Child-free vacations need a plan
The first time Daniela Corte and her husband vacationed without their children was a 24-hour getaway to The Mark Hotel in New York 10 years ago.
"I was a first-time parent, and more of a control freak," Corte says. "It felt like eternity."
Now, however, the couple travels sans kids for a week at a time, usually twice a year, flying over oceans and continents without a second thought.
"I like to go as far as possible to feel as disconnected as I can. It's important to go away alone, to try to be together and connect," says Corte, a Buenos Aires-born fashion designer who lives in Boston.
Though her child-free vacations have evolved, Corte says she can only enjoy her time away knowing her army of babysitters, detailed printed schedules, and carpools are fully functioning.
"I'm never sure I'm going to get on the plane until the last minute," she says. "I book and rebook and cancel."
Leaving the kids at home can be both anxiety-producing and rewarding for everyone involved, which is why Donna Pincus, associate professor of psychology and brain science at Boston University and author of "Growing Up Brave," says the experience is so important.
"As much as parents can feel guilt, they also have to remember taking care of themselves will help reduce stress and they'll come back reenergized. It's also modeling to your children that it's important to take care of yourself and that exposure to new situations can help kids develop self-confidence," Pincus says.
Head of security in Corte's absence is her mother, Linda, who brings her Yorkies Ringo and Binny when she comes to care for Natasha, 10, and Lucas, 8.
"My mother is incredible, more strict than I am. They are in bed by 8:30 p.m." says Corte. "You do not mess with your Nana."
Still, Cortes doesn't feel she can disappear completely. An ear infection Lucas developed prompted Corte to return early from a trip to Argentina's wine region. And she makes a habit of calling twice a day.
"It's constant checking in. They always say, 'I'm fine. I'm fine.' You want it running like you're there," she says.
Even if something had gone wrong, Julie Barbour-Issa of Norwood isn't sure she'd have known about it because her mother-in-law, who baby-sat when she and her husband enjoyed their first weekend away from the kids, doesn't like to bother her. Barbour-Issa, mother of Max, 5, and Ada, 2, has vacationed only once since they were born, and that trip was only 17 miles to Embassy Suites in Waltham.
"We had big plans to go hiking, but we just stayed in and watched movie after movie. We went out to eat at a non-kid-friendly place," Barbour-Issa recalls.
In passing the parenting wand to her mother-in-law, who had driven from Michigan to visit her son and baby-sit her grandkids, Barbour-Issa, 33, wasn't worried about missing her youngsters. But she did have to learn to defer to another style of childrearing.
"She's a late person. I'm worried she won't get the kids to school on time, or she'll let them skip school and play with them all day. I have to get beyond it. It's beyond my control," she says, half-joking. "She sets her own rules. She doesn't worry about vegetables and schedules. She doesn't worry about bedtimes. She's all about keeping the kids up late because it's fun."
Barbour-Issa said the changes to nap schedules and dining habits are harmless.
"Sometimes they rat her out if they have ice cream for dinner. I like them to have those experiences," she admits. "She's also the type where my kids could have poked their eyes out and she would have taken them to the doctor and not have called us."
Pincus says every vacation should be assessed on a trip-by-trip basis, depending on the family's situation and need, such as the age and health of the children and the grandparents-slash-babysitters, and length of trip. Generally speaking, though, the change of scenery and the adapted family dynamic is beneficial for all involved.
"We can't expect the grandparents to be exactly like the parents, and we wouldn't want them to be. You can give a general idea of how the kids tend to thrive, but if they're having a great time with grandma and staying up later than usual — that is good for kids as well," she says. "Parents should be exposing children to new situations, not just protecting them from them."
Natalia Espinal of Waltham, an elementary school teacher, has long relied on her mom, Patricia, to watch her three children, ages 8, 5, and 3, for a week every August when she readies her classroom for the school year. So having her take charge while she and her husband flew to Ireland last summer for a friend's wedding was a baby-sitting bonus.
"My kids could be horrible and my mom would never say it. She just handles it," says Espinal. "They sleep in her bed with her. Sometimes she doesn't sleep as well, but she loves that they love her that much."
Espinal says her mom doesn't enforce a lot of rules (Patricia's home is a finish-your-dinner-free zone), and takes a very relaxed approach to caring for her grandchildren. When the balance of power begins to shift, Patricia has her own baby-sitter available at the push of a button.
"She jokes that by 5 p.m. they're starting to take over. So she'll put a TV show on," Espinal says.
Jennifer Bye's parents were equally exhausted after a week of watching their grandchildren Zach, 12, and Zoey, 10, when Bye and her husband celebrated her 45th birthday in Barcelona for a week in early October. It was a week that included significant chauffeur time including a 3-hour drive to Zach's hockey tournament and two hours (in the opposite direction) to Zoey's soccer game.
"My parents' gift to me was to stay and watch the kids for the week," says Bye, a Harvard grad who works at a hedge fund and lives in Bedford, N.Y.
Bye says both her parents and her in-laws are always happy to watch the kids for long weekends. The Spain trip won't be the new standard.
"It's probably my last trip for a while. You can only go to the well so many times," she says.
That said, being in Barcelona had its rewards. Along with the inventive cuisine and stunning architecture, the city's time zone made the trip ideal.
"The time difference made it almost impossible to get in touch with us," she says. "We had a great trip and the grandparents had a great time."