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Mommy Points: The Balancing Act of Work Travel as a Parent

April 19, 2019
8 min read
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"Mom, why weren't you at my school party today? All the other moms were there."

I was hoping she wouldn't notice. I was hoping that there wouldn't be a critical mass of parents who came, so that my absence wouldn't be so obvious. Or maybe I was just hoping she would forget by the time she saw me, so I could dodge this guilt bullet. But my 3-year-old was right: I wasn't there. I was away for work.

When you are a parent whose work requirements include travel, you're going to miss things at home with your kids. Let me repeat that for the overachievers in the front: You cannot do it all. Eventually, you're going to miss something. Something big.

I haven't only missed a school party. I've missed theater performances, rodeo days, themed lunches, a school play and end-of-year celebrations. Sure, I'll never forget seeing my eldest daughter walk for the first time, but I didn't see it happen in our backyard or in the living room or on a beach. No, I saw her first steps on a grainy, jerky cellphone video that I got by text while I was eating alone at a restaurant bar on a work trip on a cold, dark night in 2010. FaceTime may have made the picture clearer in the intervening nine years, but it hasn't at all numbed the sting of missing important moments like that.

Before my tiny violin becomes too ear-piercing, let's clarify something: I know I'm lucky to have a job that includes travel. But you never stop questioning whether your career and the opportunities and experiences it brings will ever erase the memory of that look in your kids' eyes when you tell them you won't be there at the big or recital. Add in a line or two about how all the other parents were there, and you're on the express train to I'm-a-Crappy-Parentville.

So how do you manage traveling for work and being an involved parent? I'm almost 10 years into this balancing act, and there's still not going to be a pretty bow to tie up the story, as it's just not easy. But some things do help balance being a parent with being a work traveler.

If you can go, go

You're going to miss some things, so don't miss the things you don't have to. I go to some second- and third-tier kid events because I'm going to miss some of the big ones. (I hope I don't miss the huge things.) It really does help if I show up for things that feel optional. I've been the rock star of reading day at the elementary school for three years running, while most parents opt out. I may have been out of town for Donuts With Divas (aka female-caregiver appreciation day), but I read the heck out of "The Day the Crayons Quit."

Make up new events

I recently caught wind of an early Mother's Day brunch at my 3-year-old's preschool that I am 98% sure is on a day I have to be out of town. My Plan B is to make up a new event. If I'm missing this special lunch at school, I'm going to instead work with the teacher for me to come and eat lunch there another day that week. It's not going to erase my not being there, but it will create its own special memories.

Go eat lunch at school, even if it isn't a special "parents day"

Find a surrogate

We moved to the town where I grew up just a few months after my first daughter was born because we quickly learned that, as two working parents, we needed reinforcements. We're still there nine years later. When Josh and I can't be at something, we call in the grandma and grandpa. It doesn't have to be grandparents, but try and find someone to fill in at big things when you just can't make it.

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Talk every day — if they want to

I don't care where I am, with the ease of FaceTime, I'm going to talk to my kids each day I'm gone. Other families like to record videos and send them to each other during the day, which can be handy should your travels take you to significantly different time zones. Set an alarm or reminder if you must, but step out of whatever you are doing at some point in the day and see how the day went at home. The one caveat to this is that if the kids don't feel like talking that day, they don't have to. They can just say a brief hello and keep doing what they're doing.

Last in, first out

Long gone are the days when I'd tack on a weekend (or even an extra night) to weekday work trips. I'm going to arrive as late as I can and leave as early as I can. Ideally, I like to get the kids off to school and then head to the airport instead of leaving before they wake up. I also do everything I can to not miss a weekend day at home, even though that can get tricky with Monday-morning starts. Some of this can't be entirely controlled when you're not the boss, but 100 times out of 100, I book the absolute shortest time away possible.

Don't overpromise

I've messed this one up more than once, but try not to promise the moon. Don't mention you may get to come home early if you aren't sure, or unless you've found a way to control weather, maintenance delays and air-traffic control (in which case, call me). Approximately one out of five flights in the United States is delayed, so tell your kids your travel schedule, but say things like "I'm scheduled to fly home to you tonight" instead of "I'll be home for dinner" until you know for sure.

Put the school schedule on your calendar

You have a work calendar and you have a school calendar (and dance calendar, baseball schedule, performance schedule, etc.). Merge all the separate calendars into a single schedule early, and update this main calendar often enough that you know what is coming up and can at least be aware of potential conflicts, if not outright avoid them.

Points, points, points

Turn those work trips into family vacations by earning points. Register for every hotel promo you can find, enter that frequent flyer number on your flights, and make work pay for play. You get a gold star if you can teach your kids about the value of points and miles so that they get at least a little excited for that part of the equation.

Photo by Shelby Soblick for The Points Guy

Clear the schedule when you return

I work some nasty hours on the road because I want to have a minute or two to focus on the family when I get home. Skip that inflight movie binge on the return flight home and instead knock out a few hours of work so that you might have a little more time the next day to focus on the people who matter the most.

If all else fails ...

If all this fails, consider good, old-fashioned bribery. I do not bring home gifts for my girls from every trip, but if I've really missed something, or if they just really missed me, I try to bring a peace offering back with me. This is not sustainable with regular travel, but it is an ace in the hole every once in a while.

Bottom Line

Work travel gets exponentially harder as a parent of a young kid -- doubly so if your partner also travels for work, and even harder still if you're a single parent. But work travel isn't something you have to avoid as a parent, it's just something that you manage as best you can and then pick up the pieces when best-laid plans fall apart.

And I'll be real: Right now, with multiple work trips and multiple end-of-the-school-year big events going on in my kids' lives, this is all a work in progress, so please share your tips for balancing work travel and parenting.

Featured image by (Photo by Lisa Weatherbee/The Points Guy)