The black carry-on sits on the bed, waiting to be filled with my husband's belongings and whisked off to blue skies. Back and forth my husband goes, packing with an economy of movement bred by years of practice. Our conversation flits from one topic to another, unsettled as a butterfly, filling the void of the coming separation with chatter as an ominous feeling permeates our home.
At the airport there are huge hugs and swift farewells. The kids and I turn away, refusing to watch the airplane become a distant speck in the sky. Instead we go home to pick up the thread of our lives and set the dinner table minus one place setting.
1. Family Dynamics
There is no doubt that stress plays an important role in the lives of families who routinely live with separations.
Dr. Lennart A. Dimberg, MD, PhD, a senior occupational health specialist at the World Bank, states that health insurance claims for stress-related psychological problems and physical illnesses are significantly higher for husbands and wives of frequent business travelers. In a report released in the March 2002 issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers state, "For specifically stress-related psychological diagnoses, the rates were three times higher among both female and male spouses of frequent travelers with more than four missions a year."
So how do we do it? How do the countless families of frequent travelers go through the motions of separation when the choices may be to either take to the skies and roads or quit the job? How do kids and the spouse who stay behind survive days, weeks, or even months apart? Is it possible for an absentee parent to maintain a close relationship with small children? Can the remaining parent help foster that bond?
Robins' Air Force Base's Family Readiness publication affirms that the parent who remains with the family "...will probably be the most significant factor in how your child adjusts."
Regardless of the reason for their parent's absence, children react differently to a separation based on age and temperament. It is helpful to inform the adults who share your child's care of your spouse's absence and its potential effect on your child. Strong reactions and feelings are normal, but that's not necessarily the case, particularly if the separations are not that frequent or drawn out.
Nadine S. is an expatriate based in Brussels, Belgium, where her husband works for Federal Express. "Pat is not away so often or for so long," she says. "He goes every now and again for three to four days maximum and I've never found it a problem with the kids or myself. Yes we miss him and the girls ask for him, but I explain he has to work and he'll come back as soon as he's done and they accept it."
Some children display undue signs of distress, such as
- Regression to bedwetting
- Doesn't want to go to school or preschool
- Refuses to play or eat
- Becomes withdrawn or sullen
- Displays aggression, anger, or other uncharacteristic behavior
Breaking the News
The Family Support Center in Atlanta, Georgia, suggests that when, how, and what, are questions that must addressed in telling children about a parent's upcoming departure, stating that kids should be informed as soon as possible once plans are defined to allow them to prepare. It's recommended that parents break the news together, because "the together-ness reinforces the concept of family unity in spite of the coming separation." Keep the facts simple and explain that the absence has to do with work and is not the child's fault.
2. Absentee Parenting
Missing the daily weaving of events and emotion that constitute family life makes it difficult for the absentee parent to remain active in the parenting picture. Here many issues come into play.
The importance of phone calls, email, and letters cannot be over emphasized. The military offers numerous resources to help families of deployed service personnel communicate with their loved ones, including video conferencing and a letter preparation kit for those to whom taking up the pen doesn't come naturally, who don't like to write, or wouldn't know where to start.
Bridging Physical Distance
Compounding the feelings of missing the family, not being there to witness a very young child's firsts can be excruciating for a mom or dad, as can missing school events, birthday parties, soccer games, dance recitals, weekends, and holidays.
The following strategies can help provide relief:
- The spouse who stays behind can videotape or photograph special events to be relived and viewed together as a family—this way the kids get to be made a fuss of not once, but twice! If there are no immediate plans for the absentee parent to come home, digital cameras and email can come into play.
- Make the time at home really count. Waldo P., a miner who frequently leaves his wife and children to travel on digs in Chile, advises, "Since you're not home that much, when you are home make every minute count. Spend time with your kids. Look for something fun you can do with them. If we go to the movies, the heck with the cost. I'll buy the biggest pack of popcorn to go with the show and splurge on a nice meal afterwards."
- It helps if the "home base" spouse backs off enough to allow the absentee parent to connect one-on-one with each child.
- Prepare a homemade surprise to be presented to the absentee parent on arrival. The "welcome home" meal can be prepared with the kids as a special touch.
Staying active in the parenting picture is not easy for an absentee parent, nor is it easy for the spouse who stays home to resist the inclination to simply "take over" the entire parenting role, possibly feeling resentment if that's the case.
For Dan Verdick, author of The Business Traveling Parent: How to Stay Close to Your Kids When You're Far Away (Robins Lane Press), that challenge started three years ago when his daughter, Olivia, was born. In his book, Verdick offers a host of techniques, games, and strategies on how to turn business miles into math games, secret-coded email, read-along games that can show business travelers how to turn a few minutes of "down" time on the road to tons of family fun, both for the absentee parent and kids.