child caring

The traveling parent...

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / May 27, 1993

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When Sheila Scrudato returned from a 10-day trip to England, eager and excited to see her son, Evan Arnold, then 2, she was in for a big disappointment.

"You get off the plane and want him to leap into your arms," she says. But Evan didn't want to hug her or even be close to her. For days, he was alternately quiet and cranky, not talking to her much, not even looking her in the eyes.

Evan's reaction fueled Scrudato's guilt about having left him. A single, working mother, she says, "It was hard to forgive myself for it, especially since that was a trip for pleasure, not business."

That homecoming was so unpleasant that it has prompted Scrudato to turn down some work assignments that involve travel, despite the potential negative effect on her career as an insurance broker. When she must travel, she practically puts herself through hoops, taking flights at dawn and returning deep into the night, in order to be home in the morning when Evan, now 4, wakes up. When she travels for pleasure with her fiance, she goes on weekends, when Evan is at his father's house.

Parents have always traveled, of course, for work and for pleasure. But with changes in the workplace and with the increasing numbers of mothers who work, parents who travel today often find themselves and their children in situations that are unusual if not downright tricky.

For Sonya and Abigail Satinsky of Jamaica Plain, 14 and 11 respectively, their father, Dan, might as well be dropping into a black hole every four to six weeks. Director of marketing for a local company developing telecommunications in the former USSR, he spends two to three weeks at a time in Russia, where mail and telephone service are so poor that an occasional fax is the only contact he has with them and his wife, Dinah Vaprin.

Do situations like these take a toll on children?

"It makes me kind of angry," says Abigail. "It's not fair to me. Last year, he wasn't home for my birthday."

"It doesn't bother me so much anymore," says Sonya. "I've just gotten used to it."

It's a given that a parent's travels bring stress for children, says developmental psychologist Ellen Hock, a professor at Ohio State University who studies family issues.

She tells parents to imagine that each child has a hypothetical limit of 20 stresses per week. "If two get used up by your being away, you need to compensate," she says.

There are many ways to to do this; not all are helpful. Consider, for instance, the tendency to bring gifts home.

"It's OK if you keep it simple," says educational psychologist Judith Schaut. "It's one thing to say, 'I saw this and I thought about you, I know how much you like these.' " But it's quite something else, she says, if you come home loaded down like Santa Claus, "as though you are trying to buy your child's forgiveness and assuage your guilt."

Similarly, says Schaut, "Many parents try to compensate for the other parent's absence by letting a child stay up late, or having pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This backfires."

For one thing, it can tire out the parent who is at home, trying to dream up all these activities. Worse, it can make a child resent the returning parent, who comes in looking like a heavy because she engages in normal limit- setting. "The child thinks, 'We were having fun until you came home,' " says Schaut, who is an associate professor of education at Bucknell University. Her area of specialty is children and families.

Another mistake parents make is to think that it's only upsetting if a mother goes away.

"Even if the father is not the primary caregiver, his absence upsets the family system. He's not there to lend support, whatever shape that support takes," says Hock.

Dinah Vaprin, who works in public relations at New England Medical Center, says she and Sonya get into more disagreements when her husband is away. "I'm the only person for her to deal with, and I'm more tired and cranky than I would usually be."

Of course, with more mothers in the work force, more mothers are traveling for work. Hock says research shows this has no negative effect on a child's development as long as there's continuity in her absence. "An after-school activity shouldn't have to be missed because you aren't there," she says.

Equally important is the timing of your traveling. Babies between 1 3/4 and 2 1/2 years old are probably the most vulnerable to separation, according to pediatrician Benjamin Spock, author of the best seller, "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, Sixth Edition" (Pocket Books). He tells parents with babies this age to avoid traveling for the first time.

A child who has just started kindergarten and has little experience with separation could be extremely vulnerable to a parent's absence, too, says Schaut.

Children of all ages need a concrete explanation of why a parent is going away. Left to his own devices, a 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old may think Daddy is leaving because she was bad. Or that Daddy is never coming back.

Tell this age child specifically why you are going away: "For work." Outline who will take care of her -- "Daddy will still be here and Grandma will stay here, too!" -- and tell how long you'll be gone. The more concrete you can be, the better. Sheila Scrudato uses airplane paraphernalia and maps and pictures to help Evan understand.

Hock urges parents never to "sneak" out or leave without telling children. "That reinforces a sense of isolation and abandonment, for any age child," she says.

Even if you travel every week and it's part of the family routine, even if your child is school-age, you still need to give an explanation each time you go, Schaut says. "There's too much information on divorce out there -- on the playground, on TV -- that can give rise to a child's anxiety," she explains.

Despite the worldly-wise ways of children the ages of Sonya and Abigail Satinsky, a traveling parent poses a difficulty for them because preteens typically are trying to figure out their relationships with their parents. ''That's a hard enough thing to do when your parents are around," says Schaut. "Having a parent who's away a lot makes it even harder to figure out: 'Am I a significant part of his or her life?' "

Schaut says one way to keep a connection with this age child is to study together the country you are going to. "Work out some questions together -- 'What music do Russian teen-agers like?' -- and become a source of data collection. It's a way of saying, 'I've taken the time to find this out for you. I still care. I'm still involved.' " Schaut acknowledges this can be energy- and time-consuming. "It's worth it," she says.

While parents may underestimate the impact of their absence, they can overestimate the response to their return. As Scrudato found out, "They're not always happy to see you," says Hock.

Immersing yourself in your child's activities when you return feels good to you, but it could feel smothering to him, says Schaut. "You have to get back into your child's life in a way that's comfortable to both. You don't want them to feel you are limiting independence, especially with older kids."

Dan Satinsky says it always takes a "real effort" and a few days for him to get back into his daughters' lives. He makes a point of finding individual time with each child.

Transitions for younger children can be even harder. Spock says it's not unusual for a toddler or preschooler to be perfectly behaved while you're away, only to fall apart when you return, as Evan Arnold did. He says, "It's as though a child is saying, 'You are the most important person in my life and you deserted me. I was in terror while you were gone. Now that you're back, I feel safer. I can let go of this resentment.' "

Recognizing, allowing for and talking about all these emotions and adjustments can be very helpful to everyone and can even go a long way toward reducing stress, according to Hock. If that's true, the Scrudato-Arnold and Satinsky-Vaprin families may be in better shape than they realize.

"I always tell Evan exactly what's going to happen and I always make sure that what I tell him is what happens," says Scrudato, who admits she gets panicky when planes get delayed.

And even though Sonya and Abigail Satinsky have hostile feelings about their dad's traveling, they have good ones, too.

"Sometimes I tell my friends that my dad's away and I don't like it. But I don't love him any less," says Abigail.

Sonya says, "It's not like he's doing something irresponsible. My dad is doing something he's always wanted to do. So I respect him for that. And I respect my mom, too, for staying home and taking on the responsibility of two parents."


- Young children need only two or three days' notice that you are going away. School-age children need more time, about a week, because they are able to plan for themselves.

- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns and school performance are clues that traveling is causing anxiety. Watch also for fear of separation even when you're home, such as not wanting to leave you to go to school or reluctance to go to bed.

- When you are both going away on a vacation, here's a good explanation for why you can't take your child: "It's important to a family that moms and dads have some time alone together, just like we sometimes each have time alone to do something with you. When we come back, we'll each do something special with you. What would you like to do?"

- Preschoolers and young school-age children need concrete reminders of when you'll return. Six- and 7-year-olds can mark off a calendar. For younger children, make a paper chain, where they can pull off a piece a day.

- Compensate for an absence before and after you leave. If you're going away for two weeks on Monday, be available all that weekend, "even if it means cutting out your tennis game," says psychologist Ellen Hock.

- With babies and children under 5, consistency of the caregiver is critical when you travel. Don't bring in a baby sitter your child doesn't know well.
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