Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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I Went Camping With My Five-Year-Old And It Wasn't Horrible


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I was setting up a tent with my five-year-old daughter. We were about 10 minutes outside of Small Town Oregon, next to a lake on some property owned by a friend of a friend. Our tent was small and blue. It was something I’d bought ten years ago, and used maybe three times. It was just big enough to fit a queen-sized airbed. Norah was in jeans and an old white t-shirt. In her right arm was a brown and white stuffed puppy. In her left was a teddy bear with a music box inside. She told me they were her friends, and that she wouldn’t go camping without them.

This was a daddy daughter campout put on by my church. I’d been asked to organize this campout, which was a new experience for me. I had been a scoutmaster for a few years, so I understood what was needed for boy scouts. A place to sleep, toilet paper, and food. But planning something for grown men and their daughters seemed like I was going to have to do something different for some reason, but ultimately that didn’t become the case. The reason I’m telling you this is because if I hadn’t been in charge of putting the camp together, I probably never would’ve attended.

Not because I didn’t want to spend time with my daughter, or other fathers for that matter, or that I didn’t like spending time in the woods. I didn’t want to go because I am prone to anxiety attacks in the night. They are not as bad as they have been in the past, but they still happen occasionally, and sleeping in a tent for the first time with a five-year-old seemed like a sure fire recipe for a long, anxious night.

Every time I have shared a bed with Norah, most of the night her hair was in my face, or her feet were in my face, or her arms were in my face. She’s a wild, active sleeper, who still doesn’t have the whole sleep through the night without wetting the bed thing down. She’s also prone to getting scared and not going to sleep, and the woods at night can be a scary place.

Norah helped me set up the tent. When I say helped, I mean she handed me a few poles and asked a lot of questions. But it was cute.

There were about 20 people between the fathers and the daughters. I helped Norah cook hotdogs and marshmallows over the fire. One of the five-year-old girls told me she was a woman now because she’d roasted her own marshmallow. I told her congrats. The girls played by the lake some, and then Norah ran around the camp with some of the other girls.

Come evening, I sat around a campfire with a group of other fathers. We didn’t talk much about hunting, or sports, or politics. These were topics that I assumed would be on the table. Instead, we talked about being dads. We talked about raising kids, the challenges and the expectations. We gave each other advice. At one point my messy house article in the Washington Post was brought up, the one that got me an interview on Good Morning America, and I was told that I was a brave man for saying things like that. I didn’t know how to take that, exactly. I’d never been told I was brave before. I didn’t write the essay to be brave, I wrote it because I felt it needed to be said.

What was the most remarkable thing about this dialog around the campfire was that it was men talking about being fathers. My whole neighborhood was made up of fatherless kids. My father left when I was a child. Sometimes I feel like many fathers feel it’s okay to walk out. But there, around that fire, were several fathers together, chatting about their roles, trying to do a better job with their children.

It was awesome.

Norah and I settled in around 10 PM. I put her in a pull-up to prevent any accidents. She told me that she was afraid of wolves, and I told her that the man who owns this place is a friend of mine. “He lives just down the road. He is here everyday, and he has never seen one wolf.”

She looked at me and smiled as though I’d relieved a huge burden. We read a story in the tent. Then I wound up the musical bear, and Norah crawled into her sleeping bag. She was asleep a few moments later, and like I often do, I was awake for some time, listening. In the tent to my right, I could hear a father reading his daughters stories. I could hear them eating candy. They were having a heartfelt moment. To my left, I could hear another father teaching his daughters how to use a lantern. All around me were good fathers sharing moments with their daughters, and next to me, as Norah slept, her arm wrapped around her stuffed puppy, I realized that we had just had a moment, too. I’d calmed her fears, and we read a story in our tent. 

That night, Norah slept like a rock. In fact, I was more disturbed by the snoring fathers all around me than by her.

We got up around 7:30 AM. I helped get Norah dressed. All of us made pancakes, and then broke down the camp. And by the end of it all, I was happy that I went. The poor relationship I had with my father haunts me, and if I were to say that my writing has an agenda, it is to prevent other kids from being abandoned like I was. It is to help keep families strong and to help fathers know that they are needed, and to value their role in raising children.  During that camp, I was surrounded by fathers as dedicated, or even more dedicated to their kids, than I was, and by the time I packed my things back into my tent, I felt wonderful knowing that I’d just spent the night in such wonderful company.

I placed Norah in my truck. Across from her, we’d buckled her puppy and bear (her friends). And as I buckled her, I said, “Norah. I had a great time camping with you. Did you have fun with me?”

Norah smiled at me, a large over the top smile, and said, “Yup!”

It’s not too often that I think to myself, I’ve created a memory. And although it was just one simple night in a tent, I felt confident that Norah was going to remember it for the rest of her life. 

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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.  
Photo by Lucinda Higley