Parenting Advice Column
I am asking this question on behalf of a friend.
She has two children, 4-and-a-half years, and 2-years-old. Her husband takes an active role in the care of the two children as he has a business in which he works from home, she works three days a week at present. She has previously left them for a week in his care which seemed to work alright. She wishes to go on a vacation for two-and-a-half to three weeks, leaving the children in the care of her partner. This trip is not 100 percent necessary. but is something she would like to do with a friend of hers. It is interesting for her career and for meeting people and seeing a new country.
What would the effect of this separation be on the children? Would it be advisable? And does it make a difference that it is the mother and not the father at this age of the children?
What do you think?
While it may be difficult for your friend to forgo a trip she very much wants to take, I hope that she is able to consider the decision from all sides. Whenever possible, no unnecessary travel should be taken by a mother (ideally, also by the father) away from children until they are of an age that they fully understand the reasons for the absence and feel comfortable with it. This age will vary from one child to another, and will even fluctuate for any one child as his/her circumstances change.
A two-year-old (and possibly even the four-year-old) is much too young to understand these things, and there is the danger that he/she will personalize the reason for what feels to them like an abandonment. In this type of situation, it is not uncommon for the child to conclude that the parent has left because the child has done something bad. The child may then begin to feel great anxiety whenever they make a mistake. This can be the beginning of a lifelong pattern of guilt, perfectionism, and/or a clinging overdependency on others.
There is also the factor of the young child's inability to understand the concept of time. A two-year-old (and again possibly also the four-year-old) has little understanding of time, and a lengthy absence like the one proposed may well feel permanent, that is, the child will begin to mourn the parent just as though there has been a death. When a parent returns from a lengthy absence, the child needs to be given sufficient time and loving care to readjust and learn to trust the parent again. Children will often express their pent-up worries and frustrations only after the parent returns, leading to conflict and possible misunderstandings. The greatest danger is that the precious bond between parent and child may well be harmed to some degree permanently. The parent will also feel the break in bonding and will need to heal.
The question then becomes, Is this trip really worth taking these risks? In situations like this, it is easy for us to look at things from our own perspective and to forget that that the same situation can look very different from the child's side of things, with his/her more limited understanding and greater need for emotional attachment and reassurance.
There is another hazard in that many children respond to repeated or lengthy separations from the mother with a state of denial in order to protect themselves from further pain and anxiety by pretending to themselves, and to the adults around them, that the separation is not affecting them. It is easy for a parent to misread this denial as proof that the child is not being harmed by the separations. This type of response is not independence, it is actually the opposite - a protective response to frustrated dependency needs. It can be difficult to evaluate a child's outward behavior in these circumstances. Suffice it to say that all young children benefit by having their mother available (both physically and emotionally) as much as possible.
While it is better for the children to stay with the father than with a family friend (or worse, a stranger), it still can make a profound difference that it is the mother who may leave. One of the many benefits of extended breastfeeding is that a nursing mother cannot be gone for more than a few hours. This is part of nature's plan for keeping the mother close by during the years that the child needs this connection. The better this need is met in the earliest years, the more independent the child will become later on. For more on this subject, I highly recommend Dr. Kimmel's short book, Whatever Happened to Mother?
Could your friend consider travelling with the children? Many parents have found this to be the best solution for everyone. Most children enjoy travelling and seeing new places, as long as their energy limits are respected and taken into account when planning each day's activities. Alternatively, can this trip be postponed until the children are older? Children grow up amazingly fast, and parents can then meet their own needs more easily when their children are better able to understand what is happening.
In general, your friend will need to weigh the matter carefully, taking into account the children's needs; after all, they can't speak for themselves and are dependent on adults for their care and all the decisions which directly affect their lives.
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