A few years ago Cliff was stuck at an airport gate, waiting to board a delayed flight (again). He sat across from a group of women who were clearly headed to New York for a girls’ getaway. One mom appeared to need the trip the most. Every few moments her phone would ring, presumably her husband calling, and she’d impatiently answer some basic question, such as where diapers were kept. Cliff over heard one conversation; which from one side sounded something like this:
“Well, yes, it’s supper time. It’s reasonable to think they’d be hungry.”
“There’s a box of mac and cheese in the cabinet.”
“The pots are under the stove. Fill one with water and cover it. Wait until it boils, then dump the macaroni in – but remove the cheese packet first. Then …”
You get the point.
This is an extreme example (and after clarifying with Cliff, he says it was maybe sarcasm on the woman’s part, and not necessarily entirely reflective of reality), but the truth remains: travel is tough, on the parent who is on the go, and the one that gets left behind. Cliff and I have traveled extensively at various points in our careers. (You may recall my theory that my children wait to come down with extreme illnesses – like chicken pox – until one of us has left the state.) As a result, we’ve become pros at leaving well: making sure the basics are covered at home before we dash for the airport.
Leaving your spouse in good shape when you travel for work is a multi-layered process. Think of it as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for being a good partner while working out of town.
At the base of the pyramid:
Can you answer yes to all these questions?
- Do both parents have the number for your pediatrician in your phone? For your children’s school? For back up babysitters?
- Do both partners have a good grasp on daily routines? What time Johnny needs to be at school? Where the soccer uniform is kept for Jane’s after school practice? Which neighborhood kids are welcome in the house, and which are not?
- Can both partners fix macaroni and cheese or other basic meals? Know children’s preference?
Moving up the pyramid:
If you’re the parent that is high-tailing it out of town, have you:
- Thought through the extra responsibilities you always take care of, and covered them in your absence? As an example – do you always pack school lunches? Write the check for daycare? Pay the utility bills? If there’s something your spouse is likely to forget because it’s always your job … take care of it.
- Thought ahead to potential needs that you could cover? Sure, your spouse wouldn’t forget to do this stuff – or it could just go undone, but you can score bonus points by covering them before you leave. This is stuff like mowing the lawn, arranging a babysitter for a pre-existing conflict, or reaching stuff on the high shelves that your short wife (hypothetically) struggles to reach.
At the top of the pyramid:
Once you’ve covered the basics, you can turn your attention to caring for your family’s emotional needs in your absence. For our kids, we try to:
- Do FaceTime conversations every other day or so, to stay connected with the absent parent.
- Leave notes on pillows, or film a quick video on our iPhones as a goodnight message.
- Send photos of goofy things we find while traveling.
- Bring small gifts home.
And to stay connected to each other, we try to check in (by text) once or twice a day, with evening phone calls when the schedule permits. More recently, we’ve started sending a daily question back and forth so there’s a unique moment of connection and learning about each other even if we don’t find time for phone calls. (Example questions: Which of my characteristics do you most hope our children inherit? You meet a TV producer who needs a new sitcom idea. What would you suggest?)
So you’ve left your partner well-equipped for managing the week away. You stayed emotionally close throughout the week. Now it’s time to come home – now what? A colleague once told me that when he traveled for work, he’d return exhausted but knew his wife – who’d been home with their three kids – was even more emotionally worn. They agreed that he’d give his wife an immediate break, in exchange for getting to sleep in the next morning. Work with your spouse to strike a deal that respects the hard work both of you have done.
One final word of wisdom, born of an experience that still smarts a little when I think about it: if you’ve married someone competent (and I really hope you have), don’t micromanage from the distance. Trust him or her to take care of the homefront while you’re away. Recall my earlier post, How Little Ceasar’s Almost Derailed the Day.