My husband, Rael, and I both travel for work.
His is the more “official” business travel given his more formal work setup; every six weeks or so, he spends a week in the office (he’s telecommuted from home to jobs based in other cities ever since we moved to Portland 12 years ago). He sometimes attends a few conferences and professional meetups as well.
Since I started Parent Hacks in 2005, I’ve had the opportunity to travel for work. Most often, my travel amounts to a few days spent at a social media conference twice a year. But during the last 12 months I’ve gone to more conferences and meetings than usual. My travel highlight was spending nine days in Ethiopia with the ONE Campaign.
Traveling for work is one of our favorite things about our jobs. But it can also throw a logistical and emotional wrench into family life. “Reentry” after business travel can be hard on everyone. I did an informal poll of friends and neighbors, and most tell me they struggle with the adjustment when a parent travels for work.
It took us a long time to find equilibrium around business travel, but we did. We’re now both better able to support each other and our kids (and even enjoy it) no matter which one of us is traveling.
Here are our tips, some for helping the kids adjust, others for helping maintain relationship harmony:
Before you go
1. Prepare the kids ahead of time.
Depending on how often you or your partner travels and the age and temperament of your kids, travel may be a big event or no big deal. Take your cue from the kids as to how you talk about impending travel. If they want to feel involved, let them help you pack and give you a special memento to hold while you’re gone. No matter what: keep the tone positive, keep the details brief and specific, and explain that work travel is not the same as going on vacation.
2. Set reasonable expectations about communication.
I’ve learned the hard way that daily communication expectations has its pitfalls. Sometimes there’s no cell coverage. Other times, one’s unavailable or forgets to call during the windows the kids are home and/or awake.
Another tough balance: too much communication can upset kids who are missing Mom or Dad.
It’s not just the kids; missed calls can also leave the at-home parent feeling abandoned and alone. Do everyone a favor and agree on more reasonable communication expectations before you go.
3. Agree upon what constitutes an emergency.
Obviously parents need to be able to reach each other in case of an emergency. But be sure you both agree on what qualifies as an emergency. I once called my husband multiple times in a panic about something that happened at my son’s school. My feelings were valid, but I interrupted my husband several times while he was in an important meeting, and we both ended up feeling disrespected and unheard. It took me a long time to acknowledge (to him and to myself) that the matter really could have waited.
4. Go through the calendar together.
Review the family’s plans during the time a parent is traveling and the week after. Cancel plans as necessary to keep things simple and restful.
5. Plan ahead for transition time.
Before you go, plan for a date night, some one-on-one kid time, and some recovery time after you return. Try not to make plans on the day after you arrive home. If you have to return to work the next day, try to keep the next evening free.
6. Get yourself to and from the airport.
If the fare is reasonable, getting a cab or shuttle to and from the airport (or asking a friend to drive you) makes travel much easier on the kids.
7. Optional: buy a small gift for the kids before you leave.
8. Use calendars and pictures to make it tangible for the kids.
Mark the travel days on a calendar. Look at pictures of the hotel. Locate the destination on a map. During one of her business trips, my friend Christine left a box for her daughter with one small gift to unwrap each day while she was gone.
9. Give each other time to share and/or vent.
After you check in with the kids, be sure to give your partner time as well. Each parent — the traveler and the one at home — needs permission and space to share about their days, troubleshoot, and vent.
10. Pay extra attention to tone of voice.
Tread carefully here. Any hint of resentment, sarcasm, irritation or boredom will be amplified. Make an extra effort to listen with compassion, and understand each others’ perspectives. Easier said than done, especially if one person is staying at a cushy hotel and getting uninterrupted sleep…but it gets easier with practice.
11. Take the opportunity to switch things up.
For the parent at home: how about breakfast for dinner? Or inviting a friend and her kids over during the evening? Or surprising the kids with early dinner and a weeknight DVD? Sometimes the change of dynamic is welcome and exciting for everyone.
12. For the parent at home: simplicity, and self-care.
Above all else, simplify everything as much as you can so you can a) conserve your energy and b) make room for a little extra self-care. Consider a babysitter so you can have a night off.
After you return
13. Be ready to listen.
A lot happened while you were away, and the kids (and your partner) will want to tell you about it. The easiest way to switch gears when you get home is to listen and hug (a lot).
14. Express appreciation.
Both the traveling- and at-home parent deserve empathy and appreciation. Try as hard as you can to be happy for each others’ triumphs, and to understand each others’ struggles, even if they bear little resemblance to yours.
15. Give each person time to recover in his or her own way.
Both travel and solo parenting can be exhausting. Each person needs recovery time and space.
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There are bound to be some pent-up feelings and hair-trigger moods after business travel. Family members at home get into a “groove” that takes time to adjust after a parent comes home. If you can, expect a little friction (it’s temporary) and do your best to under-react and respond with love.
Do you have any tried-and-true tips for making work travel easier on the family? Please share them in the comments!
Asha Dornfest is the co-author of Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More By Doing Less and publisher of Parent Hacks, a site crammed with tips for making family life easier.