A couple of weeks ago, Babble posted “Don’t Phone Home from a Bar” — and other tips for “traveling dads.” Although I love many of the writers at Babble, they do some formatting things that I hate. For example, they do lots of “top ten” lists where you have to click through each item one at a time. Normally, I hate that so much, I won’t even read authors I love on their site. Babble has great taste in writers, but terrible taste in layout.
That’s not the point. The point is that my wife had just left for a 24 day work trip, and I found the temptation to read their advice to her irresistible. In spite of all the (stupid! pointless! annoying!) clicking.
The post is funny, and some of the ideas make sense, but it had such a strangely dated, uber-stereotypical heterosexual marriage vibe, that I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. Critical comments on Facebook, when I shared the link, have kept me thinking about the post. Are there really families where the traveler is expected to — and the family can afford for him (him, really) to come up with a sparkly gift or spa day valued at equal to or greater than the total amount of his meal per diem for the trip? Don’t have dinner with a woman younger than your mother? In a lot of lines of work, that’s going to be a serious challenge, not to mention making the traveling dad (again, him, really) look both sexist and egotistical.
My wife and I have had a lot of experience with work travel. Our children are 4 and 6, and during the 1.5 years after the 4 year old was born, we were apart for a total of 7 months. My trips are more frequent (3 or 4 times/year), and usually last between 3-7 days. Her trips, which normally only happen about twice/year, last between 12 days and 8 weeks, but the standard is 4 weeks. This year, we also survived my Ph.D. preliminary exams, a 60 day process in which my parenting and home responsibilities were drastically scaled back, though by no means eliminated. It wasn’t a work trip, but I think that for my wife, it was kind of like me traveling for work.
Based on my years of experience as both the at home parent and the traveling parent, here’s my list of recommendations and tips for parents who travel for work — and by travel, I mean either often, or for extended periods of time. If you have a night away once or twice/year, my advice to you is all in #5 below.
- Call home and call the traveler. Both parties should call. Figure out 1 or 2 times of day when it is reasonably likely the traveler will be able to speak to the child(ren), and try to call during those times. It may not always work, but if you try most days, at least it will mostly work. In my family, that usually means calling either during dinner, or from the car, on the way home before dinner.
- Offer support. This can work both ways, but is more the traveler’s responsibility than the parent at home. When the children are behaving as if they were possessed by demons, the traveling parent is not expected to solve the problem. That person should listen, sympathize, express hope that it will be better tomorrow, be sorry that that they aren’t there to help. They should NOT tell the at home parent what to do. Unless the at home parent explicitly asks, “here’s what you should do!” is never as helpful as you think it will be.
- Trust the parent at home. In my family, the biggest thing this means is that when I’m at home, I do NOT want to be nagged about exactly when I’m taking a child to an activity, or have cleaned the bathroom, or other similar regular features of daily life. When only one parent is present, some of these things slip, or are even skipped entirely. Nagging just makes me resentful about managing as well as I can. When I’m the traveling parent, I fret about what the kids are eating, but I do my damnedest to keep my mouth shut. Even if it is my worst case imagined scenario, a week of horrible eating won’t kill them.
- Trust the traveling parent. This ties back to the Babble article headline. Do you really want the traveling parent not to call you from a bar? Isn’t it a good thing that they’re calling? And isn’t it a good thing that in addition to working hard, they’re also having some fun on their trip? Maybe they’re out with work colleagues. Maybe this is the first time they’ve had a chance to call. Maybe they saw your favorite kind of beer and had a sudden desire to hear your voice. If you don’t trust your spouse, that they’re calling home while in a commercial establishment that serves alcohol is probably the least of your worries. (Of course, there may be exceptions. If the traveling parent is in AA and calls you from a bar, that’s a different set of circumstances than if the traveling parent is a healthy social/occasional drinker, and at the end of a long day at an academic conference, calls you from a bar.)
- Be sensitive. It isn’t about “don’t go have fun without your spouse” or “don’t have a nice dinner” or “don’t go to a concert/play/game” or whatever. In a mature relationship, both spouses should want the other one to enjoy themselves. But if the at home parent calls to vent about spending 5 hours at the ER because Child A hit Child B with a hammer causing Child B to fall down the stairs and land on Child C, breaking Child C’s leg, that’s probably the wrong time for the traveling parent to announce that they scored an amazing seat to The Big Game for half of face value. Or just ate the most delectable meal of their life. Save the thrilling detail for the next time you talk.
- Get a Sitter/Help. If you can afford it and make it work logistically, the at home parent should take some time to relax, do something fun, or at least get a break while they are solo parenting. (I like that term over “single parenting” for these circumstances. You still have a partner for making policy decisions, even if you are the solo adult at the moment.) How often and for how long you should get a sitter probably depends on how long the other parent is gone, and the rest of life’s circumstances. Turning to friends, grandparents, etc, if they are available, also makes sense. Once/week doesn’t seem unreasonable, but it really depends on what everyone needs. You might need more, you might not need quite that often. Even if money is tight, the traveling parent should support this kind of sanity-affirming (possibly saving) help for the at home parent.
- Make special occasions or conflicts work, if at all possible. We have had work trips that covered birthdays, both of a parent and of a kid. We have also had nested work trips — my partner had a 4 week trip extend to an 8 week trip, while I had a conference the weekend at the end of the 4th week. It is hard to do birthdays with someone gone, but you can start the celebration early, continue it late, and find ways to make it special. We once met in Chicago in the middle of one of her trips, because it was in driving distance of home and where her work needed her, and celebrated my partner’s birthday there. (Lucky for us, we were able to afford the weekend getaway for the family. But we made it a budget priority.) The nested trip? She came home for the weekend, got to spend some time with the kids, and I got a very nice, very needed break and conference trip. We barely saw one another, which was decidedly non-optimal. But our choice kept resentment, frustration, and loneliness down for both of us, even if it didn’t meet every need we could imagine. My son has enjoyed an extended birthday season when someone is gone over his special day.
- Re-entry is hard. I think it takes about half the length of the trip for a family to re-adjust to having both parents back. The traveling parent wants to feel needed. The at home parent wants some help, and to be acknowledged for having kept life functioning all by themselves. The at home part of the family may have adjusted to a “new normal” if the traveling parent was gone for more than a week. Remember that everyone involved is doing their best, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Kids may test the traveler or both parents, or punish them. Try not to lose it.
- Give the at-home parent a break. Even if the kids are acting completely evil, the returned-traveler should give the at home parent a break, as soon as reasonably possible. Babble suggested an expensive spa day. If your world doesn’t contain quite that much disposable income, or free time, an afternoon or evening “off” the following weekend, so the at home parent can go out with friends, see a movie, get a cup of coffee, or even just take a solo adult trip to the library or go for a long walk might be more affordable options. Both parents will probably need these kinds of breaks during the re-adjustment process following a long trip. A two-to-one ratio of alone time, in favor of the at home parent, may be reasonable for 2 or 3 weekends, depending on the length of the trip.
Don’t get me wrong, honey. If you want to give me an expensive spa day, or something sparkly, (or the iPhone 5), I’m not going to turn them down. But I don’t think those things are a tax on spousal travel — not in our family, and not in most two-parent families. I don’t even really think they’re expected in the world I imagined when I read the Babble post — suburban, heterosexual, working dad/stay at home mom. Being thoughtful, supportive, and appreciative, however, is good for any kind of family.