Carolyn Hax: Parenting 101 while on vacation

Carolyn Hax
Columnist April 13, 2011

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My wife and I went on a two-week pleasure trip to Europe, leaving our 21-month-old son in the care of her mom.

Around the one-week mark, Mom gets burnt out and hands the kid off to my wife’s sister, without mentioning to us that she’s doing this.

Then, Sis gets called away on a business trip and in desperation leaves the kid with her ex-girlfriend — that’s right, a woman my wife and I barely know, who is no longer connected to our family in any meaningful way.


(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)

When my wife and I returned, we learned our son had spent several days in the home of the stranger. I am livid at both Mom and Sis, who (as I see it) really dropped the ball. My wife is less mad and wants me to drop it. In my shoes, would you be able to trust these people after this?

Hot potato

In the kid’s shoes, would I trust you after this?

You left a too-young kid for too long for too nonessential a reason.

Parents do need to get away, but not that ambitiously. So, yes, your mom made a serious error in not calling you immediately when she felt overwhelmed. Your sister made a breathtakingly serious error in not alerting you to the change and in passing your son along again (did she at least try to return him to Grandma?). Who knows what your sister’s ex was thinking — “poor kid,” probably, but surely she could have said to your sister, “You need to call the parents, NOW”?

If you and your wife had been deployed or hospitalized, say, then my answer would focus entirely on the caregiving breakdown. But you took two weeks off from being parents, and that’s a parenting breakdown. You got what you got, and I think it’s time to listen to your wife and drop it, and to rethink your priorities instead.

As for your mother- and sister-in-law: Don’t ask them to care for your child, certainly; if they volunteer, that’s fine, but make sure it’s for an evening, not a cruise. And if you were planning to thank Mom with two weeks in Europe, then it is okay to withdraw that offer.

Back to the kid. Why didn’t you call? Daily?

Re: Hot potato:

Sidestepping the issue of how long is okay to be away . . . parents should always:

1. Plan for backup in case something happens to the caregiver. (Friends of mine left their son with his mother, who was in a car crash. This can happen to anyone.)

2. Expect to call DAILY to check in, and

3. Purchase trip insurance so that, in an emergency, you can get home fast.

Also, the first-line substitute could probably use respite if they are responsible for more than a couple of days, to help prevent them from getting burned out.

Anonymous

Thanks — very useful. The “probably” is just as important as the others, though. Parents can’t expect a caregiver to put in more time than they do themselves; even handing the child from one parent to the other is a little break. A solo caregiver needs every break a parent gets and more, because it’s not their child(ren) they’re caring for.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com.

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