who have literally taken the phone from their husband's hands and they're like, 'Your time is up.'"

Why Do It?

I have never been to sleep-away camp, and somewhat dread the year my girls will feel they are ready to go. I know it would be an amazing experience for them, but at the same time, I love spending time with my kids and can't imagine not being with them a chunk of the summer. So I wanted to know, from moms who've been there, why they send their kids in the first place and how they cope.

My sister-in-law said she wanted to give her son a chance to "fly free" and "reinvent himself" since he's the second child with an older brother who gets lots of attention.

"I think he was able to have a super fresh start. He didn't have to be the kid who wore glasses. He didn't have to be the chess kid, he could be whatever," she told me as she was driving to Massachusetts to pick up her son from camp. "I cope with it because he's doing exactly what he should be doing."

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Maizes' advice to me and other moms considering camp is to think about how great it can be for the kids. "Summer camp is an experience to give your children that is unlike any other experience and one of the best growth experiences you can possibly have so ... know you are doing the right thing."

"You remind yourself how much fun you had when you were a kid," said Isenman. "You can't take it away from them because of your own sadness or your own homesickness."

"So that's how you cope and also a lot of wine," she added.

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter and on Google+ and like CNN Living on Facebook.

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