“It’s important to be a person first and a parent second.” – T. Berry Brazelton
There’s a pile of toys in my daughter’s room, some in her toy box, but most cluttered nightly on her bed, from the times I’ve been away.
Boston the lobster, Minnesota the moose, a monkey from Florida—well, because Florida. You get the point.
Undoubtedly, it’s difficult to leave her. On my return, she throws herself into my arms with a giddy grin every few minutes and holds onto me tightly, leading me around with an insistent, “Play with me, mommy.” And I do. I revel in it.
Other times, she’s aloof and it takes a while before she warms up to me. Her reactions are far from rare.
Toddlers show a range of emotions — from sadness to aggression — when a traveling parent comes home, said Dr. Laura Kastner, a Seattle-based psychologist who has authored books on family issues.
“They’re just so confused about how a loving mom can disappear on them and reappear,” said Kastner, who is also a mom.
My husband has shared stories of her telling him she needs her mommy. When I picked her up from daycare recently after presenting at the Online News Association’s Conference and Awards, her teachers asked how California was because it was all she’d chattered about.
A mom who travels regularly isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but several factors go into making an easier time of it; for one, having a supportive spouse or a strong support system (especially for single moms). Being positive about your absence and having a resilient child also factor in.
“Any of those things you don’t have, it’ll be harder,” Kastner said. “Then you have to pull something in to compensate.”
“Out of some of these challenges, (children) develop competencies to cope with life in different ways,” Kastner added.
Dr. Michelle Ferrier has swapped roles with her husband as the frequent flyer in the family. Ferrier was a graduate student and journalism instructor while he was on the road for weeks at a time as a college admissions director. She juggled three young children, school and work.
(Full disclosure: Ferrier is a longtime mentor of mine. I reached out to her for this column after she posted a photo of her insane travel schedule to Facebook.)
Having a caregiver, help from her mom and a rigorous schedule kept Ferrier sane and added some structure to their lives.
“It was tough when he was traveling, especially when they were so small,” said Ferrier, associate dean for innovation, research/creative activity and graduate studies in the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University.
These days, with the kids grown — two are out of the house and the youngest is a junior in high school — travel comes easier. Ferrier makes a point to let everyone know about upcoming travel way in advance and sends frequent group texts to all with updates during her trips.
“My kids are very heavy text users, so there are usually ongoing text conversations,” Ferrier said. “I’m still in conversation with them, but using digital tools.”
Kastner echoed Ferrier’s sentiment: “It’s not about 24/7 contact. It’s about being there emotionally being connected when you’re not physically there.”
My husband and I have developed our own routine to make it easier for our toddler daughter.
Before I leave, we tell her where I’m going and why, and when I’ll be back. He’ll show her a map of where I’m headed. (This time around, he also taught her Phantom Planet’s “California”, which she now loves to sing at the very top of her lungs.)
When I’m gone, he’ll plan a special day or two for them to do something out of the ordinary to give her something to anticipate.
When I return, I spend as much time as I can with her. Sometimes she’ll fret when I leave the room and for a few days I’ll have to let her know I’ll be right back.
I also bring a gift for both her and my husband. In some small way, it makes where I’ve been more tangible to her. It’s also a token of deep gratitude to him for taking up the household slack in my absence. Likewise, Ferrier regularly brings home swag for her teen daughter at home.
But while our daughters cherish their presents, my toddler could soon reach a point where my travel becomes a Pavlovian bell and she expects gifts at every absence, Kastner said.
A better move might be including her in the ritual and perhaps allowing her to give me something to travel and snap photos with along the way.
“Even when they get older they’ll know they’re thinking of you all the time,” Kastner said.
To help me get through the days of travel, my husband texts photos and videos. He’ll send anecdotes of pronunciations she’s adorably butchered or tantrums he’d wish on no one. I try to FaceTime with them at least once a day.
“That’s been a wonderful way, through technology, that they can see that the mom hasn’t disappeared,” Kastner said.
The thing about tech is that it eases some of the disconnection and ache of not being fully present. I imagine it was doubly hard for moms who not so long ago had to rely on just the sound of their child’s voice on the phone to keep them afloat.
Ferrier recalled Skyping in to her youngest daughter’s birthday party one year. There’s a photo somewhere of her face filling a laptop screen set on the table during the cake cutting, Ferrier chuckled.
But allowing her kids to see the world through her eyes has expanded their own worlds, as has seeing their mom in a strong and powerful role, she said.
“I think about them all the time, but then I think about what they gain from my perspective as well,” Ferrier said.
Here are Kastner’s tips for helping families cope with a traveling mom, which I think can be applied to both parents:
- Involve the child in the process
- Make sure you’re confident and not swimming in guilt as you make your exit
- Develop routines and rituals. They can have their own suitcase and pretend they’re going on their own trip or do research on your destination/s.
- Guilt and indulgence. Keep them in check. Don’t indulge bad behavior on your return out of guilt.
Kari Cobham is a Trinidad-born, Georgia-based writer, editor and social media strategist. A former award-winning journalist at The Daytona Beach News-Journal, her work has been featured on MSNBC’s Today Books, Orlando Sentinel, the3six5 lifestream project, Trinidad Guardian, and SHE and Caribbean Beat magazines. She has edited four of New York Times bestseller Pat Croce’s books on piracy. She currently works for Cox Media Group TV stations where she leads social audience growth and training for on-air talent. Follow her on Twitter @KariWrites.