At a California Camp Where No Husbands Are Allowed, Moms Get a Weekend on Chore Leave

updated 07/03/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/03/1989 01:00AM

The sun is sparkling on Big Bear Lake, and the scent of the sugar pines wafts in from the woods. Down by the lake-shore, bikini-clad women work on their tans. "When I called home," one is saying, "Joe said he was feeding the children tequila and chili." Another chimes in, "My husband said he put all the gold-rimmed glasses in the microwave to watch the sparks fly." Then, as someone pops a bottle of champagne, the women clink glasses and break into a cheer. Somewhere back in the woods, a telephone starts ringing. "If that's my husband," two women blurt out together, "tell him you haven't seen me."

The women on the beach 2½ hours east of Los Angeles were spending a blissful weekend at Mother's Camp. All had the same goal: to forget—at least temporarily—their husbands and their children, their pets and their homes. They would go horseback riding and swimming. They would luxuriate in the sauna and get massages. They would hike in the woods and sing songs around a campfire. And they wouldn't feel guilty about it.

For many it was the only break from home and responsibility since their first child was born. "This is two days out of the year," says Marilyn Peters, 42, a lawyer who lives in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., and has two grown children. "For the other 363 days, most of us are with our children. I live in a four-bedroom house, but there is no place I can go to be by myself except the bathroom. My husband just doesn't understand. He would listen, but he couldn't understand. How could he—he's part of the problem."

Mother's Camp is an unpretentious place, with picnic tables and plastic knives and forks, and as the name implies, it is strictly for moms. It exists only on weekends, in the Edgewater Inn, rented for the occasion by Carol Smith-Carter, 39, herself the mother of two daughters, who founded the camp two years ago. "Being a mom," says Smith-Carter, "I always felt that vacation was a lot of work; I was always managing the family. As a working mom, I used to wonder, does anybody go through what I go through?"

Smith-Carter got the idea for Mother's Camp when she and a friend were frantically filling out camp forms for their children. "Why don't we get to go away?" her friend lamented. "I looked over at her and said, 'You just said Mother's Camp,' " remembers Smith-Carter. So she quit her job as advertising manager of a local newspaper and invested her meager life savings and a $15,000 bank loan in the year-round camp.

Campers pay $220 per weekend for a single room (a share costs $185). The package includes riding, boat trips, bubble baths and champagne. Massages are $30 extra. Smith-Carter and her husband, Tim, 44, who assists her at the camp, are hoping to make a modest profit this year.

The women—who often come in groups—are from many backgrounds, united only in their role as mothers and their need to escape its rigors for a few days. "You have a chance to see that other women are in the same boat, having the same problems," says Sue Cowan, 44, a Los Angeles teacher and mother of two. "It's sort of a support group here. The primary topic has been juggling—being a mother and working, having a husband who's like another child."

And Nanci De Coursey, a housewife from Redlands, Calif., says, "For the last year I've been saying that I want to go somewhere with no children and no husband. No, I don't want to go to a singles bar. No, I don't want to go to Las Vegas. I just want a little getaway."

Meanwhile the women by the lake are still exchanging stories about their problems as careerists, cooks, chauffeurs and golf widows. They are interrupted by Smith-Carter, who pulls up in a large pink pontoon. As they set off for a cruise on the lake, someone in the bow announces, "This is the answer to all my problems." Now there's a happy camper.

—Michael Neill, Vicki Sheff at Big Bear Lake

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