Your littlest house-guests make you so happy. But as the saying goes, a good visitor should make their hosts happy only once, when she arrives, not twice, when she arrives and when she leaves. We all tire of each other’s company, even in families. If you’re all going to cohabit peacefully for the next 18 years or more, you need to take a short break from each other once in a while. Problem is, pre-kids you could plan romantic holidays on the spur of the moment. Nowadays, taking a break is, oh, about a million times less spontaneous. But it can be done. And on the upside, you’ll savour every hard-won moment.
Everyone ends up happy
Nurturing your relationship with your partner is good for your child. Remember this if guilt threatens to derail your plans for a night or five away from your kids. When you are emotionally satiated you have love to give to your children. Without it, it’s harder to be a happy mom.
Sometimes, parenting and working keeps you so busy that you forget that you once spent time with your partner because you actually like him, not just because he’s a co-parent. You’re allowed a reminder of why the two of you are in this parenting endeavour together.
Then there’s sex. If you haven’t been having any, it’s probably because your nights have been too disrupted and you’re too tired, or because you feel inhibited with your children around, or because you feel too much like “Mom” and not enough like “sex kitten”. Many parents complain of “touch fatigue” –when they’ve been poked and prodded all day and, frankly, do not look forward to more poking and prodding come night-time. A physical absence from your children can reverse that.
Lastly, being a parent means that other parts of your identity are squeezed out of the picture at times. A break away from the children reminds you that there is more to you than only being a mom.
You can start small
While your new baby is very small, nobody expects you to jet off on a two week holiday. (For all the momentousness of the occasion, the first trip the two of you take on your own to the coffee shop down the road will feel like just that!)
New moms naturally bunker down with their newborns for a few weeks. As Johannesburg psychologist Jade Paterson says, “A mother is instinctively closely attuned to her baby’s emotional and physical states, known as ‘primary maternal preoccupation’, so that the infant is protected from anxiety and comes to understand what he needs –because the mother repeatedly presents just the thing that the baby needs. The experience of mother helping baby to manage these experiences lets the baby eventually internalise this role and do it himself. Then the mom can slowly move away from being merged with the baby.”
Yes, it can be hard to separate from your baby, especially for the very first time or for an extended period, but Jade says it is important and can be healthy for both of you. “If a mom has been available, then the baby learns that mom will come back and separation does not feel so scary,” she says. “Moms intuitively know how much frustration and separation their baby can handle (if she is closely attuned and there aren’t any other attachment difficulties or anxieties).”
Perhaps it will surprise you to learn that the developmental psychologist Winnicott, who coined the term “primary maternal preoccupation” also spoke about “optimal maternal failure”. Says Jade: “Being a ‘too-good mother’ is not beneficial for your baby. Your baby needs you to be good enough and to allow for some frustration and separation so that he has the chance to head towards independence. Your temporary separations might be painful for your baby or small children, but if you can help them to understand their emotional experiences, you are also teaching them that things that feel bad can get better again. People who go will come back again. This basic internalisation is very important for the move towards independence.”
So plan your first getaway to minimise your stress about it. Book a one-night stay as close to home as you feel you need to be. Knowing you will be able to get home quickly if you need to can relax you. But do travel far enough away to dissuade you from losing your nerve and heading home right after dinner!
'Cover me, I'm going out'
Some parents are comfortable leaving even a young baby with grandparents overnight. Whether you are will depend on your temperament, your child’s, and your relationship with the chosen babysitters. Here’s how to make it work:
- Nobody will ever prepare your child’s food/bath her/read to her/love her like you do. But some caregivers are better than others – your mother, for instance, might forgive your irrational rants and field the five phone calls a day from you with good humour. Leave your child in hands you trust so that you can maximise your enjoyment of your time away.
- Separation anxiety, most common around eight months and again at 18 months, but usually faded by three years, is going to make leaving harder. You kid will not enjoy the concept that you have a life away from him, and he will tell you so. It may make sense to start overnight stays before or after those very clingy months.
- Explain to your children where you are going and why, and when you will be back, stressing that you are not leaving because of something bad they did. Treat your children by scheduling extra fun treats, playdates and activities while you are away.
- From about age three or four, children begin to appreciate the concept of today, tomorrow and so on. For a longer trip, let your child mark off the days until your return on a calendar. This will allow your child to hold on to the belief that you will return.
- It is kinder to allow your child to discuss you, and your absence, and when you will return, every day of your absence, and as often as they need to, instead of adopting a let’s-not-talk-about-it attitude to their possible sadness. If the caregiver models calmness and confidence that the parent will return, the child will more likely believe them.
- On the other hand, your child may ask very few questions or seem to miss you very little. He may not even want to speak to you on the phone when you call. This is normal and does not mean he’s rejecting you, or that he’s angry with you. On your return, bring a present with you and spend one on one time with them, also understanding that they may at first show little emotion, depending on their personalities.
- Tell your children, especially older ones, when you will phone them and stick to that routine (for instance, every night before bedtime). But if you find yourself having fun and then feeling guilty because you haven’t thought about the baby for a whole ten minutes, that’s not the time to call. That’s the time to order a glass of bubbly...