Q. A good friend and her parents have invited me to take a two-week trip to Europe with them this summer. My son will be 16 months and my sister has agreed to care for him while I'm gone. This means I would take him to her home, spend a few days there and then bid a probably teary farewell.
She has an 11-year-old daughter who loves to tend to him. I know he will be well-cared for, and he will have a crib, high chair and toys to make him feel almost at home. My mother lives in the same town as my sister, and we have spent time with them before. My husband will call them on a regular basis.
But am I doing the "right" thing by leaving him at this age? I shall miss him terribly.
I should mention that I am home with him full-time and that I have never been away from him overnight, although of course I have left him with sitters during the day and at night when he's asleep.
A. Take the ticket and run. Your remorse over leaving your child wouldn't be a patch over your remorse for staying.
It's true that children under 3 have a hard time when their parents leave (and sometimes they have a hard time when they don't), but there has to be a balance in this life. If you were working you'd occasionally take a mental-health day. Consider this trip just 14 mental health days, all in a row.
You'll miss your baby--although not half as much as you think--and your baby will miss you (never as much as a mother might secretly wish), but it shouldn't be a trauma, or even a crisis, for your child.
It's the negative day-to-day acts that grind a child down, but even these can be undone when more constructive ways are found. People are remarkably resilient, especially children. They accept almost anything so long as they feel loved.
They are also very smart.
Let a child see a parent show a molecule of guilt, and he'll respond with a scene that turns it into a mountain. This isn't to manipulate the parents; this is human nature. If one person lets the other know that something makes her feel guilty--or mad or sad or angry--the other is going to use it for a weapon when he's mad or sad or angry. Your holiday will have that effect on him. A 16-month-old child is the center of his universe; he doesn't get left lightly.
It will make him mad and sad and angry that you're not there--but only when he remembers that you're gone--and when you first return you'll find he won't have much to do with you. In fact, he'll probably cling to your sister or your niece and look at you with disdain and maybe a few shrieks, as if he never saw you before.
He will keep his distance, grudgingly accepting your gifts and playing with them when you're not looking. But don't worry. He'll be himself again when you and he have been home for a few days, although for a while he may get wary when you leave him with a sitter. You, on the other hand, will have a little more guilt in your gunnysack than you had before you left, but that's nothing to worry about either. Your absence won't have any lasting effect on your child, and your guilt is well worth a trip to Europe.
To keep your feelings in perspective, you could get yourself the book, How To Be a Guilty Parent by Glenn Collins (Times Books, $7.95), with some dandy illustrations by Gahan Wilson. You'll find a lifetime of guilts to assume, from sexism to toys to junk food, just in case you should run out of ideas--as no parent does--of your own.
It won't make your guilt go away, but at least you'll know you have company.
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