Danica Marshall enjoyed her first vacation without kids so much that she can’t wait to go on another one. Duncan was 18 months old when Marshall and her husband, Scott, booked a Caribbean cruise, asked relatives to look after their son and plotted all the arrangements in careful detail. “I think it’s healthy to have breaks from your children every now and then,” says the Calgary mom.
Whether it’s an overnight stay in the big city or a two-week dream trip to Europe, your first adults-only getaway can be nerve-racking for both you and your kids. But with the right planning and a positive attitude, you can ensure the trip is a fabulous adventure on both sides.
Your great escape begins with big-picture planning. Start by considering the timing of your getaway. If your child is at an excessively clingy stage, or she’s distraught when you’re away for even a few hours, you may want to put things on hold for a while. Likewise if your child is already going through a stressful situation, such as switching to a new school or daycare.
The next pressing question: Who should care for the kids while you’re gone? Many parents automatically turn to extended family, while others ask friends or even hire help, such as their child’s nanny or daycare worker. When my husband and I grabbed our first getaway, our daughter (two at the time) spent part of the week with close friends. The kids went to daycare together, and our daughter had already enjoyed single-night sleepovers at their house.
Keeping your child at home in a familiar setting will make it easier to follow routines. “There’s less to adjust to,” notes Montreal family therapist Vikki Stark. “When they get into bed at night, it’s not a strange bed.” That’s especially helpful for kids under two who are most dependent on you for comfort.
If your child will be staying at a grandparent’s or caregiver’s house, make sure the place is childproofed. If your child isn’t already familiar with the home, visit ahead of time so he can see where he will sleep. You can even do a dry run while you’re still in town.
How long should you stay away? Smartphones and Skype mean you can always keep in contact, but it may be best to make the first getaway short. One night apart may be more than enough for an infant, or a weekend for a preschooler. You can build up to a week or longer from there. “It gets them used to the idea,” says Stark. “Children understand that Mommy goes away, and then Mommy comes back.” But individual kids will cope differently. Marshall says her easygoing son barely broke his stride while she and her husband were away for 10 days.
Once you’ve established the who, where and when, you can start the prep work. Marshall wrote notes for her son’s caregivers on just about everything she could think of: Duncan’s routine, their itinerary and contact information, a letter authorizing emergency medical decisions, a list of Duncan’s likes and dislikes. “I went a little over the top, now that I think of it,” Marshall laughs. “But in the end, they were grateful for it.”
Your note should also list health and allergy information, and leave your child’s health card in case she needs to visit the doctor. Give names and numbers of friends or neighbours who could serve as backup caregivers in a crisis, suggests Valerie Powell of the Canada Safety Council. If your child will be attending daycare during your trip, alert the staff to the change. If he’s enrolled in activities, make sure the caregiver knows times and locations.
If you’re nervous, don’t let your kid catch on, advises Stark. “If the parent is matter-of-fact, then the child thinks, ‘Mommy doesn’t think the world is coming to an end.’”
Don’t bother to tell young kids about your trip more than a week or so in advance; they don’t have enough grasp of time to make sense of it. This also means it can be difficult for them to understand how long you’ll be away. A calendar with stickers will help them mark the days you’re gone. “Or you can make a paper chain with loops,” says Vancouver psychologist Staci Illsley. “Every day you take one loop off, and when they’re all gone, Mommy comes home.”
A special stuffed animal, family photos or even recordings of you reading bedtime stories will help your child feel in contact while you’re gone. Before Nancy Pang and her husband, Tony, caught an early flight for their first parents-only trip, she left a special gift for each of her two daughters to find when they woke up. That was five years ago; several getaways later, the tradition still thrives in their home in Mississauga, Ont. “I know that is so materialistic,” Pang admits, “but to a child, it helps them get through the days until we return. We talk about what I bought for them during our daily phone calls home.”
Presents aren’t necessary, but it can help to leave behind a few well-chosen goodies: Freeze some of your kid’s favourite mac and cheese, leave your DVD rental card, and slip the caregiver some cash, both for emergencies and for the odd treat.
You’ve packed the car and waved goodbye — and you’re already texting the caregiver from the end of the driveway? How often you check in depends on your comfort level, but don’t forget you’re on holiday. You can take your cue from your kids, who may be old enough to tell you they’d like to hear from you every day.
A phone call may matter less to younger kids. Marshall’s son showed no interest when his parents checked in. “They put the phone up to Duncan’s ear and he walked away.” Others may cry and tell you how much they miss you. “Certainly listen to them and validate them,” says Illsley. Remind your child of things she can do when she feels sad, like play with Grandma or hug the stuffed toy you left her.
What if you’re the one having the meltdown? When Toronto mom Cynthia Chan and her husband went on their first overnight trip together without their 11-month-old son, she felt real stomach pain. “I started crying. It just felt so odd to be separated because he is a part of me.” That’s understandable, says Illsley. “Mothers have a biological drive to maintain proximity to their infants.” An overanxious reaction may be a sign of too much distance too soon, in which case a more gradual separation might be more appropriate. It may also help to remind yourself that these breaks with your spouse can make you a better parent. “Remember, your child has a good life,” says Stark, “and he’s soon to have a nicely tanned, well-rested mom, to boot!”
Be prepared for a bit of rule bending and junk-food noshing while you’re gone. One mother in Oakville, Ont., says that when she and her husband left their children in the care of their adult cousin, “they had more fun than I had anticipated!” But she didn’t mind the toys the cousin bought with the money they’d left. “She was doing it to make it a nice time for them.”
In other words, know when to let go. “The children aren’t being left at the bottom of a well,” Stark points out. “They’re safe, they’re warm, they’re fed.” That letting go may just be the secret to a relaxing vacation.
Leaving big kids behind
Whether by fate or design, some parents don’t take a vacation alone together until their kids are well into school age. Perhaps limited finances or health issues have held them back. Other times, parents worry about upsetting their kids, or they may have mixed feelings about travelling.
Jacqueline Henry and Martin Wise* of Oakville, Ont., waited until their children were six, 11 and 13 before taking a trip to St. Lucia last year. Henry had felt three kids were just too many to lay on a caregiver until they were more independent. “We were worried about leaving them before they could express themselves,” Henry says.
Older children have usually learned how to cope with separation, says Montreal family therapist Vikki Stark. “They can call their friends. They can call Grandma, even if Grandma lives in another city. They’re not as dependent on their parents as often.” The key is to make sure they’ve had earlier experiences being apart from mom and dad, like a sleepover at a friend’s house.
True, older kids may present a different set of challenges for the caregiver; you won’t find your one-year-old giving attitude or ducking curfew. But again, a little prep work goes a long way. Discuss your expectations about rules and behaviour with the children and caregiver together, says Vancouver psychologist Staci Illsley. And make sure everyone understands the consequences for breaking the rules. “Kids will inevitably push boundaries,” she concedes, but a conversation beforehand can help.
Stark adds that it’s important to be positive. “Instead of ‘You’d better be off the phone by 10,’ say, ‘I know it’s tempting to be on the phone late on a school night, but I know you’ll use good judgment.’”
Then go grab your flight.
*Names changed by request.