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First Night Out

It seemed like the perfect opportunity: During my mother-in-law's first visit to see her new grandson, she enthusiastically offered to babysit our 3-month-old so that my husband, Steve, and I could have a nice dinner out. We accepted, and I started fantasizing about wearing clean clothes and sipping chilled white wine while a waiter fussed over my water glass.

After three months of nonstop bonding, I'd thought that I was ready for a grown-ups-only night, but I wasn't prepared for the emotions that hit me as I walked out that door. I felt naked, strangely unburdened, a little guilty  -- worried. As I gazed at Steve across the table, I couldn't stop thinking about our son and my mother-in-law's nervous laugh. Picking at my appetizer, I asked Steve for the twenty-first time if he thought the baby was okay. Finally, he gave in and called home to prove that everything was all right. Grandma didn't answer.

"Oh, she's just busy with the baby," Steve said, trying to calm my nerves. He ordered another drink. I tore my napkin into little bits. Later, we learned that Grandma had "heard ringing" but couldn't find the phone.

Maybe if I had known what to expect  -- maybe if I had pointed out the location of the phone  -- my first night out would have been less stressful. I might even have stayed for dessert. But, like most new parents who venture out after months of constant companionship with Baby, I learned that a reprieve, even if it's only for a few hours, can be more trying than anything your little one dishes out.

Annette Spence is a contributing editor of BabyTalk.

The Struggle for Freedom

Finding a babysitter...getting ready...getting the baby ready...confronting the details, the logistics, the anxiety. Gee whiz, is it worth it, just for some time away? The majority of experts--and parents--say yes. Not only will a stolen hour or two allow you to think and speak in complete sentences again, it'll give you and your partner a chance to recharge. "Your spouse should be your favorite recreational companion," says Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D., psychologist and author of Give & Take: The Secret to Marital Compatibility. "If you prioritize your life in such a way that anything, including the baby becomes more important to you than each other, your marriage will weaken." And, he adds, if your marriage suffers, then it follows that ultimately your children will suffer, too. Like a lot of parents, Amy Perry of Hueytown, AL, realizes she needs one-on-one time with her husband. But she still feels guilty about leaving her 12-month-old son, Nicolas. "I feel that I don't get to spend enough time with him," says Perry, who works full-time as a program coordinator at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Yet she stands by her commitment to keep periodic dates with her husband, David. "When we do go out, it does a lot for our marriage. We usually get along better." Sacrificing precious time with the baby to be alone with a spouse is bound to raise ambivalent feelings: You can't live with your baby to the exclusion of everyone else, but you can't live without him. Many parents try to strike a compromise by taking the baby along. But if it's time with your partner that you need, it can be just about impossible to give your undivided attention to your spouse when Junior is spitting up on the woman in the next booth. "Can you imagine dating someone who brings a child along on every date? You wouldn't be dating for long," says Harley.

Daddies Are Different

After three or four months, even fathers who adore their babies right down to their dirty diapers may start pushing for a night on the town (or at least one out of the living room). Suddenly, many wives find that their former couch potatoes have turned into party planners. Says Kristie Wind of Addison, IL, "Craig had gotten tickets to see his friend's band. He was like, 'You haven't been out. You haven't had any fun. We're going.'" Even if Mom wants to go out, that doesn't mean that she and Dad will have the same anxiety level. "Oh, yeah. I remember my first night out," says Knoxville, TN, mom LeeAnn Bailes with a dark laugh. Her baby, Eric, was 2 months old. Her husband, John, needed to attend a dinner, and she agreed to go along with him. The tale begins with LeeAnn scouring her closet to find a non-maternity dress to wear. It ends with LeeAnn, wearing a maternity dress, shouting at John over Eric's cries. Her husband's crime? When they went to pick up the baby after dinner, he suggested that LeeAnn wait until they got home to nurse Eric. No doubt, many moms are miffed by what they think is their partners' cavalier attitude. Dads, of course, feel anxiety, too. But because they may not stay home those first weeks, nurse at all hours, and generally spend every moment of the day with the baby, they may not feel the gaping chasm of separation that mothers do when they say good-bye for the first time.

Please Release Me

After both partners agree that they're ready to step out, there's still one more person to consider: the baby. Before making those dinner reservations, parents should ask themselves some key questions: How old should our baby be before we think about going out? When is the best time to go: day or night? How long should we be away? There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding the perfect time to go, but luckily you're the best people to make the call. No one else knows your baby-her preferences, habits, and daily rhythms--as well as you do. During the first six months of life, most babies are happy to be left in the care of someone else as long as that someone meets their needs. Infants 2 and 3 months old may recognize their mother but don't think of her once she's out of sight. Between 6 and 9 months of age, however, babies begin to experience separation anxiety and stranger anxiety, and may balk at being separated from their parents or left in the company of new people. Their duration varies from child to child, but normally these anxieties subside by age 1 or 2. If you're worried that a regular night out will be too much for your baby (or you), you may want to ease into separation with an hour at a bookstore or at the gym. "It's nice to get away and think about 'just me' a couple of times each week," says one Arizona mother. "I come back feeling ready to be Mommy again." Or book your sitter so that you can take other daytime jaunts, perhaps while the baby sleeps: Meet your husband for lunch. Dash out for a haircut. Meet with another mom for coffee or a walk. Then, once you and your baby are more comfortable spending time apart, you can try an evening at the local bistro and multiplex.

Who's Minding the Baby?

The best way to temper stressful emotions before you depart is to make sure your baby will be cared for by someone you trust. For many parents, that means asking Grandma and Grandpa to babysit. Christine Brown's baby, Conner, was just 4 days old when she left him for two hours to celebrate her husband's birthday. "I felt very comfortable with my mother watching my baby," says Christine, who lives in Knoxville, TN. "She had been a mom for 25 years, so I didn't feel like I had anything to worry about." Doting grandparents often do make the best sitters: They're loving, willing, trustworthy, and free of charge. But sometimes even well-intentioned grandparents can add to the anxiety rather than alleviate it. One New York City couple tells of leaving their baby daughter with Grandma before heading off to a nice restaurant. Midway through their meal, the waiter interrupts the couple to tell them that they have a phone call. With their hearts in their throats, they race to the phone, fully expecting bad news. Instead, they hear the chipper voice of Grandma: "I'm just calling to let you know that the baby's fine. I didn't want anything to stop you from enjoying your dinner!" You'll have to decide for yourself whether a parent or an in-law is the best choice as caregiver. Some mothers prefer leaving their babies with sisters, cousins, or good friends who have young children of their own and more recent experience with baby care. When relatives and friends are unavailable or unwilling, however, don't just give up and decide to stay with your baby until she starts kindergarten. Hiring a sitter is the next best option. Although it takes more legwork, it's worth it when you find a responsible person who may be available for a regular gig. Another advantage of paying for a sitter: Unlike dealing with relatives, you have the leverage to set standards and expect high performance. To locate a sitter, you can try childcare agencies, daycare centers, and local babysitting cooperatives, in which parents agree to exchange babysitting services. Or you may want to post notices at nearby universities. Teens may also be up to the task, but, as with all new sitters, you'll want to check their references. Whomever you hire, it may help to have her come for a visit before the designated night. Invite her to sit and talk with you while your baby hangs out on your lap, suggests Deborah Tolchin, M.D., a pediatrician in the Bronx, NY, and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics's Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. Of course, in spite of your best efforts, there's no guarantee your baby won't throw a fit when you leave the first time. But don't worry. "She'll mope for a few minutes, and then she'll pick up a toy and play," says Tolchin. Even if your child has a red-hot temper and requires several minutes to calm down after you exit, don't give up and run home. Adds Tolchin, "The child learns that when his parents go away, they come back. If he's never, ever allowed to separate from his parents, he loses this learning opportunity." The lesson, however, is probably easiest to take if it's kept to a few hours. According to Chicago mom Leslee Williams, spending an entire night away wasn't worth the angst. "I kept the cell phone on and had to restrain myself from calling more than once," says Williams, whose first child, Kathy, was 3 months old when she was first left with her grandparents. With second and third children, however, many mothers find that the separation isn't quite as agonizing. "After I had David, I couldn't wait for a night out," says Williams, laughing. "See what experience does for you!"

Go for It

Don't let guilt and anxiety prevent you from going out when the time is right. A little pre-planning and faith (and wine with dinner) can make for a fabulous "first time." [BULLET {DECIDE TO DO IT. Once you have a baby, it takes a certain amount of determination to organize an outing without her (or with her, for that matter). Set your mind on getting out, or it won't happen.}] [BULLET {KEEP IT SIMPLE. If you're one of those parents who take everything in stride, then you can probably handle leaving your baby for a week while you vacation in Tahiti. For the rest of us: If you're nursing, it may be more convenient to keep your outing short, say, two hours (but arm your sitter with a bottle just in case). If bedtime and bathtime are too complicated to explain, then go out after the baby's asleep.}] [BULLET {SECURE THE SITTER. Some sitters need as much as three weeks' notice. Let her know when you expect her and when you'll be home. Allow at least 20 to 30 minutes to show her the ropes before you leave. Work out transportation and payment details beforehand.}] [BULLET {ALLOW YOURSELF TIME. Don't wait until the last minute to figure out what you're going to wear and to write down the phone number of the restaurant. With babies, you never know what will come up--or out; you could spend your precious hair-and-makeup time cleaning spit-up off your silk blouse or changing a particularly messy diaper. Do as much as you can in advance, and, if possible, don't get dressed until the baby is asleep or in your sitter's arms.}] [BULLET {GIVE THE TOUR. Show your sitter around the house: the changing table and supplies; how to work the drop-side crib; the kitchen and any refreshments; door and window locks. (Don't forget the telephone!) Of course, you'll want to tell her all about your baby, too: his habits, likes, and dislikes. And take the time to go over your baby's routine step-by-step so that the separation won't be so jarring.}] [BULLET {ANYTHING'S POSSIBLE. Don't be surprised if the baby skips his usual bottle or nap. A child's routine can easily be upset by his parents' absence and a stranger's presence.}] [BULLET {DON'T SWEAT IT. Warn your babysitter of possible scenarios, then try to be available by telephone in case she has a question.}] [BULLET {TRY TO LIVE IT UP. Expect strong feelings of anxiety when you say good-bye, but keep your emotions in check--and have fun! In time, it will get easier to leave your baby.}]

Oh, and One More Thing...

You can't remember everything--and neither can the sitter. That's why written instructions are invaluable. Details to include: [BULLET {Where you'll be and when, along with the phone number}] [BULLET {Your cellular phone or paging number}] [BULLET {Pediatrician's phone number}] [BULLET {Neighbor's or relative's phone number}] [BULLET {Your own address and phone number so that the sitter can tell the police or an ambulance where to come}] [BULLET {Location of phone and nursery monitor}] [BULLET {Location of car safety seat, first-aid kit, flashlight, and fuse box, in case of emergency}] [BULLET {Specifics about feeding, diapering, sleeping}] [BULLET {Information about what the sitter may eat or use, and your policy on visitors}]