I recently went away to a professional conference for a whole 4 nights and 5 days. Imagine that! Almost one week away from my 3 little ones (ages 8, 5, and 2), whom I’ve barely ever had the courage to leave before. I had a million excuses as to why they couldn’t exist without me: they would miss their bus every day, forget to turn in their homework and library books, leave the house without their lunches, wear mismatched clothing, and most likely cry themselves to sleep every night without their mother home to tuck them in.
I must admit, a slightly passive-aggressive part of me purposely didn’t leave instructions or lay out their clothing ahead of time, as I wanted my husband (who is the utmost supportive partner) to feel my “pain.”
And yet, when the week was over, we all survived.
Here’s what I learned:
1. While my time away was not without incident (my oldest woke up in the middle of the night with an upset stomach), he learned a valuable lesson that all children need to learn at some point. He was able to understand that other adults in his world, not just his mom, are able to meet his needs and support him in a loving and reassuring manner, even in an emergency. My son was very grateful and even expressed that to his father directly.
2. What other career besides parenthood is a 365 day a year, round the clock job? We as parents need a break…and it turns out, I was desperate for one. While I still worked over 12 hours a day at the conference and felt exhausted, I was only responsible for looking after my own needs (not 4 others) and this turned out to be quite a relief.
3. As stressed as I had been feeling about packing, presenting at the conference, and leaving my children, I quickly realized that absence makes the heart grow fonder (for all of us). While my mind was kept busy, by day three, I felt extremely eager to reconnect with my children and husband.
Below are some additional strategies to consider that may help make the separation process easier for your child(ren):
Timing: Carefully consider when to tell your child about the upcoming trip. Only you know your child’s temperament and personality. Do they tend to get anxious easily? Do they need a lot of warning and preparation prior to a change in their schedule? Consider these factors when deciding how far in advance to tell them that you are going to be traveling. Since younger children (3 and under) have a harder concept with time, only a few days notice is typically necessary.
Include them: Involve your child in the planning. Research answers to their questions together. Look up your destination on a map or read about it online.
Departure: Do not prolong good-byes, as dragging out the separation process can ultimately be harder on your child. At the same time, it is important that you not sneak out. You want them to trust you, and believe that you will return when you say you are going to.
Consistency: Children are comforted by routines and repetition. While you are away, maintain a sense of normalcy in your child’s schedule as much as possible.
Countdown: Create a visual calendar with your picture to count down “how many sleeps” until Mommy comes home. Let them move it from day to day, to feel some ownership over the process.
Reading: Tape your voice reading their favorite nighttime book (or actually read it to them virtually). This will be a comforting extension of their evening routine.
Virtual hugs: With technology being at our fingertips if you are going to use Skype or Facetime to connect with your child, be thoughtful of the time of day you do this. For example, if your child is exhausted and crabby at night, it may upset them to see you and not have you physically present to comfort them at that time.
Reminders: Leave behind something that your child will associate with you (a picture, shirt that has your scent on it, etc.). Also, consider leaving daily notes for them to open each day you are away.
Pictures: Take one of your child’s toys or stuffed animals with and take pictures of yourself with that item throughout your trip. end it to them daily.
I was relieved to see that we all made it through the trip, and happy when I got extra hugs upon my return. My daughter was clingier at first and my boys just wanted to know if I brought them any gifts. Some things never change! Ultimately, no one was scarred.
I’m not even sure they remember I was gone, but I sure do. I came home exhausted and at the same time. I came home validated that my husband is beyond capable of handling our wild crew alone…even though the library books were returned late.
Rachel Schwartz, LSW, is the Early Childhood Program and Social Services Manager for JCC Chicago