When Seattle-based mommy blogger Mandy Morrison of Harper’s Happenings signed up for the BlogHer conference in New York City, she immediately felt a pang of guilt about leaving her 20-month-old daughter behind. “I felt guilty because the trip was for me,” Morrison says. “I felt then like it was kind of selfish.” Parental guilt over leaving baby — especially for the first time — is nothing new, but experts agree that letting it dictate your choices could be detrimental, for parents and for baby.
Janelle Durham, program director at Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS), says having a baby is one of the single biggest challenges to a couples’ relationship. Parents get caught up in the day-to-day of their new lives, often neglecting themselves for the sake of baby. “However, if the relationship is neglected, it can wither and fade,” says Durham. Morrison agrees. “Our date nights are so important. Otherwise, our dinners would consist of food being thrown and toddler things going on. If those were our only meals together, we’d never have time to connect.”
And while quality time with mom and dad is essential, babies may also benefit from time away. Leaving children with a trusted sitter gives them the chance to experience other care-giving styles, which can allow them to grow and discover new things. And even if they have a less-than-favorable experience, they may learn from it. Durham’s own daughter remembers a babysitter she had when she was 5 who was much stricter about rules than Durham and her husband. “It led her to appreciate our flexibility,” Durham says.
Slow and steady
For some parents, though, the mere thought of leaving baby throws them into an emotional frenzy. Taking slow, small steps is key, experts agree. When Morrison’s now 2-year-old daughter, Harper, was 8 weeks old, Morrison’s mother started taking Harper every Saturday night to give the first-time parents a chance to relax. “The first night we went out, it was really strange, and we talked about [the baby] the whole time.” But once the couple got used to their baby-free evenings, they became a welcome relief. “When I’m with [the baby], I’m always ‘on,’” Morrison says. “To have that time now, even just to sleep in, is helpful.”
If there isn’t a trusted family member available to take baby, start by bringing a new sitter over for short periods of time. Planning an hour to take a walk, run to the store or even do some yard work out of sight of baby is a good way to start, Durham says. “Hire a babysitter for a two- to three-hour period when you’re planning on being out of the house for at least 90 minutes. If baby is fed and content when the sitter arrives, you can take off right away.” If baby is fussy, don’t feel like you have to leave immediately. Stay until you feel comfortable and spend as much time as you need getting baby settled. “This is not the night to plan on spending big bucks for a three-hour-long opera performance,” Durham warns. Plan something that’s easy to leave if the sitter calls you with problems. “If you’re worried about enjoying yourself at a date-night dinner, consider a Saturday or Sunday brunch instead.”
Finding a sitter
One of the hardest parts of leaving baby is finding a reliable, trusted sitter. Professional babysitting services screen all applicants, and many registered sitters have additional experience, such as CPR training. They are very reputable but often pricey, especially for regular care. Neighbors and coworkers are also good options and are usually less expensive, though more of a gamble. “A great resource is to swap childcare with other parents,” says Durham. “Watch their child on Tuesday night, and they watch yours on Wednesday.” Durham suggests another option: a team childcare system. For example, three families might arrange for three evenings together. On each evening, two of the families hang out, having a fun, social time while watching all three sets of kids, and one set of parents goes out. The next week, they rotate whose turn it is to go out.
Extending the time
There will come a time when parents need to leave baby for more than a few hours. For Morrison, that time came this summer for the weeklong blogging conference in New York. “Because I’m a stay-at-home mom, I know her best. I had anxiety about her needs,” says Morrison. Her husband, Scot, reassured her in the days leading up to the conference by reminding her that she deserved some time alone. “I literally had to keep telling myself in the mirror, ‘I deserve this, I deserve this, she’s going to be fine,’” says Morrison. Remembering that every parent needs time to decompress is helpful. “Whether for business or fun, at least you get to take a shower — uninterrupted.”
And now that she’s had that week to reconnect with herself, Morrison’s advice to parents is: “Get over it. Just do it. Especially for your marriage. Now that I’ve focused on myself on this trip, I’m excited that Scot and I are going to plan a trip to focus just on us.”
Andrea Duchon is a Seattle-based freelance writer.