More and more families are living in transition. Mom or dad has to go away for weeks at a time leaving the other parent to weather it alone for a week at a time or more. This lifestyle can be especially hard on young children as they thrive on routine and stability. Parents must be aware that behaviour issues can arise and coping mechanisms must be created by everyone in the family unit if transient lifestyle is to be successful.
My husband has been working up north in Ft.McMurray as a Paramedic/Firefighter for over two years. We have 3 small children (all boys) aged 6, 4 and 20 months. Here are some tips and tricks that I do with my own family to keep us connected, attached and thriving.
Nothing beats a support network of likeminded parents. Sometimes it can be hard to find a reliable substitute for your absent partner, but being able to rely on someone that you trust can mean the world for a solo parent. Also, parents going through the same transitional lifestyle can help with advice, and sometimes even childcare, as they know what it is like to be in your shoes. Another way to build your support network is to cultivate relationships with the people in your neighbourhood. In this digital age it is easy to sit inside at home and use the computer to connect with people. For a solo parent, putting yourself out there and meeting other people in your neighbourhood is critical. It is always good to have neighbours to watch out for you and for your kids. I find that since I have gotten to know my neighbours they are more forgiving if the sidewalk is not done right away, and one of them usually does it for me as he knows that it is hard for me to do it with all 3 of my little ones trailing behind. It is also important to know when to ask for help and also when to accept it. I was incredibly grateful when a neighbour of mine came over to my house to watch my 2 of my children while I rushed my 3rd child to the hospital and I couldn’t wait for my mom to get to my house. She saved me a lot of undue stress in an already stressful situation.
Small children thrive on routine so living in a household that is in constant flux can be hard on them. You may notice that your children “act out” more often when in transition – this can be when the other parent comes home or when they go away. The best way to combat this is to have a pretty restricted routine and make sure to follow it no matter who is home. In our house we have all the meals at the same time every day. I have a meal plan so that I know what is being cooked and do not have to think about it. My kids know that we have crock-pot on Thursdays and Pizza and movie night on Fridays. This also gives them something to look forward to. When my partner comes home there is a little bit of resistance from the children, but this is perfectly normal and we know that they need a little more reassurance from both parents to make the transition a smooth one. This is the most important point that I can not stress enough. Every family has a natural balance of how much time they need together and how much time they need apart. Most families that have one parent working away from home complain that the time when they come back is so rushed and they don’t feel like they are connecting with each other…the kids are fighting more and it is generally a very stressful time. Parents complain that they just get into a routine and then the other parent comes home and they have to try and fit the other person into their life. This is why the routine is so important. If you keep things the same whenever either of you are home there is less trying to fit in to the family dynamic, and that makes for a much easier transition on everyone.
- Making time for each other and time for yourself.
Most parents I know (myself included) get overwhelmed by the day to day with small children, especially when they can’t contact their partner to talk about how their day is going (many work away parents have limited access to contact out until after shift ends). We make it a point to have Skype three times a week where my husband will eat his dinner later so that he can say goodnight to the boys. We send him pictures of what we are doing, or eating for supper and the kids make him cards and gifts that he can take up with him the next time he goes. We also took a parenting class that talked about attachment and transitions from Dr.Gordon Neufeld and he stressed on the importance of the next point of contact and leaving something for your kids to treasure while you are away. My husband has the kids take care of one of his watches when he is away, and he makes sure that he calls when he is about to board the plane, when he lands, and before bed every night.
When my husband comes home I will sometimes want a break, and so I will make an appointment for something just for me, on the second day that he is home. I do make sure that this balances with the needs of the whole family though, as my husband also likes to have a night out and we would like a night out together, but we also have to reconnect as a family so this is the hardest part for most families with limited time between shifts. We try to get all of the chores done while he is gone, and I have actually hired a cleaning lady to do my floors and bathrooms so that we can spend time connecting as a family instead of scrubbing tiles.
Every time that he is home he will take one of our children out for some errand so that he can talk to them one on one and find out what is on their mind. I have all sons and so the one on one time that they can have with their dad is really important to me and I will sacrifice other things such as a Mom’s Night Out for this to happen. I really believe that my kids are small for such a short time and I want to give them as stable an upbringing that I can.
This doesn’t mean that I neglect myself, as that is not the case at all. I invite friends over for dinner and playdates when he is away, and also have my best girlfriends over for coffee once a month just to reconnect. It is really all about creating the lifestyle that you want to enjoy.
- Find Fun in the Everyday
This is not to say that it doesn’t get lonely sometimes, even when I have relied on my support network. I believe that being a sometimes single parent can be really isolating because on the weekend when my single friends have dropped their kids off with their ex, and my other friends are having family time on the weekend, we are just waiting for the day to end so that we can talk to daddy. A way that I combat this is by overcompensating for the fact that he is not home on birthdays, and holidays. I make crazy themed food and I also make elaborate crafts and games with the kids. The absolutely love it and it is my hope that they remember the silly crafts and the crazy themed food (thank you Pinterest.com) instead of the fact that their dad was only home half if the year.
When my husband comes home we also make sure that we try and make it the least stressful as we can by going and doing things like the zoo, or visiting a museum or many of the other attractions and activities that the city has to offer. Also, because he has a whole week off we will sometimes drop everything and go on a mini vacation. Anything to break up the mundane and the monotonous nature of daddy being home vs. daddy being gone.
- Goals/ End Dates
As with any lifestyle choice having a goal is a really good idea. When one parent is working away from home for long periods of time it is always important to have that end goal in mind. Is this a forever thing? Is it just for 6 months to a year? Why are you doing it? There are different challenges for both the parent working away from home and for the parent still at home with the little kids, and sometimes when the going gets tough it is good to keep that end date or reason for working in your mind. We decided to go with this route to be able to afford a house, which we now own and love. We also like the flexibility that my husband has when he comes home because we are a homeschooing family, so we can take a break whenever we want to expand on learning etc. We do have quarterly goals and right now we are saving up for a trip across the ocean. By knowing how many tours that my husband has to work for us to afford our goal makes it easier for me to get through the 6th bedtime by myself when everyone has a cold.
As with everything being a sometimes single parent is not for everyone. Sometimes the lure of the money can make it seem like it is worth it, and for some people that in itself is enough. On the other hand it is important to remember that it is not easy money at all. The sacrifice that you have to make as a family and the work that it takes to keep connected and attached can make the money that you could potentially earn not worth it in the least. If you are feeling angry, resentful, depressed or taking out your emotions on the children then you have to take a good hard look at the situation and either change it by learning new coping mechanisms like I have outlined above, or try something else until the children are older.