FORT COLLINS, Colo. - In 12 years, my husband and I have had two vacations without our daughter. Once, we drove 200 miles to drop her at her godparents; the other time, her grandfather flew 850 miles on an $800 plane ticket to spell us.
Oh, how we envy parents who casually plan romantic getaways sans kids.
"A lot of things have to go right for parents to be able to go away together, leave their kids home and feel comfortable while they're away," said Stephanie Newman, a New York-based psychologist and author.
Newman, 48, herself the mother of two, encourages couples to take time for themselves. Nevertheless, she hears during therapy sessions from parents who have a hard time making that a reality.
"It's a social issue," she said. More women work outside the home; grandparents might not have traditional retirements; kids are heavily scheduled, making it more difficult for someone to step in, and our increasingly mobile society weakens our support network.
Still, we're parents, so by definition, we're resourceful. We might not do it often, but once in a while, we beg, bribe, plead, pay and juggle to find childcare for that important couple's vacation.
Nicole Reisfeld went through a Herculean effort so that she and her husband could travel from Colorado to Maine last year to celebrate her parents' 50th wedding anniversary. With their daughter at college, she had their 16-year-old son, Ben, to plan for during their six-day trip.
After school, Ben took the bus home, where a family friend picked him up after work so he could spend the night at her house. On weekends, Ben stayed home and an adult neighbour slept over. One day, the school was holding exams at a different location, so a third friend served as chauffeur.
"Added complications were that the (school) schedule kept changing so I had to keep revising the plan, and that Ben's cellphone was no longer working so I had to get him a new phone and number the night before we left — after I had worked from 9 to 6 that day," said Reisfeld, 49, a speech pathologist. "Making all the arrangements were exhausting, but the trip was wonderful and worth all the trouble."
Even those with nannies and regular sitters face challenges when trying to leave town.
New York theatrical manager Nina Essman and her husband had only spent one night away since the eldest of their two children was born 9 years earlier. They wanted to go alone to a friend's wedding in Florida.
Essman, 45, was concerned about imposing on their longtime nanny, who only works weekdays. To win some goodwill, Essman sent the nanny to her native Trinidad for Christmas. The nanny agreed to the overnight when Essman later asked, though she also received overtime.
That was two years ago and Essman and her husband haven't had another night alone since.
Some parents in a bind will even hire a stranger through an agency, said Candi Wingate, president of the nationwide Nannies4Hire.
It's always best for the nanny to first meet the children and learn the schedule, though sometimes, "If the children are older, then some parents â€1/8 will just talk to the nanny over the phone," said Wingate, of Norfolk, Neb.
I can't imagine that. When my father visited from Calgary, Canada, I asked him to come a week early and took him through the daily paces. I also left a long list of emergency numbers, provided a spreadsheet of drop off and pickup times and locations for my daughter; programmed addresses into my car's GPS in case he got lost; and provided a printout of food I had prepared and frozen.
I thought I'd gone over the top until I spoke with Linda Boden, 43, of Minneapolis. She has travelled every few years with her husband, often out of the country, leaving their two children to be cared for in a tightly choreographed program.
Boden used a combination of sitters at her house so that she didn't overburden anyone. Weekends were handled alternately by the local set of retired grandparents and the still-working grandparents who drove in from more than two hours away. Weekdays were covered by their regular sitter, who was paid about $100 a night.
She colour-coded her spreadsheets, one colour for each set of caretakers, and since her son can't eat gluten, she fussed over food, left lengthy dietary instructions, and even left the children's snacks organized in the pantry in labeled individual plastic containers.
"My preparations were pretty lengthy, but selfishly so," explained Boden, who has a marketing business. "It's not that I think these people aren't capable of taking care of my kids. I wanted to be able to relax. I had to plan for every possible contingency."
While not every parent goes to such extremes, you will need to provide sitters with basics like your contact information and itinerary, along with cash or a debit card for food, gas and incidentals. It's also important to plan for emergencies. Leave contact information for doctors and dentists, along with copies of medical insurance cards and a note authorizing emergency treatment or a health care proxy form. Notify schools, sports teams and carpools that someone else will be picking up your child. Finally, consider what would happen if you and your spouse were incapacitated or killed: Does your sitter know how to reach your child's legal guardian, and does the guardian know where the original legal papers are kept?
What do the caretakers think about all this?
"Micromanaging does get tiresome sometimes," admitted my 81-year-old father, Jerry Schwartz. But he added, by having everything laid out, "I don't have to really work at it. I can just enjoy the experience."
My father said some of his friends "say they don't have the patience" to spend extended time with their grandchildren.
Now that he's had the experience, would he do it again?
In a heartbeat, he said: "She's growing up so fast if I don't do it soon, I won't have the opportunity."
I think I'll go pack.