Everyone knows it takes a village to raise a child, but if your village doesn’t have one or two grandmas in it, you might want to consider moving. This became crystal clear to me over the past three-day weekend when our boys attended their annual Memorial Day campout with my mother-in-law. Camping is relaxing. Camping with kids under the age of 6 – not so much. My mother-in-law knows this and still smiles as we drop them off and drive away.
It’s a tradition, and one that I’ve come to both love and hate. I love it because my kids love it. I hate it because we usually stick around for a night, and the amount of work required to camp with children is nearly unbearable. But my kids love it – so we do it. Plus, s’mores are delicious.
Grandma’s Only Rule
The sole requirement for joining Grandma on her camping extravaganza is that you have to be potty-trained. Toileting in the great outdoors is difficult enough – who needs to add diapers? With the stringent guideline, this made 2018 our oldest’s third year while our middle son was embarking on his first year flying solo. We dropped our big boys (3 & 5) off on Saturday morning after our original Friday night plan was thwarted by horrendous holiday weekend traffic and an inconsolable toddler. Traveling with kids is never predictable, so we’ve learned not to get too attached to our “plans.”
The Joys of Camping
We arrived just in time for breakfast. The kids piled onto the picnic table, sucked down glass after glass of Sunny D, inhaled a bowl of dry Lucky Charms, and licked all the raspberry jam off their toast. Twenty minutes later, they were sugared up and raring to go. I searched the neighboring campsites for wet wipes to clean their faces, but the crazies move too fast and were off on their bikes before I could find any. Camping was off to a quick and dirty start.
I’m pretty laid-back most days and run a relatively loose ship. My kids bounce around in pajamas 4 days out of 7, and popcorn has been known to serve as dinner on more than one occasion. I understand that kids will be kids, and bumps and blood are commonplace around here.
But I’m still their mother. Stress and worry over their health and well-being can be consuming at times. When this stress meets an outdoor wonderland of pure danger, I start to twitch.
The potential hazards are everywhere. Dirt and filth, biting and burrowing insects, open flames, pointy objects meant to skewer hunks of meat, 12 full hours of potential sunburn, giant diesel trucks whose drivers cannot hear their own voice let alone the scream of a small child in their path, trees beckoning for kids to fall from their branches, lakes and ponds waiting to swallow them whole – not to mention the hundreds of strangers milling about. In a busy, holiday weekend state park, my Mom alert system goes balls to the wall, sirens flashing, horn blaring, head pounding, full tilt paranoia. It’s too much.
Don’t get me wrong. We take our kids camping, tent camping even. But when we do it, I typically select a quiet, nearly deserted campground in the off-season – never on Memorial Day Weekend – arguably the busiest camping weekend of the year. More often than not, we just pitch a tent in our backyard and cook over the bonfire in the privacy of our small yet wooded two acres.
This state park was a far cry from our backyard, and my control over the environment was exactly null. This is why God made grandmas, at least this particular grandma, because she was unphased.
A Leisurely Bike Ride
Shortly after breakfast, I took my turn herding no less than seven children – on bicycles! – around the park while I chased after them using only my sneakers. It was maybe the worst 12 minutes of my life.
“Looks like you need a bike of your own!” offered a smiley park ranger who whizzed by on two wheels.
Okay, sir. No kidding. Why don’t you loan me yours, so I can catch my two-year old hot-dogging down an incline on his balance bike headed toward a stand of cedars?
And then I’m running. I hate running. Maybe more than childbirth. But there I was, awkwardly sprinting after a miniature bicycle gang, trying to catch a toddler speeding down a hill, his tiny little feet in the air and dark brown locks whipping in the wind. I snagged him right before his front tire hit the edge of the asphalt, a jolt that surely would have sent him flying off into the giant tree trunk standing before us.
“Good catch, Mom!” waved an onlooker. At least my heroic feat did not go unseen.
“You have to stay next to Mama! That was too fast, buddy!” I scolded. “You stay next to me!”
There was that voice. The growly, angry voice that rises up out of my throat so often these days. We’d been camping for approximately 25 minutes, and the mom growl had been unleashed. I wasn’t built for this.
The biker gang climbed down from their trees, hopped back on their cruisers, and took off. My five-year-old tried to follow his eight-year-old cousin to the top of the hill again to see how fast he could roll down the incline and still make the corner at the end. We just took his training wheels off last month.
“NOPE! Don’t even think about it!” He sheepishly turned around and took off on level ground.
I tried to track the seven kiddos with my eyes, but half of them were already around the next curve. I just wanted to go back and put them all in some sort of kennel. Did this campground happen to have any grassy areas with nice high fences to corral the children? That would be nice.
By the time we made it back to the site, I was noticeably agitated. There were too many kids and too many cars for this bike ride to qualify as a leisure activity. No more bikes. Not on my watch.
I convinced my husband to make our escape with the littlest one and said good-bye to my biggest boys who offered a brief wave before heading off to play kickball with their 8 and 10 year-old cousins.
I had to say it. “I know you know this, but the middle one has no awareness of his surroundings when he is on that bike.”
My mother-in-law nodded. She knew. I knew that she knew, but I still had to say it out loud. If I don’t let those nagging words out of my mouth, I’m afraid the fear behind them will somehow make its way from my brain into the real world.
With my precautionary words of warning hanging in the open air, I could climb into the car and leave my children in someone else’s care. The next 36 hours for my big boys would be filled with sand and sun and certainly lots of bike rides that Grandma got to chaperone. My husband and I would spend our time loving on the baby from the comfort of my in-laws’, equipped with indoor plumbing and electric lights.
Picking Up Where We Left Off
We arrived the following evening to pitch our tent and let our littlest enjoy a night with Grandma in her second hand pop-up camper already filled to the brim with smelly little grandboys. When we pulled up, we saw three ragamuffins racing their bicycles back and forth through giant puddles. Their clothes were littered with spots of mud, and their faces were smudged with streaks of dirt. The grime couldn’t cover their gigantic smiles, though, and two of those smiles belonged to me.
While I was scared off after a quick bike ride around the park, here was Grandma, overseeing a mud bath on wheels. She stood back, just watching, not trying to interfere with the mess of fun taking place before her.
My husband and I got out of the car and immediately started directing their activity.
“Don’t get so close to your brother.”
“Be careful. You’re going to fall!”
We lasted maybe ten minutes before calling an end to the fun and hauling them off to the showers.
“You see those socks?” My mother-in-law asked me, pointing to my middle kid’s feet. “Those black socks…” she laughed. “They were white!”
She could see the humor in it. Me, on the other hand, the one who had to try to launder those socks back to their original state, found it slightly less entertaining.
In the bathhouse, I scrubbed and scrubbed until I could find their faces again. When the dirt refused to budge, I fashioned a make-shift washcloth out of their dirty underwear and scrubbed some more, interrupting the sharp stream of water drilling into their bodies.
My middle son screamed like a wounded animal when I had to peel the blackened socks off his feet. Blisters had formed on the inside of each ankle, and he wasn’t buying my line that the water would make them feel better. I fumbled through the sheer madness with a howling three-year-old and a squirmy five-year-old, drenching my fully clothed self in the process.
Done with the Dirty Work
Grandma stayed dry just outside the door, handing me soap and towels as we went along. She had done her part for the past day and a half, and now, I was back to step in and do the dirty work. Had I not been there, these boys would have had a couple bottles of Aquafina dumped over their heads, been smacked on the bottom, and sent on their way. My instincts tell me that actual showers would not have been necessary. On the other side of that shower door, my mother-in-law was laughing, I’m sure, but just quiet enough for me not to hear.
That’s the thing about grandparents. They already put in the years of hard work with us, so they have earned the right to sit back and really enjoy the next round of kiddos. They get to have the fun without having to clean up the mess every time. Grandparents get to take the short-cuts – the water bottle showers and Sunny D, Lucky Charm breakfasts – because they know that a short-cut never hurt anybody; we’re living proof of that and so are our babies.
So camp on, Grandmas! Enjoy the kind of fun that is reserved for those who get to pack up the kids in a couple days and send them home, grubby, maxed out on sugar, and with a pile of wet clothes. We appreciate the break to breathe and recognize that we can’t actually care for or dote on our children the same way that you do. If we did, who would be left to do the laundry?