Being a Beast – Not a Burden: How to Support the Spouse at Home While Traveling
“Don’t forget to pick up more salt for the driveway on your way home from school today, Max!” I call after my 16-year-old as he heads for the door. “I love you!”
“I will. Love you too, Dad,” he yells as racing for the front door.
“Okay, last one Alex,” as I turn my attention to my 9-year-old. “TARIFF. The new TARIFF caused the prices to rise. TARIFF.” Alex takes another bite of cereal. Some milk dribbles from his mouth as he starts, “T – A – R…” he pauses, contemplating whether it’s a double-R or double-F. “I – F – F.”
“That’s it! Good job, buddy. You’ll do great today. Don’t forget to turn in your picture money.”
“Oh! Let me grab that,” says my wife as she charges into the kitchen and snags her purse. “Thanks, Honey.” Then to Alex, “C’mon Sweetie, we have to go.”
“Bye, dad… love you!” says Alex as he pops up from the table.
“Talk to you, tonight, pal. I love you, too.” Then to my wife, “I just got an email that the prescription is ready at the vet.”
“Okay I’ll grab it on the way home. Thanks, Honey. Gotta go. Love you. Text me later.”
“Love you, too. Have a good day,” I squeeze in the words as I see her forefinger coming at me. The live Facetime video on my phone reverts back to the home screen. It was just like any other semi-chaotic weekday morning at the Winter’s. I have taken on the role as reminder-in-chief. It’s just one way I can help my wife as she does the rest of the heavy lifting around the house. The laundry, the cooking, shoveling snow from the driveway – all things with which I used to help before moving 1,800 miles away.
When my career left me little choice but to relocate to Ohio, my wife and I decided it was best to allow our teen to finish-out high school in Montana. And while the decision was painful for me, knowing I would only get to see and hug my family once a month, it would be equally, if not more difficult for my wife. She not only works full-time, as well, but would have the added responsibilities that come with being the at-home parent.
We’re not alone. Millions of American families are forced to live apart for their careers – military, corporate, entertainment – all jobs that can require deployments. And these separations take a toll on the at-home spouse. The National Institutes of Health in 2002 reported on a study done by the Health Services Department of the World Bank in Washington, DC. The study found spouses of business travelers filed claims for medical treatment at about a 16% higher rate than spouses of non-travelers. For stress related psychological disorders the rates tripled for spouses of frequent travelers. This included skin and intestinal diseases.
If you – like I — don’t want to give your partner a disease, here are a few ways:
First Step: Prep!
Perhaps the best thing you can do to relieve stress for the at-home partner comes before the separation. Before you leave, take care of deferred maintenance; set up the electronic devices that will be used to communicate (computers, phones, Echo Show, etc.); knock out those honey-dos that you’ve put off; fill the pantry and the freezer; organize the junk drawer; clear out your side of the closet.
As mentioned, I am reminder-in-chief. A shared Google calendar, along with email and text notifications from doctors, the school, utilities, etc., all allow me to help my wife keep things straight while she juggles the in-person chores. Just because you’re not the at-home parent, doesn’t mean your day-to-day parental responsibilities can be shirked.
It’s (Not) All About the Kids
While so much emphasis is on the kids in a separated family (and rightfully so), there still needs to be attention paid to the nuclear family’s core connection – the relationship between you and your partner. Making time to nurture that relationship can help ease the uncertainty of living apart. Text messages throughout the day; sending little presents; taking time to talk apart from the kids’ conversations is equally important.
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes Are Okay
Face it, your absence means things are going to change – and you need to be okay with that. If your daughter can’t make it to Taekwondo; or if the dogs don’t get walked quite as much; or if there’s an extra night of take-out; that’s okay. The at-home partner needs to feel okay with not making EVERYTHING happen the way it did when the “deployed” partner lived at home and was able to help out. The best way to do this is not show disappointment or judgement. That perhaps is even more important when the away-partner comes home to visit or comes home permanently. Routines will have changed. Accepting and not questioning those changes is key.
Don’t Keep Score
Lauren Tamm writes a blog called TheMilitaryWifeandMom.com. She says, “You can’t keep a tally of who sent the most letters, who said the most ‘I love yous,’ and who made the most sacrifices. Because the truth is that it will never be equal.” This may go both ways, but it will take a tremendous amount of pressure off the at-home partner if you don’t impose your expectations. Tamm continues, “Keeping score only builds resentment and breaks down your relationship. If you are both giving it your best, then the tally count doesn’t matter.”
Don’t Be a Burden
File this under: Less may be more – an ideal to which I’m constantly aspiring – and struggling – to achieve. When I’m away from home I try to connect with the family via Facetime at least twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening. But just because I am ready to talk, doesn’t’ mean my family is. Homework, friends, TV shows, video games, sports, baths, meals – my 9-year-old needs a staff to keep his schedule. Combine that with my 16-year-old’s busy life, and there’s a lot going on at Casa de Winter. My wife may have it handled, right up until one more straw is added to the camel’s back. I don’t want to be that straw. So, making sure my timing is good when I check in with the family is a good idea. Simply asking, “Is now a good time?” And being okay if it’s not, can keep your camel standing and your partner happy.
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