When Business Travel Takes You From Your Family: 11 Ways to Help not Hurt Them.
When Business Travel Takes You From Your Family: 11 Ways to Help not Hurt Them.
My last post was for the staying spouse. Here’s wisdom for the traveler.
In the last month, I had the rare privilege of going on 2 weeklong trips overseas. As exciting as it was for me, it took its toll on my family.
My buddy Ross travels 3 to 4 nights a month, in addition to two long trips per year. He tells me of the cost: ‘My younger daughter runs to the front door with her arms wide open when she hears my voice on the phone.’ He also tells me of the strain on his wife – who also has a demanding job, and then has to be mom, dad, disciplinarian, playmate and still have energy to keep the household running.
Depending on the age of your children, they can interpret your leaving differently – for toddlers it could be separation anxiety, older kids tend to experience anger and sadness. Younger kids especially begin to wonder if you’re even real – I’m still haunted by the memory of my 2-year old Fynn running to my friend (instead of me) as we exited the airport after a long trip away from home!
You see, it’s not just the staying family that hurts, it’s the traveler too. Dr Karen Gail Lewis counsels men who travel, and speaks of the disintegration that comes from living two separate lives—one in hotel rooms and one back home. ‘When he returns from a trip, he wants to feel appreciated; he wants to feel his wife and kids have missed him and are glad he is back. He wants to feel he still counts in the family. Instead, he returns to kids and a wife who have learned to live without him.’
So how can you minimize these damages – on your spouse, kids and yourself? I reflected on what I got right, what I got wrong, and I interviewed frequent flying friends. I’ve landed up with 11 practical pieces of wisdom. How I wish I read this a month ago.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE
1. Start with why.
Ross says, ‘I cannot endure the travelling unless I constantly remind myself of why I travel.’ Since travelling takes such a toll, we and our spouse need to ask the hard questions: Do I really have to travel? This much? This long? If you agree that travelling is a must, then you, your spouse and your kids need to be clear on the why.
2. Time your travel right.
In each family’s calendar, ether will be times that it’s easier to go away… If possible, look at your collective diaries and do everything you can to travel in the least crazy seasons. If at all possible, drastically limit travel in the first year of your child’s life. My buddy, Carolyn tells me of the pseudo-Armageddon unleashed upon her family when her husband travelled during the most fragile years of her kid’s lives.
3. Prioritise quality time ahead of time.
The weekend or day before, spend a day together just having fun. Make sure to plan ahead otherwise the trip will sneak up on you. Your absence is a daily withdrawal of trust, so put as much as you can into the emotional bank account of the ones you love. And since your marriage is even more foundational than your parenting, give that priority attention.
4. Leave some love behind.
Leave videos or notes for your spouse and kids, or some way of helping them to count down. Another friend Alan tells me, ‘After many trips of my kids feeling disconnected from me, I now write letters with pictures in them of where I will be on that day for my kids. Each letter tells a basic story of what I will be up to for the day. My daughter even takes them to school with her, and keeps them. It gives us something to talk about when I speak to her on the phone.’
5. Stay connected.
Try connect daily. Work out the best time in the day to call. And make sure your spouse understands time zone differences – on my last trip, my wife cheerily phoned me at 1am.
We found that for our young kids, me sending a short video each day worked better than a phone call. I’d tell them about my day, then tell them all by name that I loved them. Sometimes I’d do a scan of my location or some people I was with. Julie tells me that our kids watched these clips endlessly.
When it comes to connecting with your spouse, have meaningful conversations – don’t wait until you’re back home. Ask them what’s happening. Listen empathetically to the details. Then having listened to them, tell them what’s happening on your side – the details. Help them get a visual picture of your day-to-day life. Tell them stories: about the interesting conversation you had with a co-passenger or colleague, about the crazy taxi ride, about what you’ve been learning, or thinking in-between the meetings. Often the traveling spouse holds back, because they don’t want their partners to feel like they are having fun without them, but actually both of you will feel more connected the more you share.
As one of my friends puts it: ‘Empathising with what your significant other is experiencing is profoundly important in managing your relationship long-distance. Honestly expressing, listening to, connecting with, and validating each person’s experiences is vital.’
6. Don’t second-guess your spouse’s decisions.
Your spouse may tell you of situations handled and choices made in a way that you would have done differently. Give them the benefit of the doubt – your partner is doing the best they can, so be gracious and not nitpicky or controlling. Perhaps this is the one virtue embedded in travel – it communicates to your partner that you trust them implicitly with your kids and home.
7. Be faithful.
Many (if not most) people find they are so much more vulnerable to sexual compromise when travelling. Just owning up to this makes us less vulnerable. That’s why I always try stay with friends rather than alone. And I carry pics of my family on my phone, and talk about them all the time to anyone who will listen. In so doing, I remind myself, and communicate to others, that I am fully and happily taken.
Friends travelling to the East tell me of prostitutes knocking on their hotel doors. Be very careful about travelling with business partners that you’re attracted to. There’s something about work – the close contact and insane hours which can cause a blurring of emotions. The key is to pre-empt these temptations by avoiding them in the first place. And no, you are not the exception. You are just as vulnerable to compromise as everyone else.
For me, while away, other than a direct conversation, nothing made me feel more connected to my family than praying for them by name. One of my friends makes it his mission to call at bed time, maintaining his custom of praying for them. Prayer also helps me access strength and wisdom – both of which are desperately needed when I travel.
9. Express your gratitude.
Never take your spouse’s sacrifices for granted. Thank them sincerely for taking care of everything while you were away, enabling you to go on this trip. Buy them a thoughtful gift from your travels. Anyone who knows me or Julie (or has heard her recount tales of past birthdays), knows this is not my strength (thoughtful gifts), but I’m working on it! Apart from a gift, my wife retrospectively thinks that it would have been very, very cool if I had initiated her getting some downtime after I touched down… Insisting she goes and does something on her own to recharge (and no, apparently grocery shopping doesn’t count).
Our kids also count the cost while one of their parents are away, so bring them back something that lets them know you were thinking of them, and are grateful for their sacrifice. Since I got back, our kids have insisted on going to bed with the numerous airline complementary eye masks I brought back, after incessantly using their mini airline toothbrushes. Just so you know I also bought some more expensive toys – but I’m told that I should not make a habit of this every time I travel. The key for kids (and our spouse) is not expensiveness but thoughtfulness
10. Prepare for impact
My friend, Roxanne, says, ‘When I travel and come back into it, it seems so much harder after a few days of focused attention on work and success in work. It is much harder to be focused on multiple kids and to succeed in the home.’
It’s not all rainbows and roses as we touch down and get back home, it requires digging deep. Often exhaustion, jet-lag and the jolting readjustment to chaotic family life is a rude awakening! But never forget that our families deserve the best of us, not our jobs. Do you best to be present, not distracted. Relaxed, not irritable. Playful and joyful.
There’s also something to be said for planning a let-down period after work travel to catch your breath, and be with your family. So take a few days off if you can
11. Channel the energy and growth you gained from the trip into your family.
It’s not all sacrifice though – some travel opportunities (like the two trips I recently had) have the power to profoundly enrich our lives – awakening dreams and new ideas, exposing us to different cultures and mindsets, growing our skillset and experiences – and it would be a pity to not leverage this growth into the way we do marriage and the way we raise our kids. They have sacrificed, so at least let me come back a better spouse and parent for it.
In my case, I was exposed to another culture’s approach to parenting, and picked up some blind spots in my culture’s approach – for example how readily we outsource quality time with and the raising of our kids to other people. With that extra time, I also read half a book on parenting while away. And I chatted to some families I met who also have a ton of kids, asking them about regrets and lessons learnt – wisdom which I am now trying to apply.
That’s it. Next time you travel, first pull out this post and the last one – and do it right. Your marriage and kids are absolutely worth it.
Also published on Medium.