Child Caring

When a parent travels, magical thinking can fuel worries

Barbara -

My husband is a consultant and travels during the work week when he has a client - usually for a 3-5 months at a time. He travels home every weekend and we usually Skype with him once in the middle of the week. When he doesn't have a client, he is home pretty full-time with little or no work. This is the life my 1st grader has always known. But as she gets older the transitions are getting a bit harder. Or perhaps, I'm not as good at helping her through them as I was when she was younger.

Specifically, last weekend, she cried over little things that she would normally not even notice. He was spending lots of time with her and she was enjoying it, but I also think she was mad that it would come to an end on Monday.

She also has trouble (although a bit less) adjusting when he comes back full-time.

Any suggestions to make these transitions easier on her?

Thank you.
From: M to F Single Mom, Boston

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Dear M-F Single Mom,

When your daughter was younger, your husband's absence was less of a presence. I
don't mean to be writing in riddles. What I mean is that she was too young to register the absence until he returned. Only then was it dawning on her: "Hey, you left me! What's with that?" With a little time together, dad could get back into her good graces. Now your daughter is older, at a different level of cognition, there's likely lots of magical thinking going on. Not to mention that she's able to keep him in her thoughts while he's gone, and to miss him.

I once interviewed two sisters, then 11 and 13, whose father often for weeks at a time. I remember vividly (perhaps because I was about to do some traveling for work myself and I was worried about my son) what they said.

The younger sister told me, "It makes me kind of angry when he's gone. It's not fair to me." Translation: "I'm missing out on not having my dad around."

The older sister said, "It doesn't bother me so much anymore. I've just gotten used
to it." Translation: Dad's got a lot to make up for.

Occasional travel is one thing. Extended absences for long periods of time is something else. To pretend that they don't take a toll on kids is silly. Of course they do. In some ways, the kind of absence you're describing, where a parent routinely is away for several nights a week, can develop into the family routine and not be as disruptive as now-and-again absences. But that depends on many things including how the left-behind parent copes. If that parent is angry and resentful, it will rub off on the kids.

Here's the good news: Today's technology makes it so much easier for a traveling parent to stay in contact. Don't Skype once a week; do it every night. Build it into the bedtime ritual. In fact, why can't the away-parent read the bedtime story via Skype? Be available to help with homework? Be "sitting" at the dinner table for some conversation?

Other tips:

Don't come home looking like Santa Claus. It's OK to bring a gift once in a while in a "I-saw-this-and-thought-of-you" kind of way. To come home laden with gifts looks like you're feeling guilty and trying to buy forgiveness.

It's OK for the family to have different routines when the traveling parent returns. That makes sense. But it's not OK for the traveler to break the rules the stay-at-home parent established. That's plain disrespectful. If rules are going to change, both parents need to establish that together

Give your daughter permission to feel whatever she feels both while dad is gone (Ask her, "I'm missing daddy; are you?" "I wish dad were here to see you do this. What about you?") and when he returns. He might tell her, "It's OK if you feel angry with me because I was away."

And here's one that's really important: The parent who travels needs to be very clear that he/she travels for work. That it's part of the job. Otherwise, magical thinking could fuel a child to think, "I was bad. That's why mommy/daddy went away." Over time, that kind of thinking can become fact in a child's mind. Do this even when the parent travels weekly, as your husband does, even when it feels like it's just the routine. Because there's that magical thinking again. Children these days, even in first grade, are aware of divorce. The absence can give rise to anxiety: Dad's always gone. My parents are going to get a divorce."

Your daughter suddenly getting angry that Monday is approaching and being unhappy even when dad is home, makes me think there is some kind of magical thinking going on. She might be wondering, "Will dad come back this time? What if he doesn't?" Or she might have some very concrete worries: that have cropped up as she's moved into a new stage of cognition: How does dad eat when he's away? Is the airplane safe?

During times when the three of you are together some weekend, get her thoughts out on the table by giving her permission to talk about them. Dad might say, "I wonder if you're feeling sad that Monday is almost here and I'll have to leave again." See what she says. You may be surprised. Validate whatever feelings she has. Dad can be very clear: "I wish I didn't have to leave on Monday, either. It's the only part of my job I don't like."

As she gets older, of course, the obvious question she will ask is, "Well, why do you have this job?" And that's a topic for another time.

Readers, What has helped in your family when you travel for work?