'Diving'? I said, rather incredulously, 'What does a nine-month-old want to go on a diving holiday for?'
'We're not ALL going,' my husband explained, 'just the two of us.' William would be much happier spending the week with a kindly granny. But why on earth, I thought, would I want to leave my little baby behind? A week was, surely, an extremely long time in the life of a baby? Wouldn't he miss us terribly and therefore make life for Granny quite hard? My husband's argument was that we would benefit hugely being just us again and spending a week doing something we both loved. Other than ensuring we didn't run out of air, we would have few responsibilities!
Getting Used to the Idea
Attitudes towards leaving children behind for any length of time will differ hugely between individuals and their situations and reflect differing needs and expectations. Looking down at your precious three-day-old, the thought of leaving this tiny, helpless baby behind with someone else seems to some extraordinary. But, that, I believe, is the starting point. As is always the case, you want to leave your baby with someone you implicitly trust (perhaps your partner, a parent or sister, or very close friend) and perhaps just head off for a short walk. A walk can soon become a trip to the shops, to see friends, and then perhaps out to dinner with baby tucked up in bed at home. I clearly remember the first time I left my oldest with someone for an entire evening. I didn't stop thinking about him - or I thought I didn't, until suddenly it dawned on me that an entire hour had passed and I'd actually been part of the conversation and not just vaguely aware of it going on around me. It's obviously harder if you are still breastfeeding your baby, but it's not an insurmountable problem when you can express. Obviously for some, becoming accustomed to leaving their little baby behind culminates in returning to work, but not for all.
However, although I was more than happy to leave my baby for an evening the thought of leaving my baby for an entire week was not something I was sure I was keen to do. So I did what so many of us mums do in situations like this - I called my girlfriends. The message from them all was unanimous. You must go! You never know when an opportunity like this will arise again (several years down the line and now with my 4th just over a year old, the thought of disappearing off for a week is virtually a logistical non-starter!).
Choosing your Holiday
My husband had suggested diving because he figured it would keep us busy enough not to sit and focus on the child left behind. Others, however, are more taken by the idea of doing as little as possible - the very thought of just lying on a beach in the sun, book in hand, with little more to do than waving at some passing waiter hits the spot for many exhausted new parents. As one friend commented 'All that worry and concern you had for leaving them behind slips right away as you lie on your beach and sip your first drink!'. I would always recommend going somewhere where you aren't surrounded by children. Ideally, find a compromise between travelling too far - so that if you have to come home, it's possible (perhaps camping several days walk from the nearest airstrip is not the most suitable destination!) - but far enough so that it's not feasible to simply nip home if the baby starts crying.
One friend went to Thailand for a week to a wedding - where she had lived pre-children - and was blown away to be back there with her husband and living a little of the life they enjoyed before kids. It was a revelation to her that somewhere inside was her old self - waiting to be re-discovered! It was an eye-opening experience for her and she and her husband enjoyed having so much time for each other again. Another mother I know has made a point of heading away for a weekend with several girlfriends when each of her babies has reached six months old. For her it's the tonic she needs to recuperate from those first few exhausting months.
Once a plan is in place, the next hurdle to overcome is actually saying goodbye. There are different views on how best to approach this and needless to say it's often the parents that are more traumatised by farewells than the baby. My mother is a strong believer in the child seeing you go, and actively waving you off (however upset they seem at the time). Others prefer the 'sneaking out after dark' scenario. As it happened, our flight left at some ridiculous hour of the night, so we left Granny's house whilst William was still sleeping. He woke in the morning and apart from the occasional glance towards our bedroom, apparently seemed fairly oblivious to our departure!
The mix of excitement and guilt will be familiar to many parents. A whole week's holiday for just the two of us seemed extraordinarily indulgent. And little William left at home? Needless to say, he had a wonderfully spoiling week with Granny and was introduced to life in rural Kent which definitely suited him - sleeping and eating lots. What's more, my routine of daily phone calls home became less frequent as the week progressed and he was obviously so contented.
The message is always the same: the children will be fine! Finding good childcare is essential, and they need to be left in a happy environment that is, ideally, familiar to them. Some prefer their children to be left at home following the same routines around the same familiar places. This decision will often depend on childcare - professional help tends to move into your house, where as a friend or relation may prefer to stay in their house and have the children to stay with them. In this case, there is also the novelty value of staying in a different place, which may be more stimulating for older toddlers.
Friends had warned me to expect the cold-shoulder treatment on our return. It is apparently totally normal and seems irrespective of age or gender. Even when your children give you an incredibly warm and wonderful initial welcome, the cold-shoulder treatment may express itself later in a less obvious way. Despite the warning, however, when we arrived home the hardest moment for me was when little William took one look at us both and then snuggled back into Granny's neck. Such mixed emotions and thoughts went through my mind. How wonderful that he had developed such a close relationship with his granny, but how tragic that he seemed to have forgotten who I was! Although this didn't last long, I found it very hard! He also looked so different. After only one week, I couldn't believe the changes in my little boy. His face seemed to have changed shape and I guess I saw him in a different light - having been so used to seeing him day in and day out. Seeing him for the first time again meant I looked at him afresh.
So was it worth it? Most definitely it was. My husband and I had a wonderful week - glorious fun and a very spoiling treat. We have never managed a whole week away again without any children (although we have managed the odd weekend), but that week was a wonderful seven days that helped to remind us both that there is a life for us as a couple outside of our children!
For this reason, some couples make a point of going away together every year. Particularly, it seems, when both parents are working full-time. According to several friends in this situation, professional and family pressures often mean that taking time away together is the only way to ensure quality time for themselves as a couple. They haul in the necessary childcare each year to ensure they have an entire week away together, but not everyone has that opportunity or desire. Cost and lack of suitable childcare are both real issues. In addition, as the children get older and spend more time at school and with their friends, you relish the opportunity to spend some time with them away from homework, clubs and school-run chaos! So holidays without the children tend to become less of a priority.
We have done a few holidays in the last couple of years when we've taken the oldest two and left the little two. Again this has taken the willingness of grannies as well as friends able to provide some extra help at essential times of day. But we've loved being away with the oldest ones and being able to go out to dinner and have fun and not be worried about toddler and baby sleeping times and behaviour. It gives the older children more attention, and space to go at their own pace as opposed to being slowed down by younger siblings which is so often the case back home.
Whatever one's professional and personal situation, I highly recommend trying to find some time away with your partner without the children. Perhaps it may start by being just a few hours. Or there may be an opportunity for a weekend or even a whole week away. As is so often the case with children, cost and finding responsible childcare are the main issues to overcome. However, time away needn't cost the earth - staying with friends who don't have children, and perhaps a kindly granny or friend watching the baby or children for a day or two, are affordable options. And it's well worth it. In this day and age, we are constantly plied with the advice to 'Make time for YOU'. I think to make time for 'us' is just as critical.
And although the first time it is quite traumatic saying good-bye to your baby (for the mother far more than for the child!) I am very glad we took the opportunity to leave my oldest behind at a reasonably young age, because, without a doubt, it gets easier to do the more you do it. Somehow, leaving my youngest behind hasn't entailed anything like the same issues for me as leaving my firstborn!