Perhaps your wife or husband is deployed. Or maybe one of you had to take a job in another city when the economy tanked or a job promotion requiring a move came along for one while the other needed to stay to keep theirs. Or maybe one of you had to go stay with an elderly, ill parent for awhile.
Whatever the reason, you now find yourself among the increasing number of parents who are married, who would much rather be together, but who have to be apart for awhile, maybe a long while. How do both parents stay active as parents and united as partners when miles apart?
First, know you’re not alone. The 2006 Census reported that 3.6 million married Americans — not including separated couples — were not living with their spouses. Those who have children and are living this reality are faced with challenges they probably never considered when they became parents.
If you’re the one who is living away from the family, you are not part of the countless big and little ways that parents check in with each other and with their children many times a day. The fly-bys that happen when kids are leaving for school, when everyone tumbles in the door in the evening, when you walk through the living room while kids are watching TV or when you bump into teens and their friends in the kitchen getting a snack aren’t part of long-distance parenting. The first-thing-in-the-morning and last-thing-at-night checkins aren’t necessarily possible for long-distance partnering. These encounters may not seem all that important but they do add up. Being at a distance can mean feeling disconnected.
If you are the parent left at home, you don’t have the ability to easily consult the other parent when decisions have to be made. Immediate discipline and the daily care and feeding of the children is all on you. As much as you and the kids need it, it may be difficult to plan adventures or share fun times when you’re just trying to get through the day. There is no one to share the carpools, homework duty, story time, or doing the dishes. It can feel overwhelming. Often it’s just plain exhausting.
Nonetheless, co-parenting when one of you needs to be away doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. With thoughtful planning, partners can maintain a loving relationship with each other and be effective as parents. The key is paying attention and communicating regularly and well.
Do your best to be kind to each other.
The daily responsibilities are difficult for the at-home parent. Being often out of the loop is equally difficult for the away parent. Yes, you’re both sometimes frustrated with the situation. Yes, the other may not fully understand all you’re managing and putting up with. But it doesn’t help if you take it out on each other. Make it a priority to walk in each other’s shoes and to work as a loving team. Make sure to affirm your love and your appreciation for each other’s role whenever you are in contact.
Decide up front what decisions really are more efficiently made by the at-home parent.
It’s unreasonable to expect the parent at home to check in every time a decision has to be made. Talk together about what level of decision-making needs to be shared and which decisions both of you can be comfortable assigning to the parent at home. Bear in mind that even with the best planning, there are going to be times that the at-home parent has to make a quick decision. It’s important for the away parent to trust the partner’s judgment.
Back each other up.
It’s a trap many couples fall into, however much they thought they wouldn’t. The at-home parent disciplines a child. The away parent doesn’t agree and tells the child so. It’s too easy to criticize when at a distance. Conversely, the away parent may feel strongly about something and tell a child what to do. The at home parent may think, “Hey, I’m the one who has to manage this” and lets the child off the hook. That’s not helpful either. You don’t want to undermine each other. You don’t want to give your kids the message that one or the other of you doesn’t count. If there is a difference of opinion, wait until you have an alone contact with your spouse and come to an agreement before presenting the decision to the child.
Neither parent should make the return of the other into a threat.
These threats are often of the “wait ‘til your father gets home” or “You just wait ‘til I get home” variety. Deal with issues as they come up. You don’t want your kids to either fear or resent the return of the absent parent.
Don’t let roles get too far apart.
You don’t want the at-home parent becoming the disciplinarian and the away parent being the fun person who comes home with treats and surprises. By keeping regular contact, the away parent can and should have expectations and be part of the parental team that sets consequences when there are infractions. Fun times should happen even when the away parent isn’t home.
Build in breaks for the at-home parent.
If you can afford it, build into your budget an evening a week for a babysitter so the at-home parent can go out with friends, take a class, or go shopping without the kids. If your budget won’t allow it, ask relatives to provide respite or arrange a swap with another parent in a similar situation.
Make use of technology for emergencies and for regular contact.
There is no reason for the parent at home to take on the entire burden of responsibility for the family when the spouse is only a phone call away. If one or the other can’t be interrupted while at work, it’s especially important to make sure there is a scheduled time for checking in about the big decisions. Regular, scheduled visits via cell phone or webcam – both with the kids and just between the two of you – can keep the away parent up to date on family matters and can make the time apart far less lonely.
When you are together, let the children see their parents loving each other.
Be affectionate. Compliment each other. Be polite and kind. Try to make time for a “date,” even if it’s for coffee at the local diner. When children know their parents love each other and support each other, they feel more secure when one or the other has to be away. When parents’ needs for love, attention, and affection are answered during visits, it’s easier for both to manage the time apart.