The Hardest Part About Having a Traveling Spouse

Feb 7, 2014

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From time to time I mention that my husband has some various elite status levels (mostly hotel) that he gets primarily through work travel.  I’m sure you can all put 1 + 1 together to come up with the fact that means he is gone a fair amount from the home for work travel.  For the most part, I choose to view the situation in a positive manner and focus on the facts that:

A. He is gainfully employed.  Paychecks are good.

B. His work travel means “free” miles, points, and elite status credits for us to use on family vacations.

C. Slumber parties with my snuggly four year old.

All of those are 100% true, but there is another side to this frequent travel, and that is a level of underlying chaos from the frequent transitions in and out of the home for the family.  There are families who have a parent (or both parents!) deployed or working overseas for long periods of time.  There are families who have a parent that is gone for pretty much the whole week traveling around doing consulting gigs.  There are families who have a parent who works several days or even weeks “on” at a time at a location like an oil rig where they are away from home.  There are single parent families.  Basically, there are families that successfully endure much more time apart than we do, but some of the issues we face from having such a frequently changing home dynamic aren’t easy regardless of whether others have it tougher.

There’s a laundry list of challenges that families face when one or both partners are away from the home frequently including: practical and logistical challenges since one is doing the work of two, emotional challenges, potential jealousy or resentment, and simple loneliness.  However, the hardest part of having a traveling spouse are the frequent transitions. 

When you live life as we do, pretty much every week has at least two transitions in it.  We have to gear up and transition to having one of us leave (most often him), and then function essentially as a single parent household for a period of time, and then transition to having both parents home again working as a cohesive unit.  I have done this both before and after having a kid, and I can say that (like most things in life), it is harder with kids in the home than without.

Before we had our daughter, when one of us was gone, the other could spend that time catching up with friends, going to happy hour, working out, reading a book, getting a massage, or participating in whatever other hobby they wished.  Sure you still missed the traveling partner, but having a little time to yourself was almost nice from time to time.

Once a kid is in the picture though, the time home alone looks much different.  Instead of having more time for yourself, you have none.  You are the 100% sole caregiver for the child(ren), and as a result will be making every meal, doing every school drop-off/pick-up, taking them to every activity, reading every book, giving every bath, cleaning up every mess, washing every piece of clothing, etc.  While your spouse is away at expensed dinners out, seeing movies in their free time, sleeping in quiet hotels (the horror!), and working with other adults, you will be home doing the opposite.  There can be some resentment, and certainly exhaustion, that seeps in due to this, but I don’t think that is the hardest part.

The hardest part actually comes in when they get home.  When you are the one running the show alone at home there is certainly more work you have to do, but you get to do it your way, with your system, in your time.  Chances are this looks and feels a bit different than when both parents are home.  You may think you handled things perfectly, or you may think that you all survived by the grace of God or simple good fortune, but you did it your way.  Once that other spouse arrives back at the front door, things are supposed to immediately shift.

They will likely be tired from their trip, and you will likely be tired from running the show in their absence.  You have been self-sufficient and self-reliant getting things done alone, but have to immediately switch back into making collective decisions and dividing and conquering with all the household tasks.  Your kids have been used to going to you for everything and may either be more than ready for the returning parent, or want very little to do with them since they are pretty used to you.  To put it another way, the transitions in all these different areas can lead to an underlying level of chaos that is if nothing else, exhausting.

We have noticed this over the years and at the very least now know to expect it.  A homecoming should be the best part of being away, but it is actually the hardest part of the transition in some ways.  All of the factors at play can lead to simple things blowing up if you aren’t careful.  I’d be a liar if I said that hasn’t happened at our house.  Tired people + lots of responsibilities + rapidly changing routines and expectations = potential for problems.

I could make a bullet pointed list of ways to mitigate this risk, but it really all comes down to recognizing it can easily happen, and utilizing space and patience as needed.  The default deciding factor in most anything should be given by the person who has been at home running the show.  This means when I am returning home from a trip and desperately want to immediately get the house cleaned up when I walk in and see toys everywhere, that I either need to just be patient with it and trust it will get done in the next day or so (or do it myself without complaining).  This means if my husband is returning from a trip and just wants to eat at home that night, that he sucks it up and heads out to dinner with us because we are tired of cooking (or he cooks and cleans up dinner without complaining).  Most of it is easy stuff in a vacuum, but hard stuff to transition in and out of so frequently.

We aren’t usually disappointed anymore when the first few hours or day back together as a family aren’t amazingly harmonious.  We know that the transition part isn’t that much fun, and we also know that it doesn’t last long.  Usually by a day or two everything is “back to normal”.

I don’t share this as a “tale of woe” or to scare other families who may have a frequently traveling spouse in their future, but just as a piece of the reality that comes with frequent travel and a family.  I think I’d be painting a false picture if I never mentioned some of the others costs of frequent travel when you have a family.  I’m sure every family experiences this differently, and some probably handle it much better than we do.  Some probably handle it much worse.  On the whole I think we do pretty well, but that doesn’t mean it is always cake and roses.  Though we do make lots of cookies when Daddy is away….

How does your family manage with one or both of the spouses frequently traveling?  Are the transitions the tough part for you?

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