• My son has been going to summer camp for years now, and is always away for his birthday. 
  • It was hard the first time, but he was ready for this independence. 
  • I get to see his birthday celebrations through the camp’s app. 
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Two years ago, I packed bags and bins full of clothing and toiletries, and my son left for his first summer at sleepaway camp. Three weeks later, he celebrated his 11th birthday with his new camp friends, away from home and without family.

At the end of his four-week camp session, when he told me camp was his favorite place on Earth, it sunk in that I’d never be with him on his birthday again. At first, I was heartbroken.

I love celebrating his birthday

I remember his first birthday like it was yesterday. Friends and family gathered in our home as we sang Happy Birthday and indulged in his first birthday cake. Not quite walking yet, I couldn’t imagine how his birthdays would change in only a decade — how the toddler in my arms would become the teen driving a go-kart 150 miles away from home.

In the years following that first birthday, we threw many parties. From the bowling alley to the karate dojo to a magician’s stage, we celebrated my son on his special day because that’s what you do when children turn another year older. Often, he’d awaken to a room filled with balloons. But sometimes, traditions change.

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As a mother, it was already hard to let go for the first time. I wanted him nearby so I could ensure he was happy, healthy, and safe. I worried he wouldn’t brush his teeth, get sick, or like the food. Even worse, I was concerned he’d miss us during quiet nights as he lay awake in bed.

My son was ready for independence

As I packed his belongings, I remembered my own summers at sleepover camp, and I overwhelmingly recalled being homesick and wanting to go home. The day that stuck out most was my 13th birthday when I snuck to the payphone to call my parents. “Please come get me,” I begged, even though I’d independently chosen to go back another summer. My own childhood emotions came rushing back, impeding me from sending my son off with ease.

But he was a different child altogether. He was ready.

My son heard about summer camp from the moment he could communicate. My husband went to the same camp himself and later worked there as a counselor. Stories of late-night firepits, hikes into the wilderness, and ziplining through the trees have been told in our home since my son could talk. My husband remains friends with some staff members, which gives my son a sense of community when he’s away. Before he even arrived on day one, camp felt like a second home to him. No wonder he chooses to be away on his birthday each year.

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I saw photos of his birthday on an app

That first summer away, I saw pictures from his birthday the following day on the Campanion app — the app where pictures of campers are uploaded daily. I waited anxiously, wanting to know if he’d had a special day because he’d never turn 11 again. It felt surreal to see pictures of my son’s birthday celebration — one I didn’t plan or attend myself. As pictures began to load, it felt like a piece of me was missing, but his smile made everything seem right.

From a birthday t-shirt to spinning the birthday wheel for a prize to birthday cake for his entire bunk, the day was equally as special as any birthday at home. As I scrolled through pictures, there was no doubt in my mind he was happy. He was celebrated by his counselors, friends, and the entire camp, and that made being away from him on his special day a little easier for me.

For him, it was the best birthday yet.

I’ve learned to accept that we can celebrate early. Last summer, we threw a surprise party in our yard with his closest friends the week before he left for camp. This summer, we’ll celebrate with a sendoff dinner at his favorite restaurant with family.

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With a little creative planning, I make his birthday special, even though I’m not there. Each summer, I pack a box with presents to be opened on his birthday and send a celebratory activity for his bunk. For his 11th birthday, they had a water gun fight that spanned across the entire camp and on his 12th birthday, they attended dinner with stick-on mustaches and festive hats. I have my work cut out for me, but I hope to make each camp birthday stand out from the last.

As a mother, it’s my job to help my son thrive until he can do so on his own — and right now, that means letting him be away on his birthday every summer. Camp has given him independence, confidence, and friendships for a lifetime, and there’s nowhere else he’d rather be on his birthday than his favorite place on Earth.