Two months ago, one of my best friends asked if we could meet her family over Labor Day weekend at a campground near the Grayson Highlands in western Virginia. At the time, it had seemed like a great idea: quality time with dear friends in a gorgeous area we’d been to only once before. But I had not reckoned on the exhaustion we would all feel after the first week back at school, especially a week in which the usual beginning-of-the-year chaos was compounded by a dead refrigerator, a new kitten, and three trips to the orthodontist for a palatal expander that “just collapsed” in Dee Dee’s mouth three hours after being installed.
By Thursday (day six without a fridge), the thought of packing up all the gear and taking the kids camping by myself—Don would stay home to receive the new refrigerator and take care of the kitten—was more than a little daunting.
I hated to disappoint the kids, though, so I broached the idea with them, inwardly hoping that they, too, might be longing for a relaxing, three-day weekend at home. But what child ever, when asked, “Do you want to go camping?” hasn’t answered with a resounding yes? Certainly not mine. Only Sylvia seemed hesitant, her forehead knit with worry.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “You don’t want to go?”
But her reluctance was the same as mine.
“I want to go,” she said adamantly. “It’s just it’s so much work to get packed.”
“I’ll pack your clothes,” I reassured her, thinking that was what she meant.
“No,” she said, sighing. “It’s my babies. I have to pack for them.”
For the past few months, almost all of Sylvia’s free time has been taken up with baby care. Even out of earshot, I would not presume to call her careful routines of feeding and diapering “playing with dolls.” Taking care of her babies is serious business. For one, both Rebecca and Sparkle drink actual liquid. (Rebecca pees hers out as one would expect; Sparkle’s excretory system is limited to crying and the occasional upchuck.) Although both dolls are supposed to consume only water, Sylvia is constantly mixing up colorful concoctions for them to drink; Rebecca’s tiny diapers—which our dog, Soča, likes to tear to shreds and strew around the house—are disturbing shades of blue and red.
Like any new mom, Sylvia scours the internet for tips. From one youtube video, she learned that she could make “juice” by scribbling with marker on a paper towel and then dunking it in her baby’s bottle. For our camping trip, she calculates that she will need supplies for seven feedings; she packs two markers (tropical pineapple and orange) and seven small pieces of paper towels. Unfortunately she has run out of diapers; the babies will just have to pee in the woods like everybody else.
There was a time in my life that I would have ranked camping as the epitome of pleasure, a time when, given the opportunity, I would have opted for a sleeping bag on the ground over a bed between four walls every time. What happened? I have lived in North Carolina for fifteen years now, and for most of that time, I have blamed the climate and the terrain. Here there are no dry nights under canopies of brilliant stars. Here there are dripping trees and deluges that swamp your tent, and the stars, if they are out at all, are barely visible beyond the foliage.
This weekend, it occurred to me that it is not only the weather that makes the camping experience feel so different now. Yes, all the dampness gets to me, every surface spongy and moist and moss-covered. But the real difference is bigger than that: like Sylvia, now I have children to pack for and take care of.
One of the reasons camping used to feel so delightful was that it was so uncomplicated; everything I needed could be crammed into a fifty-pound pack on my back. Back then, camping was pure recreation. Now, going camping feels a little like being transported back in time. At home, the kids mostly take care of themselves. Using the bathroom, getting dressed, even having a bowl of cereal—all of these things have long since ceased to necessitate a parent’s involvement. But when we are camping, it’s “I need to pee!”, “Where are my clothes?” and “Where do I spit my toothpaste?” Suddenly my children’s most basic needs are my responsibility again.
Clayton and Dee Dee can’t understand Sylvia’s new preoccupation with taking care of her babies.
“It just doesn’t seem like fun,” Clayton complains, missing the days when Sylvia played Calico Critters with him or jumped on the trampoline. Even Sylvia gets worn down with the demanding regime of meal times and potty needs. Sometimes she puts her babies to bed early just so she can get a break.
“Do babies sometimes go to bed at six?” she asks me hopefully.
“Oh, yes,” I tell her. “Definitely.”
And yet, despite how exhausting their care can be for her, she keeps at it. She even decided not to do ballet this fall so she would have more time in the afternoon to take care of her babies. Clearly, all the work is meaningful for her, or these babies would be stowed away in the toy chest like so many other toys.
Sylvia used to say she wanted twelve children, but I think she’s changing her mind.
“I don’t know how you did it with three kids,” she tells me seriously as I kiss her good-night. “Even two babies is a lot of work.”
What Sylvia seems to understand—and what camping last weekend reminded me—is that the work is its own reward, each act of care really an act of love. Sylvia mixes glue, white paint and water to make “yogurt” for her babies, spends her allowance on outrageously-priced diapers, and changes her dolls into their pajamas religiously each evening. My own days of diapering and feeding behind me, I drive my kids to the orthodontist, consent to adopting a kitten, and spend my Saturday morning packing the car with sleeping bags and camping supplies. The tasks are different, it is true, but the love behind them is the same.
At one in the morning during our first night camping, Dee Dee wakes me with her flashflight.
“Momma? I need to pee.”’
We stagger out of the tent onto the soggy ground, and I help her pull off her pajama bottoms. As soon as we are back inside, Sylvia needs to go, too. When we are all finally settled in our sleeping bags, I’m feeling the same satisfaction I used to feel when the kids were small: dry bottoms, check; everyone in bed, check. But now Sylvia can’t sleep; I can hear her muffled crying through my ear plugs.
“It’s too dark,” she says tearfully. Her flashflight turns itself off automatically, so she has to keep pushing the button every few minutes to ward off the dark.
I turn on my headlamp and hang it in the overhead pocket of the tent. I stroke her hair, find Rebecca in the sea of sleeping bags, and lie that it will be morning soon.
It isn’t. I sleep fitfully for the next few hours, and make several more trips outside the tent alone, my middle-aged bladder one more reason sleeping outside isn’t quite as much fun as it used to be. Finally, Clayton wakes up for his own potty break.
“It’s okay, Mom,” he tells me bravely. “You don’t need to come with me.” He is empathy incarnated.
I unzip the tent for him and hold the flashlight; he does his business and then reappears just beyond the screen.
“Actually, I need to poop,” he says apologetically. “But I can go by myself.”
“Oh, no. I’m coming with you.”
On our last camping trip, Clayton had ventured to the bathroom by himself during a rainstorm in the wee hours of the morning. Not wanting to flush the toilet while he was alone because of the scary sound it made, he had waited in the stall for some time until another grown-up happened to come in. Having heard that story, there is no way I’m letting him go by himself this time.
I feel around in the tent for my pants and headlamp. Dee Dee stirs, sees us leaving, and hurries after us, stumbling over Sylvia in her sleeping bag.
“Come on, Syl,” I say. “We’re going to the bathroom. I guess you’d better come, too.”
We walk down the narrow road toward the bathroom. The kids are chatty and cheerful, as if pleased to have survived the night, and I begin to suspect that, despite the dark, morning is not far off. Above us, the trees are black silhouettes against a star-splattered sky.
“It’s so beautiful,” Dee Dee says, awed, and for a moment we all walk with our heads tilted backwards. Clayton and Dee Dee hold my hands; Sylvia holds her baby against her chest. For once I’m not comparing these little splotches of stars to the wide openness of skies out west. I am just grateful to be sharing this moment with my children, walking hand in hand on a clear September night.
When we arrive at the bathroom, Sylvia hands me Rebecca.
“Do you mind taking care of her for a minute?” she asks.
“Not at all,” I tell her. “I’d love to.”