How to Be a Good Dad When You Travel For Work
It’s painful and far from easy, but not impossible
From January to December of 2016, I spent an average of two weeks a month on the road. Not always the whole week, not always cumulatively, and not always far from home, but gone all the same. I’d wake up in the morning, pack a bag, and either drive to the airport or walk outside and hop in the car, usually before dawn. These trips were occasionally fun, because I’m lucky enough to have a job that is occasionally fun. They were almost always regional—in a neighbouring province—sometimes national—the other side of the country—and sometimes overseas. And they were never easy.
Not because I don’t like leaving home. The dirty secret about excessive work travel is that no one does it because they have to. It’s almost always a compromise, either a benefit in itself or accepted as a trade-off in exchange for some other benefit, like a salary bump or a gig you love. My exact job isn’t important; all that really matters is that I deal with the travel because I love what I do. I have an understanding and extremely patient wife, and she puts up with me being gone either because she’s secretly boning the milkman, or because she loves me and wants to make our relationship—a decade-long rolling ball of weirdness that no sane person could explain after meeting the two of us—work.
That said, the problem with being on the road is . . . being on the road. A decade ago ago, when I found my current vocation, I was in my early twenties. I didn’t live near family, I didn’t have a pet, and I barely even had furniture. When I wasn’t on the road for work, I’d get on the road and go somewhere, anywhere, just to get out. I loved it. I couldn’t get enough of it. I didn’t really like where I lived—I had moved there for work, ironically—but I loved everywhere else. So I travelled, whether I had to or not. Weekends four hours or four states away. Then home for a day and back on the road for three days for the job. Repeat.
As I got older, it became more of a known upset: I didn’t want to leave my girlfriend, who then became my wife. I liked our house. We acquired a dog, and I missed the dog, and the dog became more neurotic, more of a hassle for my wife, when I was gone. I made friends close to home, most of whom couldn’t come with us on the weekends when we hopped in the car and drove off to wherever.
All of this eventually came to a head. Leaving home never lost its appeal, but internally, it began to push fewer buttons. I realized that, as a younger person, I didn’t actually want the travel, I just wanted the interesting experiences that it provided. As my life grew more rounded at home, the travel became less critical to the process. I still loved the job, but only because of what it allowed me to do every day. Not where it was.
None of this is unique. This same arc has happened to a lot of people, and will continue to happen, so long as there are roads and airplanes and jobs and significant others. As far as I can tell, most people have or will travel along the arc in the same way I did. Perhaps they’ll have kids. Perhaps they’ll get to the same point that a lot of people do, where it’s difficult to keep moving. Where simply leaving home becomes the most painful thing you have ever had to do. And you have to do it regularly enough to set a watch by.
Our oldest daughter was born almost four years ago. Our youngest came along shortly after. Every passing day has made each of them more well-rounded people, more interesting and compelling. But it’s also complicated things in obvious ways: Every single time I leave home is now like pulling teeth. To say that I don’t want to go would be an understatement. I work from home, so I see my kids every day. Usually just at meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—but also most weekends (I occasionally have to travel on weekends, for work). I don’t want to be away from them for a minute, and all being away does is emphasize how much they add to my life.
Being a parent is rarely easy or straightforward, but I never thought much about the intersection of being a dad with having to travel. I assumed, foolishly, that it would just be something I dealt with when it came along. At one point, long before we had kids, I remember thinking, “How hard could it be? And if it gets too hard, I’ll just change my life.”
God, I was naive.
Like a lot of things you think when you’re younger, balancing a work life with family seems easy long before you actually have to do it. Long before there are outside factors, other considerations. And also just the standard tolerance stack-up of daily life: It’s somehow easy to go whole days or weeks—entire business trips—getting caught up in the day-to-day, where you wake up, go do your job, get done with your job, have dinner, wrap up day, go to bed. If you’re on the road, you forget that evening phone call or Skype. If you’re not, you can sometimes not leave the office until after they’ve gone to bed.
The answers, as I’ve found them so far:
Spend time with your kids when you’re not on the road. Sounds simple, right? It’s not as easy as it sounds. Real life gets in the way. Our house is a three-story condo; I work on the ground floor, in an office next to the front door, and the kitchen/living-room space is directly above me. I walk into my office in the morning, shut the door, and zone into what I have to do for the day. My kids are still young enough to be home all the time, but even being in the same building, it’s hard to pull away from a monitor and go spend five minutes. When I worked in an office and had a commute, I was far better about getting in the car to meet my wife, and the kids, for lunch. It takes effort, and it’s often far from convenient, but it’s possible.
Embrace access that isn’t convenient. Go where they are, when they are. Even if it’s unpleasant as hell. Example: Young kids typically wake up early. I do not. I have never. I do not especially on weekends, when my wife and I are typically dragged out of bed by either our dog, barking; our kids, yelling; or our dog barking at our kids, who are yelling. But I’ve started making a point of getting up when they get up—somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 in the morning—and walking into their room, to play with them for a couple of hours, until my wife wakes up. It helps, and they love it. It’s like filling a bank account; the memories get withdrawn later.
Carry as much as you need on the road, to remind you of what you left. God, I used to hate this. Who wants to lug around shit from their kids? It sounds simple, but it makes a difference. Pictures, mementos, the small rock collection that my oldest daughter scavenged from our front yard. I used to scoff at carrying more than a picture or two, until I realized it constantly prompted memories. When you’re sitting on a turbulent flight from Nowhere to Nowhere Else, or stuck in a hotel room in Forgottensville, little mementos help. Even if you feel like the cliché-ridden dad character in some crapcan 1980s movie.
Skype. Even if you don’t have anything to talk about. I hate phone calls with a passion. My children are too young to get anything out of a video call or FaceTime chat. We still do it. After a week on the road, pictures aren’t enough. They’re probably going to grow up and tell their friends stories of all the times Dad made them stare into a laptop screen for ten minutes, just so he wouldn’t lose his mind. Whatever. (I don’t care. I don’t want to lose my mind.)
Accept the fact that it’s just occasionally going to suck. And if you want to change it, you’re going to have to change your life, and what work asks of you. Which is always possible, if not always practical. But that’s up to you. (I realize this isn’t much help. But it doesn’t change the truth of the matter.)
In other words, it’s the same truth as in any other relationship: You have to make time for your kids, when you can. The time will not make itself.
There’s no magic, answer, of course, except to stop traveling. Which I could do—though it’d require a career change—and probably will at some point, when they’re older. Therapists like to tell people that one of the keys to life is to constantly remind yourself that, on a certain level, everything is a choice. Not just the experiences that you have and are afforded, but how you deal with them, and the trade-offs you make in order to accomplish one thing or another.
I’m trying to deal with this. I’m not going to lie—it’s not easy, and I don’t have it wholly figured out. All I know is that it doesn’t get easier, at least not if you make family a priority. But that doesn’t mean you can’t fight to make it better, every step of the way.
If you want to know more about being the best, check out these 14 Hacks That Make You The Best Dad.
Article originally published on menshealth.com