Chris just returned home from a 10-day trip to South Korea. He had a wonderful time training the eager attendees in the 19 relational skills and seeing familiar faces. South Korea has been an annual trip for the last four years.
While his adventures to South Korea are only once a year, he often travels for shorter periods within the States (and last year he had three different trips abroad). I am thankful that he is such an involved parent when he is home and loves to spend time with our boys. His involvement makes his absence felt all the more intensely, though, when he does travel. Over the years, I have learned some things to make his time away easier on all of us. The theme of these lessons is to help keep my relational circuits on and be strategic to stay within my capacity.
- Plan fun relational times. When the boys were younger, I would plan times for me to have fun with girlfriends at least once during the trip (preferably every couple of days) so I could have some relational time with adults to look forward to. Now that they are older, I still plan things to look forward to, but often it involves the boys—things like taking them to the beach, going out for frozen yogurt, taking a little overnight trip to visit family, or simply going to the park. Now that they are older, I look forward to our fun times of playing together, and it helps distract us all from missing Chris.
- Plan downtime. While part of our daily and weekly routine is protected moments of downtime, when Chris is gone, I try to have all of us take an extended rest/reading/quiet time in our rooms in the afternoons. Downtime gives all of us a chance to quiet, and it gives me a window for a few minutes alone.
- Ask for and accept help. I usually ask for help from family and friends, hire a babysitter, or both when Chris is traveling. This can look like dropping the kids off with grandma, having a neighborhood kid come to play with them, or inviting your mom or a friend over to help you cook dinner and visit with you and the kids. On Chris’ most recent trip, I ended up sick about half-way through his time in Korea. Thankfully, I was not feverish and confined to bed, but I felt crummy and only had short spurts of energy and then needed to rest. The first night I was coming down sick, the boys had a baseball game. I shared with my mother-in-law (who was visiting) that I might need her to take them. I felt bad about the thought of missing the game and tried to shake it off, thinking that I could have pushed through and gone to the game anyway. When I prayed about it, I had the thought “accept the help.” So, I sent the boys off to the game with grandma and stayed in bed and rested. Later in the week, I asked my mom to take the boys to the park because they were going stir-crazy in the house, and while they played outside with her, I took a nap. A friend brought me a meal. Another friend drove the kids to and from camp, so I didn’t have to leave the house. While it can feel out of my comfort zone to ask for help, it can bless others to be able to help you, and you can return the favor when they have a need!
- Get a babysitter. It can feel like a frivolous expense to pay someone to be with your kids so that you can take a nap, take a walk, have lunch with a friend, or simply go to the grocery store alone, but having some “you time” will help refresh you for the long haul. This helps restore your capacity so you can be more present with the kids and not be fried by the time your spouse returns.
- Plan simple meals. When Chris is traveling, we often have very simple things for dinner. Whether it is frozen pizza, breakfast for dinner, chicken nuggets, leftovers from the freezer, or even take-out, I try to keep meals simple when he is traveling. This gives me one less thing to worry about. Before Chris leaves on a trip, I try to cook a few large dinners and freeze the leftovers, so I have something easy to pull out of the freezer for our meal (soup, a casserole, beans, and rice, etc.). This planning ahead gives us some simple, healthy meals to eat that do not take any work. Since I was sick this last week, we had some version of hard-boiled eggs, toast, and fruit for dinner a few of the nights—and the boys were delighted!
- Lower my expectations. I usually like to have a clean house, laundry caught up, healthy meals, sink empty of dishes, and our boys engaged in an activity (or rest) that is good for them. While this is my normal expectation, we change the expectations when Chris is gone. The house might not be so clean, the meals might not be so healthy or homemade, and the boys may have more screen time than we usually allow. All of these allowances ease the pressure of what I am trying to keep up with and extend my capacity so I can still parent and keep up the household without a key part of my support network.
- Have leniency with behavior and emotions. When Chris is gone, all of us are missing him. This is called attachment pain. The person we want to be with is unavailable for whatever reasons. This pain plays out in different ways. When I notice the boys sniping at each other more and being cross, I remind myself that they are missing Daddy and I try to extend some grace. When I start crying at a commercial or snapping at the kids, I remind myself I am missing my husband and feeling a little crispy. I give myself some grace and work to get my relational circuits back on. I allow myself a good cry if I need one or talk to a friend on the phone. I also help all of us name what is going on (we are missing Chris) and give an outlet for the feeling—make a card, record a video, call and leave a message, etc. The main goal here is to help my sons (and myself) feel connected instead of alone.
- Plan for recovery time. If your spouse is like mine, traveling wears him out—not only the travel itself (time in a car, plane, train, etc.) but also pouring himself out and being “on” most of the time while he is away. He often has long days and poor sleep in a hotel bed, so he is wiped out by the time he returns. He also tends to have bad travel experiences with delayed and canceled flights, so that returning home takes much longer than expected. I have started telling people, “He is supposed to be home tomorrow, we hope…”For a long time, I would count down the days (and sometimes hours) until he would return and I would have help again! It took me longer than I care to admit (and more arguments and meltdowns on my part than it should have) to realize that just because he was home again didn’t make him “available.” I have learned to plan some recovery time before I expect anything from him. (And for international travel like this last trip, with a 24-hour travel day and 13-hour time zone change, he needs several days.) This means extending my countdown (and my implementation of all of the above lessons) to a day or two after his return. Since I have made this change in my expectations, I handle the “reentry” much better. We don’t have nearly the disagreements we used to, and I don’t have nearly the meltdowns I used to.
Perhaps your spouse doesn’t travel much, and you don’t have to handle things alone often, but all of us have seasons where we need to be gentle with ourselves and have to be strategic to stay within our capacity. This could be a season of illness, busyness at work, moving or caring for loved ones with an illness. Regardless of the reason, you may need to look at how to insert things into your day and week to be refreshed and to lower your expectations.