Q.My husband and I are taking a well-deserved trip overseas in June. We will only be gone for nine days but already he is in a panic. The reason: he is afraid to leave our two children, a son, 4, and a daughter, 16 months. Mainly he is concerned about the little one.
His parents, who live a good distance away, have been gracious enough to come stay with the children during that time. My son knows them fairly well, but our daughter has only met them at Christmas. They keep telling my husband that they were parents once and can handle the baby.
I am just starting to wean her from nursing so that attachment will be gone, but my main problem is that she rarely gets away from me, so she is very clingy. Even if I leave her with my husband for a few hours, she still starts to fuss and want Mommy.
How can I make everyone feel more at ease during those nine days? A.Your husband is perceptive: Your little girl will not think your trip is a great idea. Consider this the curse of the age. Most babies go in and out of several stages of anxiety before they feel safe; parents are pivotal in all stages.
Even a newborn prefers her parents to anyone else, comforted by their voices and their faces within hours of birth. By 3 months she coos for them -- and for anyone else she sees enough to be familiar with -- while strangers may get cross looks.
Around 5 months, these looks may turn into some pretty annoyed responses, reaching a peak at 9 months and then usually subsiding at a year. During this time, however, the sight of someone new or unrecognizable is rewarded with shrieks -- even the father who comes back from a trip wearing a scraggly mustache or the mother who's all dressed up for a special occasion.
Real strangers may seem so frighteningly foreign to this child that parents may wonder if she will be xenophobic for life. New toys or new places, like a day-care center, also can be scary, but the problem is less if parents introduce their children to many people and places when they're quite young. This helps them enjoy the new as they treasure the old.
A child's fear of strangers often overlaps with her fear of separation as she gets more aware of the comings -- and especially the goings -- of her parents. This anxiety usually starts around 10 months and ends around her second birthday, when the child fully realizes that she is an individual, quite apart from her mother or her father. That's when she finally believes that she isn't going to disappear, just because they do. According to the experts, it's this fear that is behind a small child's clinginess.
So, yes, your husband is right to be concerned, but that shouldn't make you stay home. In a family, there are many needs to be satisfied and the needs of the parents count too -- if only because children are so hard on a marriage. A well-tended marriage relies on a late evening candlelight dinner at home or in a restaurant once a week; a secluded overnight or a weekend away about once a season . . . and if all is right in the heavens, a nine-day trip to Europe without the children. Maybe there would be fewer divorces if parents gave themselves as much quality time as they give their children.
Although the trip will be hard on your little girl -- and to some extent, your son -- there are many precautions you can take to make the transition easier.
Your daughter will feel more comfortable with her grandparents if she can get to know them a little before they come.
Weave their names into your conversations with your children more and more. Even though your little girl is too young to say much or, of course, to understand abstract ideas, the use of their names will make them seem more familiar to her.
Put up extra pictures of them around the house and especially over her crib, so you can teach her to say goodnight to them when she says goodnight to the moon and her zoo of stuffed animals.
Ask your in-laws to make tapes, so she can get used to their voices. The best will be her favorite stories, so you can turn the pages with her as she listens.
And will this help? A little. It also will help if you ask them to come a little earlier -- although it still will take a few days for her to be comfortable with them; if you leave special, wrapped presents for them to give the children each morning, and if you have them mail your pre-written postcards each day, telling the children that they're missed and loved. (If you sent the cards from Europe, you'd probably be home before they got there.)
By the time you come back, your little girl may make you as anxious as she ever was, for she will almost surely cling to her grandparents instead of you. This is not because she has forgotten you but because she hasn't forgiven you quite yet. It may take a few days before she mellows, but she will be much richer for her experience. She will have known her grandparents as she never would have, depended on her big brother, and become more open with everyone.
A little extra independence makes a child more self-reliant and more trusting of others.