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HOME ALONE … with the Kids

Survive—and even thrive—when your spouse is on the road

My husband has traveled for business for as long as we've been married. When we moved to Hong Kong a few years ago, Steve's travel increased to the point where he's away more than 50 percent of the time. Needless to say, I've grown accustomed to coping as a solo parent of our four children.

This lifestyle is no picnic. Last December, Steve missed every Christmas event, from our second grader's performance as Joseph in his school pageant, to our high schooler's band concert, to a special holiday ball we were invited to. So I put my party dress back into the closet and loaded my camera with fresh film to document the holiday events for Dad to see when he returned.

Am I bitter? I'm not. Disappointed at times, yes. But bitter, no.

Amazingly, after years of this rather demanding lifestyle, our marriage and family are stronger and more unified than ever. God has been faithful to honor our desire to be a strong, healthy family despite Steve's travel, but we still have to work hard to keep our family close.

If you've got a spouse who travels, even if it's only an occasional trip, you've probably felt some of the unique pressures that can wreak havoc on a family. We've found that with extra effort and a little creativity, we can lessen the negative impact of Dad's (or Mom's) absence.


OPEN the lines of communication


Separations are not easy or ideal, but sometimes they are unavoidable?military duty, business opportunities, mission work, advanced education. A commitment to communication is critical to keeping your relationship on solid ground during times apart.

Double your efforts to communicate with each other. And take the extra time to help kids communicate with the absent parent, too. Take full advantage of technology: e-mail, faxes, voice mail.

"When my wife, Kristen, was traveling overseas," says Dave, a dad from Los Altos, California, "it was difficult for her to call during times when the kids were home and awake. She admitted she didn't like calling home at those times because at least one child would always say something that would be hard for her, like ?Can't you come home today?' So we switched to e-mail."

Another traveling mom, Mary, hides notes for her daughter to find while she's on a business trip. "They'll say something like: ?Thanks for practicing the piano,' or funny things: ?Is Dad driving you nuts yet?' or even a reminder: ?Keep feeding the cats!' I keep a count of them so when I call she can tell me how many she's found."

The kids need to know their absent parent is accessible. When my son Gary was chosen to be on a special basketball team, he wanted to call his dad with the news. To my surprise, he called Steve's cell phone?interrupting a business meeting in South Africa. (Oops!)

Apparently, I hadn't made it clear that the kids should call Steve's office number to leave a message on voice mail. Still it was wonderful that Gary felt he could contact his dad anywhere, anyplace, anytime. And to his credit, Steve welcomed the interruption. It gives the kids a sense of security and importance to know that Dad wants to hear about what's happening to them?hot off the press!


INVOLVE the family


You can use your spouse's travel to teach your children more about the world we live in. They'll discover new places and feel more connected to the parent who's gone when they know something about where he or she is going.

Our interest level skyrockets when we know what Steve is doing on a business trip, how he's getting there, with whom he's meeting and why. I keep his itinerary on the refrigerator so everyone knows where Dad is and when to expect him home. Another family we know keeps a map in their family room with pins marking their dad's current and past trips.

Whenever you can, let one of your children travel with Mom or Dad. It allows them to experience the world and learn about other people and places. One little girl thought her father just flew in planes all day. Once she went on a trip with him, she learned there was a whole lot more to his travels.

Once a year, I accompany Steve on a trip; what an eye-opener! By the end, I hate the thought of getting on another airplane or even eating in another restaurant?a good reminder on days when I feel his work is more glamorous than mine.


TAKE CARE of yourself


Edna St. Vincent Millay tells us: "My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night." By nurturing your own needs, you will be better equipped to meet those of your children and your spouse.

It's essential for solo parents to find other friends in similar situations for support and help. Take the initiative; don't wait for someone to find you.

Realize that days when a parent leaves are the hardest ones to get through for both you and your children. Plan a distraction: go to the movies, go out for supper, have friends over, indulge in an affordable luxury.


PROTECT the re-entry


One author writes that the "greatest adventure of our lives is finding our way back home." Walking in the door should be a highlight, but often it's the moment when everyone vents. Mom's tired of the kids; the kids are tired of Mom. Dad is fatigued and is bombarded with a litany of complaints or demands as soon as he opens the door.

Aim for a sanctified "re-entry period." Give the anticipated homecoming some thought and preparation?a special meal, a sign on the door, a warm hug. If you've communicated well during the time apart, most problems can wait.

There will be, and should be, an appropriate time for the family's concerns to be aired. But not just now.


SUPPORT the marathoner


As the spouse at home, it's perfectly natural to expect your returning spouse to offer understanding and support for the long hours you've been putting in. But simply handing over the reigns is bound to add stress to the readjustment period. Instead, find ways to make the transition from one parent back to two go smoothly.

Steve returns home with more tolerance for misbehavior in the kids than I have after caring for them alone for so long. I try to cue him ahead of time about taxing situations in which I'd like his support.

I also ask him to support my house hold routines, like bedtimes or curfews. This keeps me from being labeled the "household nag" and Dad as the perpetual "good guy."

Work together as a team. Your different approaches can be your greatest strength if you discuss thorny issues and respond to the children as a unified front. Try not to interfere with your spouse's relationship with the kids. Too often I'll jump into conflicts that occur between my husband and our kids shortly after he returns. I'm so accustomed to reacting as a solo parent, I end up interfering with Steve's involvement in their lives.

"Don't overprotect Dad from the kids," cautions child and adolescent therapist Beth Quinn. "He needs to deal with them; he needs to work out his relationship with them."


PAY ATTENTION to the family's needs


Having a member of the household gone can create stresses in the family that are easy to miss. Children might become less emotionally involved with the parent who travels. The spouse who's often alone might start to feel resentful and pass that resentment on to the kids. That's why it's essential that both parents continue to assess the effects of the separations.

Our friends Kathy and Jim are leaving Hong Kong this summer. They both feel that Jim's frequent travel is adversely affecting their teenagers. Jim and Kathy are wise to prioritize childrens' needs over business opportunities. If Steve and I ever sense that our children are being shortchanged, we will make a change, too.

Pray diligently for your family and your marriage. Pray for protection from harm and evil, for the strength of your marriage, for a godly love for each other and for the children's sense of security and well-being.


LOOK for the blessings


Believe it or not, a traveling spouse can be a blessing. With one parent in charge, daily routines are easily established and less complicated. I've learned to enjoy my late-night solitude?reading, writing or working on a project.

Our marriage has grown. Because we're apart so often, we really miss and appreciate one another, never taking each other for granted.

The travel we've enjoyed?all from Steve's frequent flier miles?is a rare privilege. We never could've hauled four kids around the world and seen so many cultures were it not for Steve's international assignment.

I'm wiser as a mother because of the time I spend parenting alone. I've learned to discern what's important and what's not in order to conserve emotional reserves.

In Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby shares his experience with frequent absences from home while on the mission field: "We believed that God would show us how to relate to our children in a way that would make up for the lost time with them. Now, I could not let that become an excuse for neglecting my family." Years later, all five of Blackaby's children sensed a call to ministry or mission work. "Only God could have done such a beautiful work with our children. I want you to know that you can trust God with your family!"

Amen.

Suzanne Woods Fisher and her husband, Steve, live in Hong Kong with their four children. She is a freelance writer and adviser to Christian Parenting Today.

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