While most working parents have a commute to work that is within an hour of their home, others often travel long distances. Work travel is becoming more and more commonplace as employers become more global. Traveling for business can be positive, but it's not always easy to maintain work/life balance during work travel when you're a parent.
Whether you are traveling for a business trip or you're a parent in the military, work travel can present unique parenting challenges. But, just like any other unique situation, perspective and preparation can go a long way towards contributing to a good experience. It's important to find ways to help your children cope during business trips by preparing them and staying connected to your family.
A key component and the first step to making travel work well is your personal conviction that the travel is worth it. As the working parent, you have to be committed to the work and believe the benefits of traveling outweigh the costs. Of course, that doesn't mean children will see it that way. But being committed to work that requires travel can temper some of the guilt or stress caused by children pleading for you not to leave. If you haven't already, it is important to spend time thinking through why it's important for you to travel and what the potential benefits are to your children and family. It is equally important for your child's other caregiver (spouse, back-up child care, grandparent, nanny, etc.) to share these convictions as well. Then you will be more prepared to face and overcome the inevitable parenting challenges that will arise when trying to maintain work/life balance through business trips and work travel.
Preparing Your Family for a Working Parent’s Business Trip
Preparation before travel:
- Make sure everyone knows what & when work travel is happening. Create a calendar and review it with your family. Prepare everything you can ahead of time: have soccer cleats ready, the diaper bag packed, school papers signed and in backpacks, and so forth.
- Schedule focused time with your children before a business trip. Having your undivided attention for a period of time is more important than having your unfocused attention all the time. Make time to make memories and share special moments - a walk, a story, a trip to the library - before each time you have to travel for work.
- Talk about your work travel prior to leaving. Don't avoid the topic of a business trip or sneak out just because you know your leaving may cause tears. Allowing your child to share his or her feelings, even if they're hard to hear, is important. A working parent should validate those feelings by saying "I see that you are feeling sad about my work trip." This holds true even for non-verbal children; consistently talking about what's happening in a reassuring and comforting tone contributes to communication development, attachment, and trust.
- Support developing emotional intelligence by discussing feelings. Helping children prepare for, think through, and be ready for coping with difficult feelings is a wonderful investment. Teach them to take three deep breaths, draw or write in a journal, and feel comfortable with another parent or caregiver, etc.
- Have a parenting plan. It's important that the working parent that is traveling and the parent or caregiver at home are on the same page about parenting and support one another. A few chief considerations: the caregiver at home shouldn't use the traveling parent as a "bad guy" (i.e. "Wait until your mom gets home"; "I'm calling your father and he will not like to hear this"); the parent who travels should contribute to the more challenging parenting duties and not simply focus on fun; the parent that is traveling should fully support and not undo parenting decisions that have been made while he or she were away.
How to Stay Connected with Family during Work Travel
A few fun ways to stay connected during travel and to maintain work/life balance despite the distance:
- Story time: Reading to your child every night over the phone or video chat can help you stay connected; buy (or check out from the library) two copies of the same book, plan to read the same chapters, and then talk about them over the phone; or record yourself reading and then the caregiver at home can play the recording the nights you are away.
- Photo fun: Share photos of special moments throughout the day (swap sunsets, funny faces, etc.); take a stuffed animal and take photos around the travel destination.
- Facetime/ Skype: Use video phone calls to connect face-to-face during the trip - talk, sing, tell jokes, dance, whatever you like.
- Special notes: Leave a note or picture to tuck under his or her pillow to read at night; write notes for lunchboxes; write or draw a morning greeting for each day.
- Open-ended questions: Talking to your kids and getting them to open up about their day can be challenging especially over the phone. Ask open-ended questions without yes or no answers on your phone conversation, such as: "What do you want to talk about? What was the best part of your day?"
- Postcards: Buy postcards from your different travel destinations and help your child collect them in a scrapbook (send them or bring them home).
- Gifts and souvenirs: Buying things and expectations around gift buying can get out of control; set clear expectations and keep it small (i.e. a $5 gift for each trip over three nights, or start a collection like mugs from each city).
- Show and tell: Decorate a special box together and have your child keep special items in it to share with you when you return (school papers, drawings, things they find on a nature walk, photos, etc.)
- Speak in their language: Be willing to learn new ways of communication (e.g. texting, using different apps, play online games) and know that it can be as meaningful as a two-way conversation in some cases.
With the right perspective, a lot of preparation, and some strategies for staying connected, traveling for work as a parent can be very manageable. It may even be a little bit fun.
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