Sometimes I feel like the wife of a tribesman who goes off to hunt for weeks at a time. Although my husband, Blair, doesn't drag home a buffalo or a bear, he's one of an increasing number of men and women who roam far and wide in order to bring home the bacon.
I assumed that we got married so we could see each other more often. I should have known better. Blair and I began with a long-distance courtship. We didn't live in the same city until we got married. We made our wedding plans by fax and telephone. Our marriage preparation class was done by correspondence course. And after our wedding and then we had children, his work with a large Christian organization continued to take him all over the world, sometimes for three or four weeks at a stretch. Of course, faxes and telephones, e-mail and voice mail help cut across time zones and schedule differences. But communication is more than keeping in touch. And distance does create barriers.
As a periodically abandoned wife, I find transitions the hardest. First there's the adjustment to being alone. Crawling into bed without that familiar lump beside me. Waking up without the smell of coffee or the sound of the shower running. Realizing I can't roll over with a groggy "Your turn" when our child cries in the middle of the night. Days that stretch out seamlessly with no evening or weekend relief from parenting responsibilities.
But gradually life takes on a slightly different rhythm. I read more. I enjoy impromptu outings with our daughter, Megan, without pressure to return home at a certain time. Best of all, I decide how to use those few precious moments of discretionary time. And then, just as I'm settling into life without a daily partner, he's back home, and I have to adjust to having him around again. We resume the thermostat negotiations. He has an opinion about what to have for dinner and what I'm wearing. My single-parent skills must be reabsorbed into a shared parenting approach. It's a roller-coaster lifestyle that can test even the strongest of partnerships. So how do I keep my balance on such a bumpy ride?
Stick to the Routine
I've learned not to deviate too far from our usual routine when Blair's away. I used to regress into a bohemian for the first few days after he left. I'd leave dirty dishes in the sink, eat cereal for dinner, stay up until 2 a.m. Megan and I would slip into the habit of eating meals in front of the TV. It was my way of dealing with the void I felt in Blair's absence. Though it felt good to "let down" for a while, it made resuming the routine harder when he returned. And that Jekyll-and-Hyde transition was no good for me. I panicked at the thought of him surprising me with an early return to find his home had turned into a pigsty. Now we have a real meal whether or not he's there. I keep things in reasonable order. I go to bed more or less at the usual time. Our daughter knows the house rules won't change just because Daddy isn't there. And I have a heart and home ready to welcome my husband back at a moment's notice.
Get a Life
That doesn't mean you'll find me waiting until he gets home for life to begin again. My own interests keep growing, whether Blair's at home or away: serving on the vestry at church (even though it often means having to hire a babysitter for our monthly meetings), exploring the city we live in, taking a parenting class, building relationships in our neighborhood. I look for outlets for my creative side and listen for God to show me new things from his Word. These help me maintain a sense of my individual calling.
Blair, too, needs a personal life when he's at home. At first, we felt an obligation to stick together whenever we weren't apart. What a relief when we decided we could do things separately! When he gets away for a few hours at the health club, he comes home invigorated, and we're both more pleasant at the dinner table.
The Independence Issue
The danger, of course, is becoming too independent. I've learned to curtail the busyness of my "other" life so Blair's not totally abandoned. But it's not so easy to balance self-sufficiency with the vulnerability that's essential for an intimate relationship. My friend Val, after thirty years with a man who travels the world, still cries on the way home from the airport. She's never gotten used to saying good-bye. Hmmm. I was hoping it would get easier.
It's tempting to fill the loneliness with relationships that dilute the need for my husband. But the safest way to satisfy my craving for emotional intimacy is to cultivate my relationship with God. If I stay connected to the Lord, I'm more likely to stay emotionally connected with my spouse—and less likely to fall prey to inappropriate substitutions for his friendship.
But I do seek out people who can share the trivia of my day, things that are too ridiculous to merit long-distance telephone time with Blair. My neighbor Joan hears many of these details: the triumph of finding jeans that fit, the frustration of waiting at home all day for the plumber to show up. It's that overwhelming need for connection that gave me the courage to start a mothers group at our church. When Blair's away, I have more one-on-one time for single friends. I've been forced to seek out the wisdom of older friends and family for perspective on issues I'm facing. I may have missed some of this collective wisdom if Blair were always accessible. Extended family and friends of all ages become an essential part of my life as a part-time single parent.
When I'm tempted to feel sorry for myself, it helps to remember I'm not the only one of my kind. Other left-at-home spouses face the same challenges. I value their wisdom.
"How do you do it?" I ask my friend Becki, a veteran travel widow. She's in her fifteenth year of being mom and dad to four children while her husband's on the road. I've learned from Becki not to assume I'm the only one in my family making sacrifices. She's right. But when you're at home with a four year old eating macaroni and cheese and watching Barney, it's easy to resent hearing your husband tell about his fascinating conversation over a delicious Chinese meal.
On the other hand, I've done enough traveling to know my husband's work isn't glamorous. He loves his job, but he's not exactly thrilled with being an exile from his home and family. He could tell you a few things about the loneliness and isolation of life on the road.
Diane's another of my heroes. She manages three little ones while her husband is gone Monday through Friday week after week. But she has no time for sympathy. She remembers when her husband Tom had a 9-to-5 job. "We were both miserable," she tells me. I know what she means. Like Diane, I prefer a happy husband who leaves me now and then to an unhappy husband who comes home every night. But once in a while I need to review and renew my commitment to our mutual calling. It is, after all, my constancy on the homefront that makes it possible for Blair to do what he does. At those times, it helps to have a little conversation with God that goes something like this: Okay, Father, I know you called us together to this lifestyle. And you promised you'll give me what I need to do my part. And then I'm ready to get back to it.
One of my roles is smoothing Blair's re-entry into life after his long absences. I'm constantly reminding him of our neighbors' names, briefing him on happenings at church, bringing him up-to-date on community events.
I admit I went overboard on this at first. I had his life organized for him. He was a virtual prisoner the moment he put down his suitcase. When he returned home from a trip one time and asked to speak to the management, I got the message. Sure, I'm the one who spends more time at home, and yes, I know more about how things work and who's who. But it's worth the effort to keep him involved in the decision-making process. I make it a point to ask his advice on questions concerning the homefront. I especially try to keep him current with Megan's latest phase. However, he's old enough to be home alone with her without a long list of instructions.
The Idealized Absentee
Absence not only can make the heart grow fonder, it can create a wonderful fantasy. I tend to focus only on Blair's best qualities when he's gone. He's always thoughtful. So romantic. So capable. No wonder the reality is somewhat disappointing when he does reappear! I'd forgotten he also snores. Too much wishing "If only Blair were here" may turn into the reverse: "If only he weren't here." Better to do without the wishful thinking altogether.
The man who comes walking in my door after a long flight has needs of his own. I've learned my international traveler isn't really home the moment he lands. I no longer expect to see him coming up the drive in shining armor, ready to rescue me from the stresses of being a stay-at-home mom. I no longer greet him with the questions and concerns I've stored up since he took off. I know he's weary and sick of airline food. I know what he needs most is a simple home-cooked meal, a chance to read the mail, time with our daughter, and a good night's sleep.
And then we can talk about his buffalo hunt.
Elizabeth Carlson is a freelance writer who lives with her family in Minnesota.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.