Dear Dr. T,
I am looking forward to the summer – a relaxed schedule, a trip cross-country with the family, and then a week in the mountains with my husband. Here is my dilemma: my husband and I really do need a break and time alone together, but I don’t know if it is healthy to leave my children – ages three to seven – for a week. My husband feels that even if our going away is hard on the kids, it’s worth it, they’ll never remember it, etc., but I am not so sure.
Are there any guidelines for this kind of situation?
It is certainly challenging when there are two competing, yet valid, claims on the family. Children, particularly very young children, need their parents; but parents need private time with each other. How can we accommodate both these needs?
I want to begin by clarifying what we all know and believe – that the needs of children trump the needs of parents. We give up our sleep to feed our babies, and abandon our agendas to take our children to the doctor, Uncle Moishe, etc. The hallmark of good parenting is maturity – the ability to put another’s needs before our own. So, though the answer is complex and multi-layered, never black or white, the good parent, as a general rule, does strive to delay gratification in the best interests of his children.
I want to take a moment to address your husband’s position that the children will not remember your absence; hence it’s a short term pain for a long term gain. While it is obvious that we generally have little cognitive recall of early events – little actual memory – we all have affective (feeling) memory. So, for example, while your child may not remember the details of his bedtime routine by the time he reaches adulthood, he will have a sense of how bedtime felt to him. The sense that he carries with him that he was put down lovingly, dispatched with haste, or sent off in anger – this will be his affective (emotional) memory. While your young children may not actually remember your leaving them, this disruption in attachment may become part of a reservoir of negative feelings that burden your children in the days to come.
On the other hand, parents do need to work on strengthening their marriage and attaining a relaxed, rejuvenated lease on life. The wise parent attends to his mental health needs and the best interests of the couple: happy, healthy people make for good parents. And realistically speaking, sometimes parents must leave their children – for illness, a new baby, family emergency, a simchah, or much-needed time together.
So, what to do? There is no one size-fits-all solution; your decision is a unique, highly personal one that balances the conflicting needs of everyone in the family. Hopefully, it is a process that calculates the value of a vacation as a couple to your marriage versus the cost to your children at this particular moment in time.
Although your situation is unique to you, it represents the many choices – conflicting responsibilities and competing mitzvos – that we all face daily.
- A child’s homework or a much-needed shiur?
- A sudden levaya or chasuna of a very good friend?
- Monopoly with your son or a well-deserved rest?
Here are some additional, concrete factors to think about that may help you decide.
- Age – The younger the child, the harder it is.
- Temperament – Children differ: a content go-with-the-flow child is different from one who is anxious and high-strung.
- Time – A weekend is better than a week. Younger children have little concept of time, so the shorter the better.
- Location – Home is most comfortable; a familiar place is a runner-up. If possible, arrange for someone to come into your home rather than sending the children “out.”
- Caretaker – A familiar person – relative, friend, nanny – is best.
- Routine – Routine is comforting. In every way possible, have the children follow their same routine. This includes diet, scheduling, extra-curricular activities, etc.
- Frequency – Are we talking once month? Once a year? Every five years?
- Keep in touch – Can you remain in touch through phone calls, Face Time, or Skype?
While there is no right answer, your attempt to make a decision that meets everyone’s needs confirms the fact that as a parent you are doing the very best you can.
Book Nook: Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel, MD, and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed describes how a deeper self-understanding can help us raise children who thrive. It offers parents a step-by-step approach to forming a deeper understanding of their own life stories, which will help them raise compassionate and resilient children.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com.