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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: My parents have invited my wife and me and my two sisters and their families on a 12-day cruise at their expense. They have never made such a trip before, and my father's declining health may make traveling impossible in the future. Both my wife and I get along with my parents very well. We see them once or twice a year.

Our problem: They have invited only grandchildren who are more than 6 years of age. There are many reasons: Small children would make the trip less relaxing for everyone; there are a variety of programs for children aged 6 and older, but not younger; the cabins accommodate only groups of four; and younger children wouldn't remember the trip anyway.

My wife and I would be taking two of our children and leaving two -- ages 2 and 4 -- at home. One of my sisters would be leaving two of her four children at home, and my other sister would be leaving both of hers. We have a very reliable friend who has taken care of all of our children when my wife and I have gone away together (for as long as six days), so that's not the issue.

I see this as a wonderful opportunity. Our older children would have the time of their lives, and while I'd miss the younger ones, I also know they would be just fine. My wife, however, feels it would be difficult for the 4-year-old. Although neither of us feels he would suffer permanent emotional scars, my wife says she wouldn't enjoy the trip if she had to worry about him. She feels put on the spot by my parents by being forced either to be the party pooper or to do something she feels uncomfortable about.

She says it would be much easier on the 4-year-old if we took none of the children, but I would love to share this experience with the older ones. She has offered to stay home while I take the older two, but I like that idea even less.

The issue has been tabled for the last three months, but our positions have not changed. I'm unwilling to concede that the trip, as planned, needs to be scrapped. She's unwilling to concede that it would be no big deal to leave the two younger children at home.

How should this be resolved? -- ONE FAMILY'S FORTUNE

DEAR FORTUNE: Since your father's health is such that this might be the only time a special family reunion is possible, I would hate to see you scrap the trip. Events like this add to the richness of family lore, from which all family members will benefit. Children understand that there are special privileges that come with being older, just as there are special privileges given to younger ones. The younger children's stay at home can be made special with some creative planning -- and the baby sitter could take them on daily outings.

There is much to be gained by taking the trip the way your parents offered it. I hope your wife reconsiders her position. If she doesn't, you and she must decide who gets left standing at the dock -- your two older children, or your mate.

DEAR ABBY: For the last year I have been reading your column and I am now a faithful fan. Something has really been troubling me.

A few days ago, I was in a church hall when a woman carrying a baby came in and sat down next to me on the bench. I must add that the baby was a beautiful one.

I could not tell whether the baby was a boy or a girl, and I could not think of a polite way of asking the mother. What would have been a polite way of finding out? -- AMBER IN SACRAMENTO

DEAR AMBER: You could have said, "My, what a beautiful baby. What did you name this adorable child?"

For Abby's favorite family recipes, send a long, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Cookbooklet No. 1, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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