Joyful reunions may be laced with an undercurrent of feelings—once the initial novelty of the reunion has worn off, some not-so-joyful emotions may set in.
Frederick Medway, professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina and spokesman for the American Psychological Association confirms that business travel is stressful for all involved. "Generally, what you find is that a lot of that stress becomes manifested when people come home. It's when you have face-to-face contact that the problems emerge."
The spouse who stays behind to take care of the kids, shuttling them to their activities in addition to helping with homework, possibly maintaining a job, dealing with medical family emergencies and whatever other responsibilities he or she may have, has probably been counting the minutes for Frequent Flyer to come home and provide a much needed breather. Being in charge of the home base while a spouse or partner takes off for days, weeks, or months at a time has suddenly thrust a whole bunch of responsibilities on the remaining set of shoulders.
Once the frequent traveler is due back, the spouse at home may have placed a cozy, romantic dinner of being waited on (for a change!) at a restaurant high on the list of priorities, while that desire may be the farthest from the traveling spouse's wishes since he or she's had enough of eating out and simply longs for a quiet meal at home. As in most family situations, communication and being willing to give and take are crucial.
Discipline and Decisions
The spouse who's been away may feel dissatisfied with the way discipline, child-rearing, financial and/or home running decisions were made during the absence, possibly giving rise to defensive, "You weren't there!" responses from the homefront spouse. He or she may want some say in changing the family's routine around or reversing decisions made during the absence.
When her husband Tim would come back for the weekend after time away, Nina says, "Sometimes he'd expect to just fit right back into the spot he left and obviously feels that he missed something. Tim seemed to try and overcompensate sometimes, and there would be discipline conflicts between the way he would approach something and the way I would. Although this happens all the time in any relationship, it was more pronounced when he was trying to fit back into his role."
Fiona L., a Canadian lawyer whose husband travels for weeks at a time, says that in her household, discipline is not an issue. Her struggle centers more on having her husband fit in with the family's way of doing things when he does come home. When it comes to discipline, she says, "We're on the same page. I'm the one who reviews schoolwork, looks at the tests, and makes them go to bed on time. For me the issue is that the absentee husband has to understand that life runs without him. He needs to fit in. If he doesn't like it he can either include more input or hang around more. Paul can't zoom in and question why we are doing what we're doing at this time of day. Well, it's so I can comply with everything I have to do and exist. The schedule's there for a reason but he can't seem to get it. I can shuffle a few things around to accommodate him but not everything."
In my own situation, I feel it's important for the spouse who's been gone to time his return home to coincide with some "down" time with the family, not when he's got to rush off to work immediately after. He needs to take the time to "woo" the kids (and his wife, too!) back into the relationship, not expect them to make the first steps after the initial, "Great, Daddy's home," reaction. Small children may feel resentment or anger, even betrayal that a parent's been gone, and may not want to fold right away into the parental embrace. Showing consistent affection and respect for those feelings will help ease the transition, as will finding fun activities to enhance time spent together.
Kevin Nelson, author of The Daddy Guide, a Guide for New and Expectant Fathers (NTC Contemporary) agrees. In his article, Tips for Dads Who Travel he advises the absentee parent to expect a readjustment period and do some detective work. "Spend some time with your kids," he says. "Get down on the floor and play dolls or cars or whatever they're into. Check in with Mom to see if there's anything you need to know. Some circuit-riding fathers blow in, point out all the things that are wrong and need to be corrected in the house, and then ride out of town again. Who needs that? Ease yourself into your family's schedule and routine, rather than asking everyone to adjust to you. Dad travels. He goes away, he always comes back home. You don't want it to be a disruptive or unique thing, just an ordinary fact of family life."
Finally, let's face it: though manning (or "womaning") the home front solo and being on the road or in the skies a lot may not be a piece of cake, both have their advantages. Every relationship has its quirks and inbred irritants, so once in a while each partner gets some space from the other and a chance to rediscover all the positive aspects that brought the couple together in the first place. Also, if one spouse is constantly whisking in and out of the other's life, then routine and some of the drudgery it entails can cheerfully be thrown out the window. Meeting after a parting during which each spouse has missed the other lends spice and glamour to a relationship, bringing romance back in the door (as long as the absences aren't too frequent or prolonged, giving rise to heartbreak and 'where-were-you-when' type reproaches).
After all, how many long-married wives still get their hair fixed and dress up to go meet their husbands? And how many husbands still shop around for flowers or a nice gift to bring home to their wives?