When a friend asked me on a week-long, adults-only trip to Europe in May, I was ecstatic. I love to travel, and since my friend worked for an airline, the discounted airfare was an added bonus. But while I couldn’t pass up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I also couldn’t stop fretting over how my son would handle the separation.
When Logan was a baby, I used to leave him with family for a few days at a time to take my husband to an out-of-state cancer center for treatments. He usually handled the separation better than I did, since he was over it a few minutes after I walked out the door.
I used to think leaving Logan would get easier once he got older. Instead, it only got more complicated — and the guilt intensified — once he was able to express his desire for me to stay. Now that he is 4 years old, he asks why he can’t always come with me when I go out with my friends.
I debated for weeks over whether I should nix the trip. Since I was a single mom, my friends argued I needed the break and that Logan would be well cared for by my parents. I also couldn’t deny I was itching for an adults-only trip — to sit and enjoy long, leisurely meals, visit sites that wouldn’t hold a 4-year-old’s interest, and not worry about rushing back to the hotel for bedtime.
But despite my desire to go, one thing kept holding me back: guilt. I felt selfish for wanting this trip for me. According to Mia Redrick (a.k.a. “The Mom Strategist”), author of Time for Mom-Me, I am not alone. Every year Mia helps moms prioritize themselves, including convincing them to get away for an annual week-long cruise.
“I think it’s a gift to be able to get away from your family because it allows you time to think clearly and prioritize your life,” she said. “It’s difficult to do it when you are going through things every day.”
In the end, with my family and friends’ encouragement, I decided to go to England. After months of worry, I was relieved — and a little surprised — when Logan was “too busy” playing to bother talking to me on the phone for very long. And he never cried for me to come back like I had feared.
When I returned from my 5-day trip relaxed and rejuvenated, Logan was thrilled to see me and just as excited to hear about my trip. I showed him the map my friend and I used to get around the city and pointed to all the places we visited. When I dropped him off at nursery school the next day, I watched him show off the map and brag to his friends that his mom went to England. In that moment I realized I can occasionally go away and my little man won’t hold it against me.
So now that I’m equipped with this freeing knowledge, I want to help you achieve the same thing. After all, every parent should be able to take a time-out.
Here is how I vacationed sans kids and sans guilt … and you can too:
Leave your child with someone he/she is comfortable with
My son is used to occasional sleepovers at my parents’ house, so when planning for my trip, I knew he would be most comfortable there. Don’t fret if you haven’t left your child with someone overnight or have to leave them with someone new. Do a test run so that by the time your trip comes around, they know what to expect. And the earlier you get them used to you leaving and returning, the better.
“Start young and then your children won’t think you are leaving them,” recommends Leah Koenig, MA, LMHCA, a parent coach and family therapist. “It becomes part of their yearly routine. It’s an expectation.”
Talk about your trip
Tell your child where you are going, for how long, and explain that you are going without them. Koenig recommends talking to your kids as soon as they notice a change in their daily routine, such as when you start packing or even talking about the trip to others in front of them.
“You do want them to trust their sense that something is changing and you don’t want to just go, ‘Oh nothing, sweetie, don’t worry about it.’”
I started telling Logan about the trip about a week beforehand — a good time frame for someone his age, Koenig said. As the trip got closer, Logan had more questions, which I answered simply and honestly. When he asked why he couldn’t go, for example, I explained that while I love doing things together with him and we travel together often, I also need some time to do adult things with my friends, just like he needs time alone with his friends. When he said he would miss me, I told him the truth: I would miss him, too.
Koenig said allowing kids to express their emotions, and sharing that you feel them sometimes, too, is key.
“The first thing is to be empathetic with whatever they are feeling,” she said. “Let them know you feel and experience two emotions, too. You can say, “ I’m going to miss you, too. And I’m going to be happy to be with my friends. I bet that’s a little bit like what you are feeling, too.’”
While you are out having fun, make fun plans for them, too
This doesn’t require a lot of money or planning — just think about the little things that get your kids excited. While I was away, to make an extra-long sleepover extra fun, I rented a movie he wanted to see, asked my brother to take him to the basketball courts, and left money for him to get ice cream one day.
Koenig said it helps to be creative about ways to show your child you love them while you are gone. Do they like receiving letters? Maybe ask a caretaker to sneak letters you wrote in the mailbox each day, or hide love notes in their bags.
Another tip for kids that are extra anxious about the separation: start a project together before you go and plan to finish it when you return. It is added assurance you will be back.
A bribe never hurt
Whenever you go on a trip without your kids, pick up something special for them. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just something to let them know you were thinking about them. When prepping my son for my trip, it also helped to remind him that I’d be bringing him back a special surprise…
Plan some bonding time when you get home ASAP
While Logan may not have had time to speak to me while I was away, he was waiting for me at the door when I returned. After hugs and kisses, he immediately asked me to play cars on the floor.
Koenig said this time is important, and just 20 minutes of your undivided attention can do wonders.
“Just sit on the floor and let them lead the play,” she said. “Turn off the cell phone or TV and just be with them.”
So the next time an opportunity to travel presents itself to you, remember that with a little planning, you can indulge in playtime, too.