When my first daughter was born, my mother told me that my life was going to change — that my emotional weather would no longer be dictated by my own moods, but by my daughter’s. “You’re only ever as happy as your unhappiest child,” she said.
If my girls become mothers themselves, I’ll tell them the same thing, with an important addition. “You’re only ever as happy as your unhappiest child,” I will say. “So do not send your unhappiest child to sleep-away camp with an unlimited texting plan.”
My older daughter, who is 12, did not want to go to camp this summer. Her father and I hung tough through months of complaints, of pleading and threats and I-don’t-want-to’s. All the while, I was flashing back to the summer that may well have flipped my settings from “normal” to “writer” — if you buy the notion that a writer is someone who’s been so traumatized by life or her parents, or by a summer trip to Israel with five other Jennifers where she got called “the fat one,” that she is left with no choice other than using words to impose order on the terrifying chaos of the world.
I promised my daughter that she would be fine, even while recalling my own misery. I told her that she would make friends, even though I spent months, seasons, entire school years friendless. I told her that this would be good for her; that, even if she didn’t come home with a new B.F.F., she’d at least know that she could depend on herself and survive a tough time.
In June, I drove her to a college campus for a week of sports camp. I made her bed, unpacked her clothes, met her counselors and told her I loved her, and then I drove away. It barely occurred to me that she still had her phone and that she’d be allowed to use it.
Six hours after we’d hugged our goodbyes, the texts began. I hate it here. The kids are mean. I have no friends. I need to come home. Just as nothing had prepared me for the pain of labor, nothing had prepared me for a nonstop barrage of minute-by-minute updates of what was going wrong. (Her dad was the recipient of a similar tsunami of woe, garlanded with complaints of “WHY ISN’T MOM WRITING BACK?!?”)
I tried encouragement (“Hang in there! You’ll be fine!”). I used tough love (“No, I am not coming to get you. It’s important for you to stick this out”). When she complained that the other girls were talking about a TV show she didn’t know, I used humor.
“Just say, ‘I’m not allowed to watch TV. I’m Amish.’ Then make up things about being Amish.”
“I’m not going to pretend to be Amish.”
“Tell them you’re not allowed to wear zippers because metal is prideful.”
“Tell them that’s why none of your bras have hooks.”
“Pretend you’ve never used an indoor toilet before. Scream after flushing.”
“OMG you’re the worst.”
She survived her week — just barely, she insisted. Then, over even more strenuous objections, we sent her for two weeks at Camp No. 2, an organic kosher Jewish farm camp (I know), exuberantly loving and relentlessly upbeat, and with absolutely no electronics allowed.
At 3 o’clock, I dropped her off, savoring the silence for an entire, blissful 15 minutes. Then my freakout began. When the camp posted its first photo album on Facebook a few days later, I couldn’t open my laptop fast enough. I pored over the shots, zooming in until they dissolved into pixels. Because my camera-shy daughter never appeared face-front in a shot, I was forced to construct a narrative from glimpses of body parts. Look! There’s her elbow! Does it look like a happy elbow? And doesn’t the elbow right beside it belong to the girl from hula-hooping 16 pictures ago? Maybe she’s made a friend!
After a week of silence, the letters showed up, three at a time. Even though the camp had warned that the early missives might not be cheery ones, I died inside with every THIS PLACE IS TERRIBLE and GET ME OUT OF HERE and VERY ANGRY card that came signed with a frownie-face beneath the words YOUR DISGRUNTLED DAUGHTER.
Just as I’d forced myself to wait outside of her room until she’d cried herself to sleep when she was a baby, I made myself stay away from the phone, promising that I would not turn into That Mom, calling her, hovering. But it was awful. (True confession: When a fourth close read of the camp handbook revealed that girls were permitted a call home if they got their period for the first time, I tried to psychically convince my daughter to get creative with ketchup.)
So which was worse? At the first camp, I’d had a continuing log of her unhappiness. At Camp Two, I knew she was miserable — I had proof! — but could only guess at the specifics. Turns out, the depredations your mind can concoct are so much worse than whatever the mean girls — or boys — could deliver.
Like a lot of kids who initially write home in anger, my daughter ultimately had a ball, coming home tanned and freckled and with a new nickname. Next summer, I think she’ll leave without a backward glance. But will I be able to let her?
When I became a mother, my own mom told me so much about patience and compassion and how to forgive myself when, for example, things did not go according to my meticulously written seven-page birth plan, and I ended up having an emergency C-section, and then couldn’t nurse. I wish that I’d known how this part would feel — the watching and the waiting, letting your kid venture out of the nest, knowing that she might crash.
You will only be as unhappy as your unhappiest child, I will tell my girls if they become mothers themselves. And sometimes, the hardest thing you can do as a parent is, simply, nothing at all.
Jennifer Weiner is the author of many novels, including the forthcoming “Who Do You Love.” She wrote this article for the New York Times.