You walk in the door from your business trip, and the children immediately start wailing for their gifts. You feel guilty that you decided not to buy any, just as you feel guilty when you do buy them and your spouse – who has dealt with the kids while you are away – seethes at how easy it is for you to be viewed by the children as Superparent. But your spouse doesn't notice today, and starts nattering about the refrigerator being on the fritz again and having to get a plumber to fix the toilet. You're bone tired, depressed at not landing the big contract you were seeking, and nobody cares.
Isn't business travel a joy?
In fact, to many people it might seem that way. A chance to leave daily concerns, jet off to a new locale, meet with interesting people, and eat in classy restaurants. Certainly that's how the spouse left behind – with the kids and often their own outside-the-home workload – can view it. Montreal executive couch and counsellor Audrey Wise says travelling parents, particularly those who are away regularly, need to be aware of that dynamic.
"Travelling can look very sexy and exciting to the parent left behind. The travelling parent gets out of doing the regular chores and is away doing something new while the person at home is doing the regular routine work. Jealousy can arise. The travelling parent has to show concern when away, and before going away try to make things easier," she says. Buying some luxury coffee or visiting a gourmet food store and getting some special treats can be a reminder while you are away that you care.
Before going away, it's also helpful to talk with the children, particularly if they are young, and help them to understand why you will be away. That may seem unnecessary, particularly if you travel a lot, but she notes in her counselling with children of divorced parents they can view themselves as responsible for the breakup. Tthe psychological confusion could be similar when Dad or Mom is away, particularly if there are tensions surrounding the trip, with the child feeling responsible for pushing the parent away.
You can tell a teenager a week in advance – not much more – that you will be going away since they have a concept of time, but with younger children it must come closer to the event. "For a young child – you may want to count the days that you will be gone on your fingers. Get a young child a calendar so that they and the at-home parent can cross out the days as they go by," Ms. Wise says.
While away, she stresses that you must be aware you can't parent by remote control. This is particularly important for single parents, who may leave the child with a nanny. You can tell the nanny to feed the children orange juice every morning and to put them to bed at a certain hour, but they aren't you, and slippage is inevitable. That being said, she still suggests all parties should make a list of what chores have to be done before your departure and while you are away. Beds still must be made every day. Nothing should be on the floor. Hockey equipment must be put away.
Stay in contact. Skype is a convenient tool these days, allowing you to see the children's faces and read behind the words they may be saying, so it beats conventional phone calls and texting. She suggests, if at all possible, carving into your schedule – with your boss's consent, if necessary – a chance to contact the children right after school. That can be difficult if you're travelling in the same time zone, since school gets out while a business traveller is often in meetings, but the children are more likely to unload about their day at that juncture.
"Immediately after school lets out your child should be able to tell you how the exam went and discuss what is bothering her and the challenges of the day," she says. "A few hours later the child may forget and/or be on to other things." At the same time, don't go to extremes and call every hour. The children will be put off by that. It might embarrass them in front of their friends.
If you'll be missing a child's birthday, buy a gift in advance and leave it to be given on the big day. When you return, you don't need a second gift for the birthday, but make sure there is a special celebration. As for gifts more generally when you are away, she warns: "The tendency to always be buying toys and or luxury items for your child is not a good thing. You as a parent have to figure out what constitutes a reason to buy your children presents every time you go away. What happens if you travel three days out of every week? Does that mean your child gets a luxury item every week?"
She says the point of bringing a gift is to show your child that you were thinking of them. Therefore it does not have to be expensive or lavish. It should be something that the child likes. Try to bring a gift that is easy to manage – does not need batteries – and that your child can use immediately.
You may want to turn the trip into a teachable moment, bringing back mementoes from the places you visit, and talking about those with the child. Indeed, see if the teacher would be interested in some mementoes for the class – foreign currency, or postcards – that might be shared with your child's classmates.
When you return, whatever your own feelings about the success or non-success of the trip and your desire to catch up on work, remember the focus should be on the family. Listen to their concerns. Go out as a family for dinner on your return, if that seems appropriate. Catch up on what you missed in the children's lives: If you couldn't attend a dance recital, but there's a tape, watch it immediately. Schedule catch-up time with your spouse.
"Your thoughts may be focused on what happened when you are away. But supposedly the family is what gives you strength and stability in your life. So you need to focus on it when you come home," she says.