For professional rugby players, work means travel. While this may be one of the perks of the job, it can also be one of the biggest challenges – particularly when it means being away from family for long periods of time. Parenting Place Family Coach, Jenny Hale, shares her strategies and insights for how to stay connected.
Having children is a massive undertaking all on its own. Add in work pressure, travel, and making time for family and friends, and life can feel a little overwhelming. Making it all work can be tough, but the good news is that there are some simple things you can do to help.
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Families that survive the pressures of lengthy times apart are often the ones who have a plan in place, and have found practical ways of navigating the challenges together. Getting support and advice from family, friends and colleagues goes a long way too. Here are a few things worth talking about and planning for –
- As parents, what are the practical ways you can support one another?
- How can you help your kids feel safe and secure when one parent is away?
- What support is there for the stay-at-home parent?
- What do you do when your kids are losing the plot?
- What kind of routines are worth establishing?
- How does the parent who has been away, re-enter the family in a helpful way?
Practical is appreciated
Whatever part you play in this dynamic – whether you’re the parent who stays home with the kids, or the travelling parent – feeling appreciated goes a long way. Remember to tell your partner what you are grateful for. We may think it and forget to say it, so here are some lines to get you going. “Thank you for taking care of the kids so well when I’m away. You put the hard yards in and the kids are so lucky.” Or, “Thank you for staying in touch while you’re on the road. I know it’s tricky to make the time with your busy schedule. It means so much to me and the kids.”
If you’re playing rugby somewhere far away, why not send flowers or postcards to your family at home – something that tells them you’re thinking of them. You could even organise for pizza to get delivered! (Just don’t forget to let your partner know not to worry about dinner that night). Another great idea is to organise a babysitter and surprise your partner with tickets to the movies. Lots of these things are doable – they just require a bit of creativity and some planning ahead.
Helping children feel secure
When parents are managing well and doing okay, the children follow suit. So parents need to take good care of themselves. This means getting enough sleep, eating well, having time out to recharge, exercising and all the things that nurture and support well-being. This is challenging when both parents are stretched for time and have to cover a lot of bases. However, this is a priority area and resources need to be channelled this way. (Having a support crew of family or friends is essential).
It’s good to remember that different children react to things differently, and if you have more than one child, you may need to cater for various needs. Some children can be trickier to parent when mum or dad is away. These kids may feel anxious about the change – with more tears, tantrums and needs than usual.
Others are less impacted and just get on with the status quo. What really helps children feel secure is when there is a consistent set of expectations – that kindness and firmness are generously given and that both parents attend to the training and following up of children’s behaviour. When a child knows that both parents are invested in the parenting journey, they feel included and supported.
The travelling parent can simply check in regularly with the family to hear about the good stuff that needs noticing and the ‘other’ stuff that needs working on. Kind, firm and calm parenting is the style that works best. Kind in tone and expression, firm in setting limits and checking that the kids are doing as they are asked, and calm in volume and presence. These three things will enable your kids to stay calm and receptive.
Lots of children (especially those who tend to feel anxious) thrive on knowing what is happening on a day-to-day basis. They want to know when the travelling parent is coming home, and how many sleeps are left. A calendar is a great way to count the days, and get a sense of time. Children love the anticipation as well as the sense of control they have knowing something is predictable and certain.
Stay in touch using Skype, FaceTime, phone calls and texts. Make sure your kids get to see or hear their mum or dad on a regular basis. Taking into account potential time differences, make a set time to chat each day or every second day to keep a routine going. With Skype, the trick is not to expect young children to stay with the conversation for very long. Children often just want to say hello and skive off. What they need is to sight the travelling parent, make contact, and then they are happy to wander off.
As children get older, it can really help the conversation if there are a few good questions to ask the kids (or have the kids ready to talk about a couple of things they have come up with).
Your kids could ask the travelling parent what the best part of their day was and what the worst part was. Or the travelling parent could ask a question like, “How would you describe a perfect day from morning to bedtime?” Or, “What made you laugh today?” Just asking, “What did you do today?” is not likely to spin a conversation. (Purchase a set of Chatterbox cards here).
Support for the parent at home If you’re the one at home, doing the ‘lion’s share’ of the parenting, you are going to need support – some back stops and connections to people who will be part of your journey. If the community is new to you, sticking your head out a little will open some doors. It might be the local Plunket, so that you can be introduced to a coffee group, a dance class or even joining the library so that you can meet people. There is great support in being with people who know just what you are going through and can offer shared experiences and understanding.
The home parent also needs time with friends or a hobby, so a babysitter should be part of the plan. This is money well spent and will ensure the home parent gets some rejuvenating time to him/herself.
The magic of routines
There are lots of changes, surprises and first-time happenings in the lives of children. For the most part, they are pretty adaptable, but having some ordinary, predictable, everyday routines turns out to be very settling and soothing for most kids. As the little people in the home, there isn’t much they can control – like their travelling parent’s schedule – but having patterns around things like eating, waking up, and going to bed helps give them a sense of ownership and control.
Try starting the day with a welcome routine – perhaps a good morning song, a cuddle and a story in bed. You can also use charts for tasks and routines. Children thrive when they know that ‘this is the way we do things in our family’. The more regular these tasks are, the less need there is for insisting on them. The beauty of the routine is how it becomes like a cosy blanket of familiarity for a child who is struggling with one parent being absent.
Another ingredient to add to the routine is playfulness. It’s not always easy to find with stretched resources, but it’s a simple way to harness some energy and get through tough spots. Your child might be refusing to help pack up the toys, and instead of trotting out threats and bribes, turning some music on and making up a clean-up song, can get you there with more fun and lightness.
Settling in again
When the travelling parent returns home, things might be lovely to begin with, but often after a short while, challenges can emerge. The home parent may have established some rules and systems, enjoying the peace and control they provide. The travelling parent may be unaware of these patterns or want to do things their way. They may also just be tired and want to retreat.
One of the best questions the travelling parent can ask when re-entering the home is, “What can I do, and where can I be of most help?” There is a baton change going on and the expectations need to be communicated. It is not always about agreeing with how the home parent has set things up, but in getting behind them and helping out.
Some families do a brilliant job of dividing the big tasks up. The travelling parent can quickly get in step if they know what their areas of responsibility are. Knowing they are in charge of bath times, story time and keeping the kitchen sorted gives them a practical focus and lightens the load of the home parent.
Another helpful idea is to have a list of activities that the children have helped put together on what to do with mum or dad when they get home. It’s a lovely way to deflect a disappointment when you realise you might not be able to go to the swimming pool with three little children, but the travelling parent could do this with two of the children on their return. It’s a highlight for the kids as they anticipate some special time with the parent who has been absent.
There is plenty to navigate and negotiate to find the happy spot for families living with the challenges of a travelling parent. Good communication, pitching in, lots of support and some hard work are going to help make family life a pretty good thing to be part of. It can be done, it won’t be easy, but it will be worth it!
Eight fun ways to stay connected
- Let your children help you pack for your trip, and allow them to add one special item of their choosing.
- Leave short, encouraging notes for your children – in their lunchboxes, school bags, or in a book beside their beds.
- Place a fun or silly picture of you and your children beside their beds.
- Call your kids as often as you can, especially at bedtimes.
- Stick a photo of your team up on the wall – explain to your kids what you do, and what makes your job interesting and worthwhile. They will see your work as something important, and not just the thing that takes their mum or dad away for long periods of time.
- Send texts or pictures to your kids via your partner’s cell phone. If they have their own phones, text them directly.
- Create a short video of yourself – maybe reading a story, or singing a favourite song – that your children can watch while you’re away.
- Have a long-distance treasure hunt. Hide a special treat somewhere in your house, and text your kids clues until they find it.
This is an excerpt from the bespoke edition of Parenting magazine created by Parenting Place in collaboration with New Zealand Rugby
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