When our son Will was almost 3, my husband and I committed to "WWW Weekends"—Weekends Without William. We started with an overnight in downtown Chicago and have since ventured out of state alone to reconnect as a couple. Last year, it became a Week Without William when we spent 10 days alone in Paris.
Fellow parents were horrified and envious. They asked loaded questions such as, "How could you?" and "How do you?"
The short answers: Because we need it and it takes a lot of work. Success requires planning and, although not everything went according to plan, it was a positive experience for us and for Will.
What follows is the sum of our experience, bolstered with advice from child psychologists, physicians and educators. The goal is to help other parents feel as though time away from the kids is not only possible, but can be beneficial for both adults and kids.
There are plenty of roadblocks to keep you home—logistics, finances, guilt and the Berlin Wall of them all: parental anxiety.
"Parents often miss the point that their anxiety about separation is what makes it more difficult for everyone. A child picks up on the feelings and thinks, ‘Oh there is something to worry about,’ but [is] not sure why," says Frances Stott, dean of academic affairs at Chicago’s Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development.
Comfort with leaving a child for extended periods comes with practice. Dr. Sucheta Connolly, mom of three and director of the Pediatric Stress and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago, says, "Particularly with younger children, their sense of safety and security is through you, as you are the center of their world. Therefore, you must give them opportunities to get accustomed to longer separations."
Jonathan Pochyly, child psychologist at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, recommends introducing separation gradually. "Perhaps start with an overnight when someone you and your child know stays in the family home. The child’s response to brief periods apart helps indicate how to handle longer separations. Only you know what he can tolerate."
Moving slowly also allows parents to learn what they can tolerate. I’ve discovered that time apart from my son does more than strengthen my marital relationship. It also gives Will has a chance to connect with other loved ones.
"It’s good for children to experience separation and to see parents have separate lives—that parents are not dependant on their child’s successes for contentment," says Connolly.
Prepare for departure
Familiarity with the caregiver and environment is the key to a positive experience, particularly for younger children.
"By keeping the child’s day as familiar as possible, it helps him ... anticipate what is going to happen next, even though a parent isn’t around," Stott says. "So, ultimately when separation distress occurs—and it will—it is likely to be limited."
Who will take care of a child is a parent’s biggest concern. Will has stayed at home with a mature sitter he knows well and in the homes of our best friends. When we went to Paris, he lived with grandparents, aunts and uncles in New York whom we visit often.
Teachers are also your child’s caregivers, so inform them of your plans. If possible, introduce them to your caregiver before you go. I provide Will’s teachers with our itinerary, phone numbers and a copy of our caregiver’s driver’s license so they will be able to recognize the person who picks him up from school.
Once you have chosen the caregivers, give them as much information as possible. In addition to your itinerary, cell phone number and those of the hotels and tour operators, include written guidelines on everything from wake-up to bedtime. (See page 47 for a complete list.)
Emergencies do happen, so be sure to include information on the child’s medications, health conditions, immunization history and blood type, the number of the pharmacy and a letter authorizing the caregiver to make emergency medical decisions in your absence.
A detailed document can yield rewards beyond the immediate sense of security. Each time we leave, I create a "Will’s Way" document outlining son’s daily life. These epistles to caregivers record my son’s miraculous progress and delightful personality.
Once you’ve made all the arrangements, it’s time to clue in your child. Shirley Morgenthaler, professor of early childhood education at River Forest’s Concordia University, says, "Because young children don’t measure time in days or weeks, but by bedtimes or sleeps, it would be confusing to talk about the trip more than a week out. Tell children a simplified version of your plans, mentioning it each day until departure."
What you say is as important as when you say it, she says.
"Instead of telling the child about the time apart, focus on where you are going and [what you and he] will be doing," Morgenthaler suggests. "Talk about where he will be, with whom and what fun is in store for everyone."
Pochyly agrees: "Keep it positive. Don’t plant the seeds of worry saying, ‘Nothing bad will happen to Mommy or Daddy.’ Take your child’s lead, listening to what he may be concerned about, if anything at all. And discuss that."
And don’t worry if your child doesn’t cry at the news you’re leaving for a few days. It means he is well-adjusted, says Pochyly.
As departure draws near, involve your child in basic trip preparations. Will and I plan a special activity such as a museum visit for him and the caregiver so he has an adventure to share with us when we return.
He brings favorite toys, books, sleeping buddies and family photos when he stays at our caregiver’s home. Now, after several trips, Will takes care of us by giving us each a small toy "to play with on the airplane."
Staying in touch
Ruth Hornaday, director of Chicago’s Fourth Church Day School for children ages 2 to 4, suggests tangible ways for kids to keep connected to you. "Create a visual countdown of when you [will] return, such as a chain of paper clips or bag of chocolate kisses, one per day apart. The child removes one each day. Also he can mark Xs on a calendar for each night passed."
Bedtime is often the toughest time to be apart from a parent. Hornaday recommends preparing short, comforting bedtime messages. Each night, your child can pick one out of an envelope for the caregiver to read.
And short e-mails or brief phone calls are important, too. Always close with "I love you" and swallow the desire to add "I miss you."
"Parents need to be careful about ‘miss you’ because it muddies the child’s experience, deflates his excitement and lays a guilt trip on him for having fun without you," Morganthaler says. Remind the caregiver not to bring up the M-word either.
The reality is that, despite your thorough preparations, caregivers don’t necessarily parent as you would. While we were in Paris, relatives cared for Will’s daily needs beautifully. However, they weren’t around for several prescheduled phone calls and not one bedtime message was read. But we all had a blast—Will, his caregivers and us. Most importantly, Will was safe.
Once the separation is over, you anticipate returning home to hugs and kisses. Chances are you’ll get a cold shoulder instead.
"Expect some coldness," Connolly says. "Children are direct about their feelings of being mad, and that is a good thing. By accepting your child’s feelings, parents show that they are a safe place for him to express them."
Will was sleeping in his car seat when Uncle Bill picked us up at the Buffalo, N.Y., airport. My teary kiss made him stir. He mumbled, "Hi Mommy. How was Paris?" and went back to dreamsville. Once he really woke up, we got an earful. The first two days home my discipline was met with a rebellious, "I want to go back to New York."
I took that as a good sign.
Planning makes a separation go smoothly. That means giving your caregiver more information than she could ever want. Include the basics—your itinerary, cell phone number and the numbers of the tour operator and hotels. But also add:
• Meal and snack times, food preferences, allergies, school lunch box policies.
• Bed and nap times.
• Bath times, diaper changes, teeth brushing, potty training.
• Favorite toys and house rules.
• School drop off and pick up times and locations.
• After-school schedule.
• List of important phone numbers, including those of the parents of your child’s favorite playmates, the neighbor who has the extra house key and the pediatrician.
• Melt-down triggers and calming techniques.
Kit Bernardi is the mom of Will and a writer living in Oak Park.