The 2006 Census reported that 3.6 million married Americans were not living with their spouses. The reasons are complicated and multiple. Some partners are deployed. Some moved to a different city for a better job while the other stayed with the kids to finish out the school year before moving. Some returned to live with their parents while their spouse looked for work in a distant place. Still others had to be away to care for an aging or ill family member.
Whatever the reason, living apart and maintaining connection can be challenging and discouraging. This is especially true when children are added to the mix. Maintaining the connection is essential.
It’s hard enough for both the absent parent and the children to be separated geographically without also feeling disconnected emotionally. Fortunately there are now many ways for parents to be an essential presence and influence in each other’s and their children’s lives even when apart.
Technology changes everything. Gone are the days when mail took weeks to turn around and long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive. Not only can you stay in touch, but current technology lets you have real time conversations where you can see and hear each other. This is an important advancement as children under 3 or 4 often don’t know what to say on the phone. (They tend to hold it and nod a lot.) That doesn’t mean they don’t want to relate. They’re developmentally still figuring out how a parent’s voice gets out of that little object in their hand. A webcam and a program like Skype at least lets the parent see the nodding and the child see their parent’s smiling face.
A web camera can let an absent parent join the family at dinner time and just before the kids head off to school as a way to stay present and involved with the day-to-day, important and not so important family events. Partners can spend some time with each other each evening to check in and to make mutual decisions. Even when such “virtual visits” can only be intermittent, they are an important vehicle for letting children know they have two parents who are making decisions, who care about what is happening in their lives, and who love them.
Make and Keep Routines
Young children, even teens, feel most secure when there is predictability and routine. For small children, there are only two times: now and later – and later feels like a long time from now. Do what you can to schedule regular times for contact with the absent parent and predictable expectations for what will happen during those times. A nightly bedtime story and chat can help a young child feel connected. A half hour homework help session coupled with a talk about their day can keep the absent parent present for older children.
If you can’t make it a daily occurrence, do what you can to schedule a regular rhythm to the week. Call more if you can, for sure. But do your best to be faithful to the scheduled time that kids can count on.
Older kids and teens need predictability too. But they also need to know times when they can just call if they want to talk something out. With teens, texts are an important addition to talks. The parent keeps in touch but the teen doesn’t feel pressured to come up with something meaningful to say.
Connections go two ways. Kids feel more involved when they send the absent parent artwork, care packages, and samples of schoolwork. Some families send digital picture frames of family photos as well. When the parent visits, they update it with more recent shots. Older kids may enjoy making a weekly video “show” of the family news for their absent mom or dad. Teens who are already masters of Facebook can help everyone in the family use a family page. When the parent at home makes connecting with the absent parent a priority, the children get an important message about their parents’ caring for one another.
Trips Back Home
It’s important for the absent parent to take opportunities to come home whenever possible. Yes, it may be expensive. But if you can do it without breaking the financial bank, it puts huge deposits in the emotional one. Children and adults need moments of physical intimacy to sustain the connection.
Building couple time into visits, even if only for a few hours, maintains that intimacy. Going on a date, just the two of you, should not be shoved to the back burner because there is so much family business to attend to. Set aside some private time to reconnect sexually and to satisfy the longings for tender touch. When kids see their parents making private time for each other, it reassures them that the family is going to be okay.
As for the kids: Cuddling and general horsing around puts an important deposit into their emotional bank as well. Attachment theory tells us that how we connect to our kids in early childhood lays down a GPS for how they will attach to others as adults. The verbal and visual connections we make through technology can contribute much to that directional foundation. How they experience us physically is another essential factor. Memories of loving caresses and playful tumbling around from both parents gives kids more than one model for how to relate through body language and through touch.
Visits also let the absent parent meet a child’s friends. Attending some of their games and events, even just going in to meet the teachers and hanging out on the playground is an affirmation to kids of their importance in a parent’s life. When the absent parent is in the know, phone and computer conversations stay meaningful.
A year is forever in a child’s eyes. “Temporary” can feel like “forever” to a child. For adults, a year is a small fraction of their lives. For a child, it’s a huge piece of their experience. Think about it: A year out of 30 is very, very different from a year out of 6. As parents, we need to be mindful of the effect of a parent’s absence. The separation may be important to the long-term comfort and maintenance of the family. But while the adults are doing what is necessary, the children can miss both their parent and the lessons in intimacy and belonging that that parent provides. With some thoughtful planning and use of the technological tools available to us now, the impact of separation can be softened considerably.