Whether you travel for work, or you and your partner could use some extra couple time, overnight trips away from your children are part of normal family life. Sometimes these trips are inevitable – perhaps a last minute funeral out of town, or a business trip you weren’t counting on. Other times, you’ve been planning ahead for months and are taking a well-deserved break from 24/7 Motherhood. Either way, there are things you can do to prepare yourself and your child to thrive during this first absence.
Talk about your departure with your child
If you can, give your child as much notice as possible. Talk about the upcoming time apart in positive terms and remind them every so often that soon you’ll be having a day/few days/week apart. A few weeks prior to my recent trip to London, England, I did this with my three little ones. We talked about where I was going, the things and people I’d see there, and what they would do while I was away. My children loved seeing photos of my destination and knowing even the most mundane details of what I would do (“I’ll take the subway from the airport when I arrive”, etc.). Details provide comfort while keeping their minds interested, not fearful, of your upcoming trip.
Prepare your child’s care giver more than you think is necessary
This is one area where it never hurts to go overboard! Allow your caregiver and child the chance to really thrive by leaving as detailed a schedule as possible. If your child is used to eating at 5pm and their grandparents don’t eat until 6:30pm, that’s going to be a brutal evening for your child’s first overnight at Grandma’s. Hour by hour details are so helpful, and all the more with younger children and babies. Some commonly forgotten but important things to leave with your caregiver are: your child’s health card, your child’s weight (for medicine dosages, if necessary), a signed letter explaining that you have left your child with the caregiver for X days in the event of an emergency, and the soap, lotion, snacks, blankets, and toys they love most from home.
Prepare your child for a care giving shift
In my case, my husband was with the kids, so there wasn’t a big adjustment with care giving, but if you’re having a babysitter or relative watch your child during your absence, be sure to mention them frequently leading up to your departure. Try, “Nana is so excited to spend the weekend with you!” or, “What books do you think Jenny will like the most? You can set them aside to read with her on the night Mommy and Daddy leave”. You normalize the care-giving shift by talking about it regularly and in advance.
Have a test-run before a long absence
This is a bit of a stretch, but if at all possible, start with one night away, work up to a weekend away, and then longer trips. If the first time you leave your child overnight is for a two week vacation, that will be a rocky adjustment. Our first time away from our first child was three nights when she was 10 months old. I was already pregnant with our second, and desperate for some restful time away. It was the perfect first trip away; long enough for us to miss one another, but not a shock to anyone’s system. Years later, my husband and I would spend two weeks away on a babymoon before our third child was born. It was the longest we’ve ever been away from our children, but we had done a couple of weekends away by that point, so we all felt more comfortable.
Leave surprise notes and gifts
Before leaving for my recent week away in the UK, I wrote each of my children personal notes and left them with my husband. He brought them out at just the right time and he says it made their day. Leaving behind a couple small gifts is a nice idea, too. When my husband had a work trip for five days, he left a gift for each child and they opened it right after we dropped him off at the airport – which is usually the saddest time for the little ones. As they played with their new toys, it helped them remember their dad and kept their minds off his absence at the same time. Win-win!
Expect emotions, but don’t let Mom Guilt control you
I’m not going to lie – when my family dropped me off at the airport for my week abroad, I left a car of three crying children and one dear husband to pick up the pieces. When it’s time to leave your child for an overnight, they will likely cry – this is normal! Your child loves you and loves to be with you, and they will show this with every emotion when it’s time to part ways. I cried a few tears myself! But all the while I was telling myself the true words that it’s good for me to take time away once in a while, and that my children were in good, safe, loving hands during our time apart. Remind yourself that it’s not wrong to travel for work to provide for your family, or it’s not a bad thing to step outside the parenting ring for a week to rebuild your marriage after a hard season. Time away may be necessary and is often tremendously life-giving, especially for primary caregivers. Mom guilt can be a powerful force, especially when emotions run high, but remind yourself of your child’s safety and well-being, as well as the purpose of your time away to get through those tough moments.
Communicate, or don’t
This point will be helpful to the parent who knows their child’s communication needs. Some families will FaceTime during even one night away, others will check in once every few days, at most. The key is understanding if communicating will help or hurt your child while you are apart. I have personally found that checking in daily caused my kids to miss me more, so I had to discipline myself to hold back and only check in every few days. Some children will need the regular reassurance, others will be doing well until they hear Mom’s voice and then melt into a puddle of tears. Try to learn what your child needs, but when in doubt, err on the side of communicating too often. Ask their caregiver how they reacted after you checked in – was your child light and reassured or moping and worried? Also, if your child has never seen your face on the other side of a screen before, let them experience that before you leave! Otherwise, even the most high tech communication may seem too distant and unhelpful.
Keep your expectations low for your return
Coming home from any longer than a weekend is a huge adjustment. Your child has been in another’s care for many days, and they have grown used to new rules and rhythms. Maybe their grandparents were too lenient on screen time, or their babysitter didn’t reinforce the rules you sent her. You’ll have a lot of ground to re-gain, but you’ll get there in no time. They also may not know how to communicate their feelings to you – they’re so relieved and glad to see you back, but also maybe sad you left or that they had to miss you. Some kids can be distant after their parents take a vacation, others may be extra clingy. Give yourselves time and grace as you readjust to your common family life.
As you get ready to say Good Bye to your child for the first time, above all, remind yourself that this time away can be a positive thing for you both. Personally, after a weekend away from my children, I’m more ambitious and eager to parent well that ever before. These special weekends may only happen once per year – or less – but it’s amazing how a little time away can increase one’s capacity and desire to parent with a renewed passion. Your child will benefit as well! He’ll learn to trust you in a new way, to bond with extended family or friends who are watching him, and of course, enjoy all the perks of doting grandparents and babysitters. Bon Voyage!