When I told my husband in a burst of excitement that I had found a whole series of books on romantic weekends in Southern California, Northern California, New England and points in between he said, "Does it come with a baby sitter?"

I have listened as many couples argued about what is normal when it comes to separate vacations from kids. There is no normal. Normal kids and normal parents vary in their comfort level with various separations. The critical thing is that each person in the marriage is respected for his or her wishes to be away from the kids and to have time as a couple. Recognize and accept that you won't always feel the same about these issues. Here are a few guideposts to consider:

Infants to 12 months: Infants can often stay with either parent or a regular caregiver quite easily the first 6-9 months. Be mindful that breastfeeding can make Mom miserable if you go for an overnight, even if mom pumps. Mom deserves a lot of support if she goes overnight.

This is the best time to get the child acquainted for a few hours at a time with anyone who might become a long-term caregiver because there will be less protest now than later during the stranger anxiety period to anyone already familiar and comfortable. While the general wisdom is that the stranger anxiety period starts at nine months, assume that your child will be a genius and may have anxiety a bit earlier, as many children do.

This early period is a great time to introduce them to grandma and grandpa, granny nanny, or a neighbor who is a regular weekend or daily caregiver. This is also a time when it is easy to take the baby with you, for long walks and talk relatively undisturbed. Some couples even take their first baby to the movies, if he is a good sleeper. Even if you don't go out as a couple without the baby, try to make time for each parent to have time alone and one-on-one time with the baby so that any small problems can begin to be sorted out now.

1-2 years: Kids are really hard to leave with anyone right now because they are so active. A child-safe environment is critical and even the most loving grandparent can be leery of chasing a toddler and have difficulty doing a good job. Because you will already have childproofed, it's usually better to have care at your home than elsewhere, particularly if the caretaker doesn't have small children. A caretaker that they already know and like who will come to the house so the child can fall asleep at home often works best.

2-5 years: Children often scream in protest when you leave and settle down shortly afterwards. If they are sunny and happy to see you and seem to forget that particular trauma by the time you return, you are doing fine.

By age three they can be quite upset about being left with someone other than their parents and will begin to verbalize their distress and remain angry about it longer. Familiar caretakers are an exception. (They are also gold!) Children can also learn to leave you alone for 10-15 minutes in the house and learn not to interrupt or knock on your door for a few minutes unless someone is bleeding or choking or about to leap off a balcony. (Actually you need to make sure there are no balconies.)

5-12 years: They usually begin to like games with rules at this age, so they may enjoy following rules that support your time alone. For example, they now will tell their friends that it is the rule that their mom and dad talk every Saturday morning so they must not bother them.

Most kids get more independent in these years and gradually get excited about sleepovers with friends. Our kids often suggested we have a night out so they could go spend time with friends or have friends over with a sitter at our place. This can be the easiest time to take short trips together or away from your spouse because kids are more independent and interested in friends. With careful planning, you can arrange to trade sleepover times with friends so that each couple gets a break while kids are having fun. Unfortunately, disruptions in the family routine mean that homework and the like may not be done. As the size of your family increases, the difficulty of such exchanges grows exponentially. Some happily married couples with four and five kids that I know hire college kids or couples to supervise.

Teen Years: Early teen years are in some ways the most difficult for parental outings and yet the easiest to find talk time or a few hours alone. Some people feel if they have enough talk time they don't need to get away as much. Your teens will gladly leave you alone because they want you to respect their new independence. They have seen the consequences of divorce and appreciate that their parents talk together.

Most concerned parents find this the very hardest time to go away as a couple, because the kids view themselves as too old for babysitters. Making weekend plans around teen schedules is hard because they have short-term view of plans, but like to make their own. It goes like this: the teen says, "I am going out." Mom says, "Where are you going, who are you going with and when will you get home?" The teen says, "You just ruined my plans again!" This teen testing, which stresses marriage solidarity, discourages parents from leaving, but makes couple trips even more important for some parents. Kids need a parent at home base to help them make last minute decisions about their own evening plans and to drive them when they are tempted to ride with other teenagers.

Leaving teens alone is hard. Even lovely, responsible, non-drug-using teens get into trouble because other teens know in a heartbeat (or a few cell phone calls) which home is not supervised. Many kids have trouble saying no to other kids. Learning to say no and set limits in difficult situations is a skill they must learn in the early teen years. Meanwhile, leaving your teenage kids alone can be frightening. I don't recommend it. These limitations can be quite difficult for a new mate without children in a blended family to understand.

Happy couples differ on how much they need to get away from the home at this point. Some couples are so committed to this routine talk time that they feel getting away is critical to feeling close, for goal setting and to relate to each other without "help" and disruption. Some just like to go to socialize with other adults and see grown-up movies and plays. Many parents do in town overnight getaways. Other parents have grown accustomed to watching videos and revel in staying home alone together waiting for teens to return. The number of younger siblings affects this as well. Generally the developmental stage of the marriage is affected by the age of the youngest sibling unless the older sibling is much older and can function comfortably as a babysitter.

If you take a several day or week vacation during the school year, disruptions to their homework schedules may have a more negative long-term impact on grades, depending on their development and personality. When my husband and I are away, a beloved grandma just happens to want to visit. We encourage our boys to spend time with her instead of going out or having friends over. I know parents who have hired college kids to watch their teens when they were away only to discover the remains of an out of control party on their return. Damage ranged from zero to many thousands of dollars with the young adult hired to supervise cringing in the closet until she got the nerve to call the police. Going over rules, expectations and worst-case scenarios with the caregiver and your kids helps ensure a peaceful time.

Parents' Separation Issues: Parents who work long hours may hate to get away from kids because they rarely see them. Conversely, parents who work long hours may have difficulty readjusting to the child world and may desperately want to be away from the kids to have the adult conversations they are used to. Moms who spend a lot of time at home may desperately want to get out for a few hours, just as Dad may yearn to hang out at home because he has been away.

Most people have no real memory of their own childhood before school age so have no guideline good or bad from their own experience. Not knowing how much time they spent with a sitter, they can only guess what is appropriate babysitting time at the early stages of a child's development. Parents who were wild teenagers themselves may be either quite relaxed about their teenagers, since they themselves survived, or overly protective because they know all the possibilities, or they may be quite strict assuming that they are lucky to be alive.

Partners need to recognize that their mates may have legitimate reasons to differ about babysitting and time away. Nonetheless, they need to create a plan together that balances the needs of the child and each parent.

With benefit of hindsight, I can see that it is easiest to plan trips without the kids as they age. Trips for the two of you without kids are more difficult when your kids are younger. There are however clear benefits for your marriage and your kids if you leave your children for a brief trip together. A separation that is comfortable and fun helps them become more independent and bonds them to important people in their lives. Spending time with other people makes them more flexible about dealing with a variety of individuals. Two or more siblings often grow a bit closer staying with someone other than parents.

This, of course, presumes that you and your children are comfortable and familiar with the care-taking person. Aside from issues of having your child molested, things can go radically wrong. I have heard some horror stories. One single parent returned from England to learn that even though she had called her kids regularly, the caretaker, a friend who had eagerly volunteered but had not babysat these kids before, had decided the kids ate too much and was limiting their food intake. The boys, who were in fourth and seventh grade, didn't want to upset her, and so started hanging out at friends' houses in the neighborhood to eat. They avoided coming home until quite late at night. The frustrated caretaker started screaming abuse at them when they did come home. Fortunately, the trip was only a short visit to an ailing father. The mother reviewed the fiasco of the babysitter carefully with the kids and went over all the options they would have in the future. After that came more trips to her father's bedside, but she arranged childcare with sympathetic parents of friends who were more used to kids and their healthy appetites.

I don't want to discourage you from taking trips away from your children, just know the importance of planning those trips carefully. When your kids are old enough to discuss the trip and understand it, listen to any caregiver concerns they have and make sure you have a plan that is comfortable for your children. Plan together how often and when you will call. Plan some scenarios in advance to cover what they might do if things go awry. The safer the more active or attached parent thinks the children are, the more enjoyable the trip will be for both of you. Sometimes parents simply plan one trip away a year when the children are staying at a camp, just be sure they can always reach you. It can be unnerving enough for kids to be at sleep-away camp, but they sometimes feel even more insecure if they know no one's at home base.

Leaving your kids isn't a requirement. It can be great fun and a wonderful bonding experience with your partner. Plan these escapes carefully so they are relaxing and enhancing for you and the kids.

Copyright © 2004 Carol Ummel Lindquist, Ph.D.

Author's Bio: 

Carol Ummel Lindquist, Ph.D. is the author of Happily Married with Kids: It's Not Just a Fairy Tale (Published by Berkley Publishing Group; January 2004; $14.00US/$21.00CAN; 0-425-19395-0). Ummel Lindquist is a board-certified clinical psychologist and a Professor Emerita of psychology at California State Fullerton, where she has trained other marital therapists for more than twenty years. She lives with her husband and two sons in Laguna Beach, California. In Happily Married with Kids, Dr. Ummel Lindquist explores why parenthood can sometimes wreak havoc on your dreams of a happily-ever-after and reveals what you can do to make your own marriage a solid, satisfying one.

For more information, please visit Carol Ummel Lindquist's Web site, www.happilymarriedwithkids.com, or www.writtenvoices.com.