With about 50% of marriages ending in divorce, the concept of the nuclear family containing two parents and 2.3 children living together in a suburban home, no longer applies. But not all families who are separated into different houses are the result of divorce. Factors such as military deployment, transport sector careers, continuing education, and the need for safe childcare are some of the reasons more parents are living farther away from their children. Although living away from your immediate family can be stressful, it can be made to work. The important thing to focus on is meeting the needs of the child and making sure they continue to grow in a healthy manner.
The techniques a parent employs to bridge the distance depends on the age of the child. The emotional needs of the child should guide the actions taken. It is obvious that a baby’s needs are vastly different than a freshman in college. In the situation of the infant, physical interaction will increase bonding. Leave some clothing with your scent for your child and consider breast feeding for as long as possible to improve bonding. This can be achieved in spite of long distance utilizing a pump and a freezer. However, emailing photos of the family pet to your new college student might comfort your child, making them feel remembered without being too imposing.
Communication is extremely important, it is the glue that will keep you connected until you can see each other again. Seeing each other in real time from any place with an Internet connection is an option that didn’t exist a few years ago. Video messaging is a great tool for staying on the same page. There are quite a few free domestic services, and there are affordable options for long distance calls. In some cases, live video messaging is not an option. A parent can overcome this obstacle by recording themselves talking to the child, possibly reading a book, or telling a story about something that happened (maybe a how I met your mother, or one time when I was your age story… etc). The video can be sent over email, or if it is too large consider a subscription to a video site where a password can be set to view videos (protecting family time from going viral). There is also the tried and true option of the phone call. Chatting a couple minutes here or there can help alleviate having to spend a long time catching each other up on the other events and interests. Leave a voice message even if you don’t think your child is getting them. Even if you can’t have a conversation, your child will probably find comfort that you reached out to them and they will enjoy hearing your voice.
Often, the main difference of a family that lives together all the time and a family that doesn’t is shared experiences. If everyone makes an effort to share experiences, the distance starts to shrink. Although you may not have a lot of time together to actually spend in the same room you can share activities remotely. Maybe it is listening to the game in the truck while your son watches it on the T.V., or maybe it’s starting a family book club. Choosing something that everyone will enjoy is key, so practice your listening skills and ask about each other’s favorite pastimes to decide on a family activity.
Only promise something if it’s really going to happen. Your child will understand if something comes up once or twice, but if you are unable to budget your time and resources effectively on a regular basis, it will discredit you. Kids are very perceptive, but they lack the life experience to understand how crazy maintaining a schedule and demands can be. If you are not sure that you will be able to make an event it is better to tell them that you are unable to and surprise them, than make plans that fall through. Surprises will make the child feel special and thought of. This applies also for presents and letters. As we get older we often become accustomed to birthdays and don’t often make a big deal out of them, but for young children birthdays are very important. Make sure you remember special dates like birthdays and holidays by keeping a calendar. Mail a letter or package sometime out of the blue, but check with the live in parent to see how long it took to reach the house. Budget your time and mail birthday cards or presents within that time frame so that your child wakes up to your gift on their special day.
Supporting the other parent is important. For the custodial parent, this means making sure that the child is available for phone calls, that they receive letters and gifts that the other parent sends and that they are able to spend time with the parent when there is time. For the parent on the road that means communicating your schedule to the other parent, and being understanding if something doesn’t work out every now and then. Distance parenting is hard on everyone involved, but it is important to remember that the children are the focus. If you are returning home after a deployment or long time away from home, make sure you give yourself time to adjust even if it seems counter intuitive to being home with everyone. When you have a career that involves distant traveling it can feel like you are living two lives. Giving yourself time to adjust to civilian or home life will make you more present for your family when you finally acclimate fully. Also take time for your spouse, because it is important to maintain your partnership. Being out of the house is hard enough but coming home can be stressful as well. If you take time to let your partner know that they are special and that you are on the same team, your family will be stronger for it.