I have long wanted to travel alone, but always felt guilty about leaving my son. I have always wanted to keep a journal, but so many other things seemed more important—prepping dinner, presiding over homework, keeping up with the carpool schedule. I have always wanted to be the person who strikes up conversations with strangers only to be enlightened by what they have to say, but alas, I have rarely had the courage.
All of this changed during a recent weekend at camp. Yep, you read that right. I am a 39-year-old mother who signed up for camp. But it wasn’t just any camp. It was Campowerment, the most uplifting and fun all-female gathering I’ve been to in a long time.
he four-day retreat designed to “reignite your life” is the brainchild of Tammi Leder Fuller, a mother of two and an Emmy award-winning television producer who left her sweet Hollywood gig to launch her life’s dream: Summer camp-inspired retreats where women can get away, recharge, and remind themselves that they aren’t alone in their quest to be good partners, mothers, daughters, and friends. There are five more scheduled for this year at various camps across the country, including Malibu, the Poconos, and New York’s Catskills.
In all fairness, it’s not exactly mommy camp. Sure you sleep in kid-sized bunks, join singalongs, and roast s’mores over a firepit, but the activities aren’t all campy. You can wake up to a lakeside yoga class, join a workshop about women’s health, organizing, or the ever-elusive work-life balance, or you can just hang out. Nothing is mandatory, except not telling anyone what you do for a living for at least the first 24 hours. There are paddleboats for a spin around a lake, archery lessons and drumming classes, and of course, the crown jewel: a ropes course complete with a zip line. I thought the fun of the latter would be soaring above a blanket of pine trees, but it didn’t compare to watching a 77-year-old grandmother of five dive into the experience without a care in the world.
On the rainy day I drove to a Campowerment retreat in the backwoods of central Florida, a detour forced me to go 50 miles out of the way to get there. By the time I joined my first group circle with a spiritual healer from Kashmir named Ubi, I was already exhausted and wondering if my eight-year-old, Javier, was doing OK without me. His dad was watching him, and I knew he was in good hands, but I’ve never been able to keep from thinking about him.
Did he remember to brush his teeth? Was he on time for school? Did he do his homework?
The usual mom worries began to crowd my mind. Ubi was the perfect distraction. Clad in loose-fitting clothes, he looked like he belonged in an ashram more than a camp with a bunch of women in sweats.
I tried to clear my mind and keep it open as I sat in a circle with a dozen other women whose ages ranged from the early 20s through the late 60s. When Ubi asked us why we were there, I was surprised to hear everything from “I’m not really sure yet,” to “Oprah told me to come,” referring to an Omagazine article where she named the camp “one of 50 things that will make you saw wow.” Most of the women admitted they, too, weren’t sure what to expect. Agendas weren’t sent out ahead of time. As Fuller made clear in her welcome speech, part of the experience was to “just let go.”
We went around the room and shared our first impressions of each other, only to have to repeat the compliments in the first person. I can’t think of the last time I reminded myself that I was a confident woman, let alone out loud, but that’s what the majority of the group gleaned from the few words I’d spoken during my introduction. It was awkward at first, but I walked away feeling sunnier. Not a bad start.
Next I slipped into a journaling workshop taught by the same 77-year-old spitfire named Joan whose zipline experience I watched in awe. She also happens to be Tammi’s mother. She read the famous poem “The Dash” by Linda Ellis, which talks about the dash on a headstone between the dates of birth and death as a metaphor for the life stages, then asked us to write about how we were spending our “dash.”
“Are you happy with your dash right now?” she asked.
When I was done, I was shocked to see that my dash had only one mention of Javier. I felt a twinge of guilt, but a whole lot of satisfaction at how stable and healthy I seemed on paper. I’d just switched career paths and felt a lot less stress. I had a slew of friends and a healthy mind and body. I adore my son, but from what I could see in my purple notebook, being his mother did not define my life. It was simply a wonderful part of it.
The next day I couldn’t resist another of Joan’s journaling circles. This one focused on six-word memoirs inspired by a famous Hemingway story of only six words. She gave us time to write as many as we could. When we finished, only one of a dozen I managed to come up with were about my son, and it wasn’t even my favorite. That superlative went to this winner:
Happily divorced. Having more sex now.
I was clearly starting to have fun.
The rest of the weekend went by in a flash. I watched the sun set over a lake while talking to a woman 30 years my senior, someone I probably would never talk to much in daily life. I jumped like a crazy person when I made two consecutive baskets from the foul line on a basketball court during Color Wars, a competition where the camp is split into two teams.
But the real fun came at night, when we played ridiculous games like we were a bunch of tweens at a pajama party, then stayed up late in our bunks dishing with strangers who no longer seemed strange. One mom admitted she doesn’t like playing with her daughter when she gets home from work. Another confessed she had a thing for her boss. I talked about a lot of things, but once again there was only the occasional mention of my son. Cell service was spotty, and for the first time in years, I went to sleep without telling him goodnight.
At home when I returned from camp, I learned I’d be missing a field trip and a little league game due to an upcoming business trip. When I told my boyfriend about it, I shrugged for a second, then moved on to another topic.
“Do you realize this is the first time I’ve ever seen you not riddled with guilt?” he said.
I was stunned. I’ve always wanted to live up to my tough-cookie facade, but underneath I’ve been carrying around enough mom guilt to fill 1,000 sippy cups.
What changed? I went to camp. I took a real timeout. I’m not talking about stealing an hour for a mani/pedi or a moms’ night out where the main topic of conversation is still my kid. I’m talking about a bona-fide “just for me” experience where you leave the kids behind, both literally and figuratively, and no one judges you because they’re doing it, too.
In the time since I returned from Campowerment, I’ve realized I may be my son’s primary caregiver, but I’m certainly not his only one, nor do I need to be. I’ve noticed I’m more present when we’re together, and when we’re apart, I’m allowing myself to indulge in my work, my friends, or whatever gives me pleasure without beating myself up for not being with him. As a result of leaving the mom part of me behind, albeit temporarily, I’ve found that I embrace it with more enthusiasm when Javier and I reunite.
Campowerment nudged me out of my comfort zone just long enough to take a look at myself without the mom label. In disconnecting from my kid, I reconnected with a lot of other parts of myself. It turns out I’m a lot more than a mother, and my son is better for it.
If you ask me, every mother deserves to go to camp. For a full list of dates, click HERE
This post also appeared on condenast.parade.com.