This summer my husband and I are preparing for a 14-day trip that will take us to the other side of the planet. We are going to South Africa to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine, and we will be there a few weeks — alone — without our two preschool-aged children. While I’m super excited, I’ve never been away from my kids any longer than a weekend or farther than Northern California, so I’m ever so slightly nervous.
It’s natural to feel some guilt about leaving kids to go on vacation, but friends we know had many positive things to say. “It's a good chance to see what your kids are capable of doing with someone else; sometimes they surprise you and grow up in amazing ways when you leave them alone,” says Luke Jones, a father of three from Charlottesville, Va. He and his wife traveled by themselves to Cape Town, South Africa, for 16 days last year.
So how does that Peter Cetera song go? “Everybody needs a little time away …” Couples with kids need time to reconnect with each other, and it’s good for kids to appreciate all the things their parents normally do for them. I’m optimistic that my kids will have a great time staying with their grandparents in Portland for two weeks, but before we leave my job is to set everyone up for success. Surprisingly, I’ve found it takes an even greater level of logistics and preparation to travel without the children. Here are some things to consider when taking a longer vacation without the kids:
Get your legal stuff in order
Nothing’s pleasant about thinking about worst-case scenarios, but it needs to be done. Right out of the gate put life insurance, a will and a long-term guardianship plan in place if it isn’t already. Let your will’s executor know about your travel plans and how to access those documents if necessary. Once you’ve nailed that down, you’ve created a layer of protection for your kids and eliminated a bunch of vacation-wrecking anxiety.
Two other documents to put in place that require notarization are a medical release form and temporary guardianship form. The medical release allows the people you designate to have access to medical information and obtain non-emergent medical care for your kids. No matter what, though, kids can get emergency care.
“The Emergency Room and hospital will provide care to a minor child in the event of a life-threatening emergency without parental consent. However, a letter authorizing [caregivers] to consent to medical or dental care is sufficient in non-emergency situations,” says Amy Johnson of the Oregon Health Sciences University legal department.
If the caregivers in charge of your children are not the same people named as the guardians in your will, a temporary guardianship form gives them permission to make decisions and sign documents (like permission slips or school enrollment forms) on their behalf.
Make a detailed, informational binder/packet
To a former project manager like me, the actions of compiling documents in a three-ring binder and ticking off lists are the stress-reducing equivalent of five minutes in downward-facing dog pose. Some parents are more laid back and some caregivers already know the daily routine, but I took nothing for granted.
Our binder includes:
- Official (kid) documents: passports, immunization records, insurance cards, official birth certificates
- Daily guidance: typical schedules, food preferences by brand with any allergy considerations, localized activity guide and outing ideas
- Contact information: names and numbers for home pediatrician and dental clinic, our travel itinerary, important phone numbers abroad and how to contact the people taking care of our house in Seattle
- Research: Local children’s hospitals with address & phone numbers. Also, a handy guide for when to take your child to the emergency room and tips on preparing for a doctor or emergency visit.
I also put copies of all the documentation up in the cloud so that we and the caregivers could access the information from anywhere, at anytime.
Help your caregivers stock up
Whether staying at home or going elsewhere, a little slice of familiarity goes a long way. Because our kids will be having their fabulous adventure in Portland, many items need to be brought in. Saving ourselves some trunk space and taking pressure off the grandparents to procure everything, I pre-ordered from Amazon our kids’ favorite non-perishable snacks, diapers, wipes, disposable sippy cups, plates, storage containers, sunscreen, shampoo, bibs, medicine and other helpful items. As an added bonus, all of that stuff will stay down there for subsequent visits.
Think about how much to tell the children and start early
The trickier part is what to share with the kids about your trip. Obviously the older they are, the more they can understand but for some kids, focusing on mom and dad going away is distressing.
“Kids have a different sense of time,” says Olivia Rogers, a Seattle mom of two (ages 2 and 4) who recently traveled to South Africa as well. She and her husband didn’t prepare their kids much except to say that they were “going on an airplane.” Knowing their oldest child’s temperament, they didn’t want her to become anxious or worked up. “She knew what would be happening without knowing all the details,” Rogers adds.
As for our almost 2- and 5-year-olds, we started months ago talking about the “big adventure” they were going to have down in Portland with their grandparents, and it’s always been primarily focused on that. My eldest asked me how long the adventure would be and I told her 14 days because that’s how long they needed to “have all the fun.”
Provide comfort items
As a kid, Missing your parents is completely normal so here are some ideas to help them get through it:
- Make a countdown sticker chart or calendar to return date
- Pre-record songs, stories or day-in-the-life videos for kids to access anytime on Vimeo.com or YouTube
- Have a few small gifts with which caregivers can reward good behavior or soothe over tough moments
- Create ‘picture pillows’ on Shutterfly.com. Did you know a color photo can be printed on a pillow that kids can hug (or throw)? I loved this idea so I had one made for each of our children.
“I think the kids really like things that they can access any time they want to experience it. Kids are kind of self-oriented, so they may not be in the mood to talk when you call, but they might really like to play a recording or hug their pillow when they recognize that they really are missing you,” says Melanie Jones of Charlottesville, Va.
Create a flexible communication plan
While our family often video chats with the grandparents, I’m not sure how they will do with us on the other side of the screen. Melanie mentioned their youngest son who was 2 years old at the time was “panicked" by the experience” because it was “too abstract.” So for the Joneses, daily emails and calls every few days worked best.