(Originally written May, 2015)
It’s one-in-the-morning on our first night of surf camp. There’s a cold ocean breeze kicking up the surf ending a day of rainy gray skies and starting a new day of hopefully more cooperative weather. We’ve been here a mere 7 hours and one girl has already projectile vomited all over the concrete cabin floor splattering puke on her own shoes and another mom’s boots. The potent stench wakes even the deepest of sleepers as the wind bangs the wooden shutters against the outdoor cabin walls in a chaotic chorus of eye-rolling insomnia. All the not-so-happy campers in the cabin opt to tolerate the dark mid-night cold with open doors while one mom, who works in the medical field, slaps on some latex gloves with the ease of a professional and hand cleans the chunky, vomity mess. Welcome to Girl Scouts at YMCA Camp Surf 2015.
There are 33 of us – 11 moms and 22 girls mostly under the age of 10, all spilt up between three neighboring no-frills cabins that are simply bunk bed shacks held together by 2-by-4’s and nails, slapped with numerous years worth of coats of white paint. I have to admit, this is not my idea of a good time.
I love camping. I love adventure and trying new things. I love the outdoors and mother-daughter time. But as much as I love my own child and adore her little friends, the last thing that ever sounds fun to me is hanging out with a boat-load of kids – or a boat-load of women.
Let’s be honest. I’ve never been a girls-girl. I’ve always looked at those smiley group photos of women together having some kind of fun bonding time and felt a little appalled. Seriously? Are you all really that great of friends so joyously happy together right now?
Of course my thoughts on that have nothing to do with them, and everything to do with me. In a nutshell, I moved 21 times by the time I was 24 across four states and 16 cities. I went to four elementary schools, one middle-school and four different high schools. It’s safe to say I never had roots and never had solid friendships growing up. I related better to guys over those years because drama, hair, make-up and clothes were not only things we couldn’t afford, but things that didn’t interest me – at all.
The problem with not having roots and secure friendships, though, is that you become an outcast. You don’t fit in. After a while, you don’t even try and, in fact, rebel against it. Young insecurity and fear breeds confused anger. Maybe it would have been different if I had played sports or any other activities when I was young, but those opportunities were not afforded me. I had a single working mom who was never home, a younger brother by seven years that I was responsible for taking care of, and a dead-beat absent dad who to this day still thinks it’s funny he took me to bars, exposed me to drugs, and had me drive his car at 9 years old because he was too drunk to drive himself. I got myself to school and back, I cooked my own meals, I did my own laundry, I got jobs, bought my own car. I was basically self-sufficient by the time I was 12, which is when I started drinking and smoking.
By the time I was older, all of it disgusted me – people with money, cheerleaders, homecoming, prom, jocks, thespians (oh god, thespians), being an ill-equipped child-parent to my brother… I angrily rebelled against it all. It would never have occurred to me in a million years to be a Girl Scout.
Perhaps this is why, when on the second night of Girl Scouts surf camp the other moms announced that we would do a “mom performance” in front of the entire camp, I shuddered with panic. Out of nowhere appeared costumes – clown costumes, tutus, sequins… What nightmare is this? Each mom was being assigned a part, each assigned lines, with 45-minutes to get up to speed. I was told to wear a Girl Scouts vest and tutu and say some cheery line about getting along. What the..?!?!
While all the moms were giddy with schoolgirl excitement, I was terrified. What hellish torture this would be. I can’t say a line. And this damn tutu doesn’t even fit around my hips!
I had just spent that afternoon at lunch secretly in tears over this whole trip. This was supposed to be fun. I felt like something was wrong with me. I was not having fun. It was monumentally overwhelming for me – dealing with the childcare of dressing, changing, bathing, brushing, being warm, cooling off, wearing sunscreen, answering every demand, responding to every request for not only my child, but other mom’s children with varying degrees of high and low maintenance. All while trying to navigate multiple itineraries and catering to who wants to do what with who and when. I was refereeing meltdowns, all with very little familiarity with bulk female companionship and not a drop of frickn’ wine. No wine, people.
I reluctantly agreed to be in the mom performance. I couldn’t be the only mom not participating. What would that be teaching my daughter? I had no choice. But I opted not to have any lines, saying it would cause me to have a panic attack. It wouldn’t have, but I had to have some excuse. They thankfully obliged. I still had to wear a Girl Scouts vest and go on stage, but instead of lines, I was in charge of cuing music, which I could totally handle. Music.
You see, it’s hard to explain to a boat-load of women that I ended up in rehab by the time I was 15 and these kinds of high-pressure participation things don’t sit well with me. Heavy drugs and alcohol was my recreation instead of the stuff I should have been doing – like participating in any way at all growing up. I was kicked out of school by 9th grade for excessive absences that my mom had previously not been aware of, and of course, for suspicion of drug activity on campus – of which I was guilty.
I was sneaking out, stealing my mom’s car, stealing her money and just generally out of control. I had no discipline, no guidance, no mentors, and, despite my mom’s best efforts, no effective parenting. I was full of hate and anger without understanding why.
I ended up dropping out of high school. At 17, my mom and brother moved to Nebraska leaving me to fend for myself in San Diego. I moved in with my boyfriend (who I began dating at 15) and his drug addict parents in their white-trash house with boarded up windows. They didn’t pay their trash bill, so the garage was piled high wall to wall with trash –literally. The floors inside were so dirty you had to wear socks or the bottoms of your feet would be caked in black tarry gunk. The toilets would overflow so often that the bathtub became a wet blanket sanctuary where mushrooms actually flourished. Mice and cockroaches lived among us, or we lived among them. It was there I was threatened to be gang-raped by the gang members who I then traded my jewelry for drugs with in the hood that I called home. I was such a hardass by this time, nothing penetrated me. I felt nothing. Not fear, not sadness, not happiness, not shame. Nothing. I had stopped caring and crying about anything a long long time ago.
Yet somehow, among all of it, I put myself in a homeschooling program and finished high school ahead of time with the best grades I had since primary school. I had a job, I remained as responsible as a drugged out partier could. I had done overnights in jail and institutions by the time I was 21. Death was the only thing left. One day I realized, this wasn’t the life for me and I got out, but not without a long road of continued abusive relationships and bad life decisions.
The best decision I ever made, though, was to recognize love and trust and marry the first and only man who ever loved me unconditionally – who to this day I feel like I don’t deserve. My husband is a once-in-a-lifetime man. A real man. He changed my mind about marriage and children and together we created our little Girl Scout, Ava Kathleen.
I realized something when watching that Girl Scout mom performance back on video. There with me was a group of women who didn’t give a crap how goofy they looked or felt. They were having fun. If they weren’t already friends, they were becoming friends. Once again, I was the self-imposed 41-year-old outsider in my own mind. It was easy to see in my presence on that stage that I was uncomfortable, aloof, even though I thought I was doing my best to make the most of it. Up on that stage was an insecure teenager, not the mom and woman I am today. Being around all those women and children sent me for a tailspin of teenage people-pleasing angst, and this is not what I want my daughter to emulate or how I want her to feel.
It turns out I am living backwards. All the empowering things I didn’t get to experience as a child, I am able to experience now through my daughter. This wasn’t my plan, but it is happening anyway. It is seeing things through her eyes that is making me a better, more fulfilled person. She, along with these unsuspecting women, is helping me to see my weaknesses and forcing me to autocorrect.
Ava and I had an experience at this surf camp that she and I will always remember. We encouraged each other to make it to the top of rock walls. We got excited about bows and arrows. We bodyboarded until we were injured and sore. We cuddled at night and we bickered by day. Because of her, I experienced being around other women, each unique and interesting, each funny and energetic – none of whom were really judging me. Only I was judging me.
I thought I was doing something special for Ava by putting her in Girl Scouts, helping her to see her strengths, develop character, build her self-esteem. Taking her to Girl Scout surf camp was initially me making yet another sacrifice of my time and energy for the sake of her positive development and life experience. But it turns out that maybe it wasn’t just for her. Just maybe it was for me, too.