This week the British tabloid press, backed by an anonymous army of spiteful Internet trolls, came together to unilaterally condemn the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for leaving their seven-month-old son with his maternal grandparents while they holidayed in the Maldives.
"If I was to be surrounded by security men, press officers and so on, I'd include a nanny or two and take my baby, too," Anne Atkins, a British broadcaster and mother of five sniffed in the Daily Mail. While she conceded that the couple's decision to leave Prince George with the Middletons didn't count as outright neglect since presumably the grandparents are "competent," she added ominously "that's not the point." Apparently the important thing to consider when planning a holiday without baby is, "How will the parents feel if something goes wrong and they can't comfort him?"
Let's talk about the reality of vacationing with babies. It's March Break in some parts of the country, so you may be reading this on a beach somewhere, squinting at your sand-encrusted iPad and listening to an incensed toddler shout, "Me play Angwee Birds!" That is what "reading" becomes on a family beach holiday – and that's if things are going well.
No sensible, pleasure-loving person can blame the Cambridges for leaving their baby at home for their beach holiday. I took my year-old son to the Caribbean for Christmas and, after 14 hours of economy travel, he behaved as though the sand was burning his skin and the surf was scrambling his brain. My idea of paradise might be blue seas and palm trees, but his, it turns out, is a box of animal crackers in an air-conditioned hotel room. Even if I'd had the staff of Downton Abbey at my disposal, it would have been awful. If you're an involved parent, no amount of staff is going to help you through a baby beach tantrum. Except perhaps a strong rum cocktail.
Watching the "controversy" about Kate and William's holiday unfold (I use skeptical quotation marks because since royal kerfuffles such as these are less actual events than choreographed media set pieces – the tabloids had already taken a shocked stance and the Palace had already refused to comment back when the couple's itinerary was set out six months ago), I can't help but think of Princess Diana and the "royal rebel mummy" nickname she earned in the media for daring to breastfeed and raise her babies in a less-nanny-dependent way.
According to Tina Brown's The Diana Chronicles, there were deep tensions in the royal household about how the young princes should be raised, and no wonder. The Queen is still routinely criticized for going on several months-long foreign tours when her children were infants, and for reading endless documents from Whitehall when she could have been playing pat-a-cake with the heir to the Throne. In essence, the Queen was the first celebrity working mom to lean in – and be roundly criticized for it. She was an arms-length career mother to Diana's hands-on parent. Vastly different parenting styles with a surprisingly similar result: an unnecessary drubbing in the public sphere.
The persistent public criticism of royal mothers, no matter what they do, stems from the pernicious tendency in our culture to blame mothers for everything – no matter what they do. I say mothers, because did anyone bat an eye when William went boar hunting without his son a couple of weeks back? Don't kid yourself: This controversy is all about Kate. Scroll through the comments on the mommy blogs and endless value judgments emerge. Is she still breastfeeding and if not, why not? Hasn't she just hired a full-time Spanish nanny? How is spending a week in the Maldives living up to her (implicit, though never actually articulated) promise of wanting to be a regular mom? Wait, wasn't she just in Mustique? How many holidays does one stay-at-home mother need?
I know plenty of women – and, interestingly, very few men – who can't bear to leave their offspring even for a single night. But this doesn't mean it's neglectful of others who hop on a plane for a few days away when it suits them. Just as Diana wasn't turning her sons into a couple of milksops by doting on them, so Elizabeth should not have been blamed for her children's marital flameouts because she choose take her difficult job seriously. (Her son Edward and his wife, Sophie, have stayed together in a state of enduring blissful blandness and no one gives the Queen any credit for that.)
I've heard that the WiFi situation in the Maldives is dire, which is good news for the Cambridges, what with all the haters out there trying to wreck their quality time. With any luck they are flaked out on the beach enjoying a paradise that would, in any case, probably be lost on little George. Holidaying without babies isn't for all parents but is undeniably more relaxing than the alternative. Let's give the royal couple a break, whether they deserve it or not.