Gorgeous airplane shot by Rachel Marie Photography…such beautiful photos to peruse here.
Parenting is tough stuff, and when you are going at it alone most of the time, it can feel impossible. After Mike graduated with his Master’s he was offered a consulting job that was a great fit for his skill set and his future career goals. The catch was that it would often require Monday-Thursday travel. We had 4 boys and lived 2,500 miles from family. After a million pro/con lists and hours of prayer, we decided to give it a go.
My 3 oldest children were 9, 7, and 6, and my baby was one. Mike traveled like this for about 18 months. While the boys’ ages made the physical demands a bit easier, it was emotionally challenging because they were old enough to realize that dad wasn’t home much. We went into the situation with eyes open, but below are some things we learned along the way. With the world becoming increasingly global, more and more families are in this spot…hopefully these ideas can ease the strain of having a traveling spouse.
1. Start with a solid foundation. If your marriage is on the rocks or if there are trust issues, a traveling career will most likely exacerbate those insecurities. Don’t even think about it unless you marriage is on good footing.
2. Make the traveling decision together. This is crucial. Weigh all the options and decide together if it is the best thing for your career and your family. This makes all the difference during the most difficult times…you can both look back and remember that you both said you would do this, together.
3. Take time for yourself. If you have the means, don’t feel guilty about using a babysitter. Using a babysitter allows you to feel like you are missing out much less often. Find someone you can count on and pay them well. If money is tight, save up for when you really need it. If there is no money at all, trade with someone. You need to have a little time each week for yourself. When I took time during the week to get out, I didn’t have such a need to escape when Mike got home. This allowed us to have much needed family time instead of constantly separate parenting time; our kids needed us to all be together as much as possible.
4. Get your grown up time in. I found that more than anything else, I missed having adult conversation when Mike was on the road. So, take all the opportunities during the day that you can to hang out with adults…play dates, school functions, gym classes, book clubs, etc. Also, if there is someone who is single or has a spouse who works weird hours, do dinner together once a week. It made a huge difference to talk with adults every day.
5. Set up a time to call and connect. This is crucial for the traveling spouse. Encourage the kids to talk and show him/her all their cool stuff every day. This allows everyone to stay connected. Finding the right time for the two of you to talk is also incredibly important. At the end of the day we were both exhausted and distracted, so we decided to chat during Mike’s lunch break or while he was in the car. This gave us some uninterrupted talk time when we were both more emotionally available. When we tried to talk too late, it never turned out great. Usually just a quick good night, and we both had to be okay with that.
6. Keep your kids positive and grateful. I tried to never complain to my boys that their dad was gone or missing things. Mike hated not being there and I never wanted them to think he was happy to be missing out. I always tried to remind my kids that their dad was working hard so that I had the opportunity to stay home with them. I wanted to be sure they knew he hated missing out even more than they hated having him gone. Even when I was especially frustrated, I tried to stay positive for them.
7. Plan for the things that matter. Even with traveling jobs, there is often some flexibility for important occasions. Decide together what those are for your family, and have the traveler do his or her best to be home on those dates. Sometimes it just won’t happen and that is okay, but at least try. One more tip along these lines, the traveling spouse has to realize how important it is to be home on the weekends. Minimize extras that take him or her away. I was always okay Monday-Thursday, but when it seeped into Friday, started on Sunday or when he had too many individual needs to take care of on Saturday, it made things especially difficult.
8. Make real food. I know this is weird but one of the best/worst things about a traveling spouse is that there is no one to cook for. Lots of times I would feel sick at the end of the week and realize I hadn’t really made eating or eating healthy food a priority. A few months in I tried to change that so that we were all eating better food. I would also go out with the kids once a week for a little variety. This worked well since Mike was hoping to have some home cooking after being on the road, and I was happy to have someone home who appreciated the effort I put into a good dinner.
9. Give yourself permission to break down. You are not a bad mom because you can’t always do everything and stay happy. You will have bad days. You will cry on the floor. You will miss games for one kid and recitals for another. You will forget due dates for science projects and probably not log as many reading minutes as you had planned to. You will feel like a failure and you will want to call it quits pretty often. One parent cannot do and be everything, and that is okay. Just keep doing your best and know your limits. I knew that after 8pm, I was worthless and grumpy, so the rule was everyone needed to ask for everything they needed before then…that meant bedtime stories, homework help, drinks of water, even hugs…all of it. After 8, I became a monster.
9. Decide what will happen when the traveler returns home. You might think this will happen naturally, but it doesn’t. Mike was always so excited to see me and the kids, he just wanted to be together. I was so excited to be able to have a minute to myself, I just wanted to walk out the door. He, as the one gone all the time, sometimes forgot what it was like to have 4 crazy kids and would be a bit impatient when things didn’t go smoothly with the boys. I would be frustrated at his impatience and over parent, making him feel unwanted and like he was ruining our groove. Obviously, this caused more contention than harmony. Once we realized what we both needed and how to meet those needs, things went so much better. All it took was about an hour alone for me so I could recharge and a little preparation and self-awareness on his part…pretty simple.
10. Take your date nights. It is hard when the traveler hasn’t seen the kids much to leave again, but you have to keep your marriage strong…it is essential to spend good, alone time together when you are away from each other so often, so make it a priority. If you are still feeling guilty, go after the kids are in bed or after a full Saturday together!
11. Talk about sex. This might be uncomfortable, but it is a conversation that you will need to have. Maybe the person home will need a little space, and maybe the one who has been gone will need extra affection. You will be seeing each other much less often, and you have to keep that portion of your relationship alive. You both might have to be a little extra sensitive and be willing to see things through the eyes of your spouse in order to make things work. Don’t think it doesn’t matter…it does!
12. Find a safe time to talk about frustrations. One of the hardest things about having a traveling spouse was that while we were both okay, neither one of us enjoyed NOT being together. This would cause some real frustrations on both sides. When Mike was frustrated or especially missing us, he would want to just find a new job, which would put me on edge. When I was frustrated or overly emotional, he would feel guilty about accepting the job in the first place. These types of conversations never ended well. We should have said something like, “I know that this job is what we are supposed to be doing right now, but this part of life is so frustrating. Can we do something to change it or is this something we just need to get through? Is there anything we can do to make it easier?”
13. Ask for help. If you have more than one child, chances are, you will need some assistance. Work out carpools, talk to coaches and teachers, sign up for lessons that are close by, simplify if you can. You will be surprised at how often two things happen at once and how badly everyone needs you at the same time. You will need an extra adult hand at times, so prepare for this…grandparents, neighbors, or friends will hopefully be willing to share their time, love and gas with your family during those emergencies. Be grateful and helpful in return.
The most important thing is to have each other’s back. Ideally, your spouse would have a job 5 minutes from home that was low stress, 4o hours per week and paid well. He or she would be able to be at the school for midday programs, be able to coach teams, drive one way of the carpool and always be home for dinner, refreshed and willing to help. Life is rarely ideal, but with a little effort, it can be manageable and even enjoyable, most of the time. And, if it is not, keep looking and hold on…a better fit might be just around the corner !