On a crisp October evening in California's San Bernardino mountains, 181 runaway moms are gathered around a camp-fire behaving like a band of naughty Girl Scouts. Some are wearing maids' outfits and waving feather dusters as they belt out lyrics set to "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah": "Miss the cooking and the cleaning/ Miss the whining and the crying/ Miss my washer and my drier/ Miss my vacuum—now I'm a liar."
The women cut loose a closing cheer to the life they've left behind. They have come from as far away as Florida to spend a weekend at Camp Mom, where for $239 they can complete a sentence without being interrupted, eat a meal that someone else prepared, sleep as late as they want and answer to no one but themselves. "My life isn't hard, but it's chaotic," says Susan Mathai, 39, of San Marcos, Calif., who has three children, ages 9, 5 and 2. "Homework, sports, trying to spend time with my kids without yelling at them—Camp Mom takes me off that treadmill." Adds Betsy Willows, 40, mother of two and a special-education administrator in Panama City Beach, Fla.: "There are no phones, no husbands, no 'Where is my dinner?' We can act like 9-year-olds here."
That's exactly what Myra Peck had in mind in 1996, when she started the camp. "My daughter always came back from summer camp with great stories," says Peck, 51, a single mother of two—Heather, 24, and Jodi, 21—who lives in Laguna Hills, Calif. "I wondered why it was that kids had all the fun."
Camp Mom began with just 86 guests two weekends a year. Now some 200 women attend each of four weekends—two in the spring and two in the fall. But last year as business boomed, Peck grew weary of juggling her duties as a hostess to hundreds with her full-time career as a public relations coordinator for the University of California, Irvine Medical Center. "It's the perfect job for a stay-at-home mom," says Peck, who sold her creation last November to then-staffer Cindy Rota. Rota, 37, of Oceanside, Calif., was thrilled to carry the torch. "Camp Mom is not about going to a luxurious hotel," says the homemaker and mother of three, who signed on as a counselor following her first visit so that she could attend free. "It's about getting far away from the daily grind."
That's not to say that Camp Mom is without opportunities for some serious pampering. There are 15 wooden cabins with 12 bunk beds each, but they are heated and have a full bathroom. Bears, bats and mice do occasionally drop in, but so do masseuses. The camp's queen-for-a-day ambiance seems to bring" out the flamboyance in humble car-poolers and homework monitors, who break routinely into song. Some wear dime-store tiaras or T-shirts they tie-dyed in arts and crafts class.
For those in search of exercise, horseback riding and swimming are options, but the moms—young and old, single and married, every last one of them harried—sometimes choose to do nothing more taxing than lie under a tree, get a rubdown or extend their toes to a pedicurist. Many of Camp Mom's customers (there have been nearly 5,000 so far) become repeat visitors. "What I fell in love with was that it was a way to get back to being me," says Rota. "We told jokes in our cabins, did silly skits. I felt the energy as soon as I drove into camp. It was like, 'Okay, I'm here!' "
Rota has been smitten with all things camp-related since her childhood in Oceanside. Her parents, retired Marine Richard Tomson, 58, and homemaker Emma, 62, ferried her and brother Richard, now 32, on frequent camping trips to national parks. "My dad would take a month-long vacation and we would take off," she says. "It was awesome."
After attending MiraCosta College for two years, Rota followed in her father's footsteps in 1984 and joined the Marines, where she became an intelligence analyst. Two years later she met her then-Marine husband, Robert, when they served together at Camp Pendleton. In 1989, when Robert retired from the service—now 40, he is director of facility support services at a communications company in Carlsbad, Calif.—Cindy accepted an honorable discharge to become a full-time mom to their boys Nicholas, 15, Joseph, 9, and Matthew, 6.
In 1998 Robert decided to give Cindy a weekend at Camp Mom as a Mother's Day gift. "No men, no makeup, we weren't even allowed to call her there," he says. "She returned relaxed, revived and with a job—and determined to be a part of it." Robert adds that, though her workload has increased, his wife's enthusiasm for the camp has only grown since she took it over. "Now she comes home dead tired and crashes for 48 hours," he says.
She's beat not just because of the long hours but because she still likes to get into the games herself, such as the paintball battles that transform some of these quiet suburbanites into outdoor Macho Moms. The day of the campfire sing-along, Susan Mathai pops out from behind a pine tree, takes aim with her toy weapon and splatters her opponent's camouflage uniform with yellow paint. "I can't tell you," says Mathai with a cackle, "how many times I've wanted to do this to my husband."
Danielle Davis, 36, says her three kids would be shocked to see her dashing through the trees with paintballs at the ready, but that doesn't stop her from taking out a scrambling opponent. "I knew I would never have the chance to do this again with a bunch of women," says the San Diego resident. "Camp Mom is just a great environment for doing something new." And for discharging maternal tensions. Davis's husband, Bill, 37, a software salesman, says she comes back from camp "rejuvenated and more peaceful."
In fact, some envious husbands have suggested that Rota create Camp Dad. But she is not interested. "My feeling is that dads already get away from the kids by going to work," she says. "Women need alone time. They need a place to come and be calm—and to conquer." The women warriors agree. "There's only one problem," says Kelly Mosko-witz, 37, a sign-language interpreter and mother of three kids from Brea, Calif. "Camp Mom should last a week." Another woman pipes up, "Not a week. Forever!"
Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Lake Arrowhead, Calif.
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