Real-life story from Geoff, dad of two
If you’re a salesman, army cook, professor, corporate high-flyer, travel agent, aid worker, commercial fisherman or working the mines of Western Australia, then you’ve probably had to travel away from home for work. If you’re a parent as well, this can really suck.
I travel three or four times a year for a couple of weeks at a time. It’s the mundane type of travel depicted so well by George Clooney in Up in the Air – chain hotels, rental cars, multi-leg plane trips, airport food. I don’t travel enough to have accrued the loyalty points needed for serious service, but my Airpoints account is healthy. I often don’t have much warning of the trip. For me, the going away starts at least a week before I leave. It’s partly my preparations for the trip from a work perspective, but it’s also my family preparing for the week ahead without me. It manifests itself in little things – adjustments to the pick-up/drop-off schedule, phone calls to the grandparents for cover, the buying of three portions instead of four – and it can feel hard. A kind of emotional mitosis. A changing of patterns, a reneging on shared responsibility. Once I’m travelling, the guilt of absence is replaced by the more benign feeling of simple disconnection – common to most travellers I guess. It’s a mixture of up-ended routines, homesickness, jet lag, distance. It ebbs and flows depending on how busy I am and the vagaries of the internet connectivity of my location.
I generally try to plan my travel to minimise down time and hence total length of trip. I especially try to avoid too many weekends away. This can mean a pretty brutal travel schedule with plenty of overnight plane trips and airport food. But some things I guard preciously when I travel. I try to eat well and alone whenever possible. Alone because when I’ve been with clients the whole day, I need time to recuperate and recharge. For me, that’s reading a good book with a glass of wine and some decent cooking. And if the time difference and cell phone coverage allows, it’s also the chance to catch up on events from home. I also plan some down time into the trip – a favourite museum, a drive through some beautiful country, a catch-up with a friend, or a morning run through awakening city streets. If possible I try to begin a daily routine – wake, walk/run, call home, breakfast, work, dinner, read, sleep. Taking care of yourself when travelling means you’ll be in better shape on your return home.
But there can be positives in an impending trip away. The date of travel has a way of truncating those family conversations that have been lingering. It can mean that a resolution must be postponed which can be useful if the conversation has got stuck in a rut. “But Daddy, I really, really, really need a rabbit.” It can allow perspectives to evolve. It also affords me the opportunity to do stuff I wouldn’t normally do for my kids. I write them a note and leave it under their pillows before I leave. I buy them presents and hide them in my suitcase for them to find when I return. I write them stories on my laptop about fairy pirates and princess sleuths while waiting to board or land, and email them home for my wife to read to them at bedtime.
Of course the IT revolution has come to the aid of business travellers making it easy to keep in touch with via Skype, Facetime, texts, pxts and email. I’ve sent pxts of my dinner of spaghetti vongole in Milan, the local sights of Singapore through the taxi window, of handwritten notes to wish my daughter happy birthday. I Skype video conference and shake the webcam to pretend there’s an earthquake. My son pulls funny faces on the iPhone back at me. The immediacy is wonderful and fun and gives me perspective when facing another 14 hour day juggling business meetings and office urgencies. The downside of this easy connectivity is when you forget to keep in touch. I recall my wife having to call me in the middle of a meeting because she didn’t know where I was, had no itinerary beyond ‘landing in Dubai’, and hadn’t heard from me for three days.
If you need to travel often for work and are away for over a week at a time then maintaining some work-family balance is going to be a challenge. There’s no easy answer and only you and your family can determine what is sustainable. Try to work at achieving some balance over an extended period. If you’re away one week every month, then look at the month as a whole and plan for increased family time to balance your absence. A friend of mine works long hours and is often overseas for periods of a few weeks at a time, but then will take two months off straight and just hang out with his family. Sometimes there’s timing clashes and unfortunately you miss important times in your child’s life. I missed my daughter’s first day of school. What to do? Don’t brood and feel guilty, take a day off work when you get back and take them to the beach for an ice-cream.
So you’ve landed, negotiated the duty-free maze, cleared immigration, picked up your bags, deemed not to be a bio-hazard by the customs officer and are in the taxi home. You know the kids will be a bit shy at first, then excited to see you – and what might be in your suitcase. You’ll pick them up and hug them and there’ll be loads of talk and then you’ll make pancakes because you’re the only one in the house who makes pancakes. You’re home. And your family somehow makes your life feel shiny and new. Coming home almost makes the being away worth it.