A husband travels for work. He swaps car seats under the moon, leaves a love note on the coffee beans. Kisses sleeping eyelids. Makes his side of the bed. Tosses a duffel bag over his shoulder, reminds a groggy wife to refill the dehumidifier, water the plant.
Don’t forget the fish, OK? Set an alarm so the kids remember to feed them.
She does. They do.
There are times in which I’m envious. Other times, he’d give anything to stay. Mostly, it’s a crapshoot – and when it comes time for me to scan my own boarding pass weeks later, I find I’m a split blend of overjoyed and heavyhearted, all in the span of a single sec.
We’re no strangers to solo parenting, Ken and I. We’ve set our lives up for it, choosing to chase dreams and toddlers simultaneously, believing wholly in the power of partnership and mutuality. It works, mostly, although I often think our culture can romanticize the idea of 50/50 parenting. The truth: it is never 50/50. The prism bends when hours are sliced; our memories become arrogant. Few favor the facts.
And so: we are always co-parenting. From miles away, we relish the reminder that there’s another person on this planet with skin in our own small game. Someone else concerned (or not) over one child’s salami intake, someone else to lament the trappings of Cailou. Another set of ears to hear the training wheels are off, the Uno round conquered, the lisp overcome. In this vein, solo parenting is never solo.
In every other vein, it is.
Here, then, are my own solo parenting survival tips, whether for a few days or a few weeks, whether you’re the one leaving or staying, whether you’re at home or on the go:
1. Assess communication expectations up front.
Ken and I have a rule that works for us, and it is simple: there’s no need to check in. No Skype, no FaceTime. No phone calls. Just a few quick texts – the “safe and sound!”s, or an “i love you and miss you”. Mostly, space and silence.
We learned quickly that the trick to maximizing time away from the kids is to actually be away from the kids. Being gone when we’re gone; being home when we’re home. Being all there, wherever we are, and resisting the temptation to bow out of social hour because we need to FaceTime the littles.
After all, I’m in a New York diner and he’s wrangling a teething baby into a hot car seat, and wait a sec, my toast is here! – and would you just hold still?! – and hold on, you’re breaking up, and really, we know where this convo leads. The one who is away is away, the one who is home is home.
I have witnessed many a parent excuse themselves from a conference for a nightly check-in with their kids only to return guilt-stricken and blue. A curt response from an overwhelmed partner or a tearful “Come home!” from a tired child can ruin the evening before the dessert menu’s even arrived, turning the conversation inevitably to how difficult parenting in the modern age has become.
It has become difficult, yes, but we needn’t make it moreso. By assessing communication expectations up front, whether it’s a daily check-in or predetermined scheduled meeting (or not), a whole mess of distracted emotions can be avoided. Trust that your partner away can handle the keynote speech. Trust that your partner at home can handle the nosebleed. Cheer your teammate on from afar; await the recap ’til the fat lady sings.
2. Repeat: No gig is easy.
Call me invidious, but I have, in the past, fallen trap to the myth that the traveling parent has the easier gig. And sometimes, they do. After all, there are no surprise childcare cancellations to transform your day into a stack of Tetris blocks. There are no tantrums over a missing shoe. There are none of the usual transitory tasks to perform, the laundry, the dishes, the poo-scooping.
But there, is, still much else. Inevitable flight delays. 4-hour long meetings, endless negotiations in which you find yourself on the losing side. There are nerves. Bosses to impress, sales goals to meet, customers to comfort, problems to solve, and at the end of a long day, you find the waitress did in fact put strawberry in the coulis.
What I’m saying is this: no gig is easy, with or without the missing shoe. On my hardest of days spent solo parenting, I do well to remember this.
3. Plan something to look forward to.
Both with, and without the kids.
I load our library totes with dozens of books to enjoy while Ken’s out of town, our grocery carts with the same. (Proper warning: this will sometimes backfire in that your 6-year-old might request Daddy jets town more often so she can eat popcorn on his side of the bed while paging through Ozma of Oz until well after midnight.)
But what I’m getting at is simple: solo parenting can sometimes be enriching and fun and a wonderful change of pace, but it can also be taxing. Now is not the time for parsimony. Bake the treats. Fling open the windows. Turn the tunes up louder (louder, louder still). Schedule a just-for-fun trip to the botanical gardens, plan a coffee shop adventure for breakfast. Have an embargo on Octonauts? For the love of the sea, release the creature reports.
Invite the neighbor girl over to watch the littles while you sneak in a quick run around the block. When the kids are (finally) in bed, slather on a $2 face mask and stare at the wall in silence. Make reservations for one at the taco bar down the street; mark your calendar to take yourself out when your spouse returns.
In short: indulge where you can, however small.
4. Include a buffer.
The grand finale, then. There is a tendency to assume that the parent who has left the premises will be ready and willing to take over immediately. But this is no relay race, and our children are far from batons.
And so: out of sheer kindness, if schedule allows, grant the traveling parent a buffer of his/her choosing. Let them acclimate. Give them time and space in whatever manner they need, whether a few minutes to unpack or a few days to decompress. (Ken famously granted me a buffer day when I returned home from Ethiopia with a sadness I couldn’t shake, no matter the fact that he’d solo parented for weeks already. We have been practicing this for each other ever since.)
If schedule doesn’t allow, of course, the traveling parent can easily be responsible for his/her own buffer. Play an encouraging podcast on the plane, something that will spark energy into the home you’re returning to. Take advantage of an Uber drive home to quiet your mind and shift into parenting mode. Deep breaths in the driveway. Enter with an open mind. Clear the night ahead for a recap: How was the speech? Bee learned to tie her shoes! We got the job! There’s a robin’s nest in the backyard!
The truth is this: transition is (mostly) everything, and everyday kindness is everything else. A “Thank you for your hard work” is always in order, whether the recipient is the one stirring eggs in the kitchen or the one dragging a suitcase through the entryway.
You’ll both be bone-tired, no doubt. But you’re together again, and your time apart was fruitful and hard, and is now over. That’s something to celebrate.
(Never mind the popcorn kernels on the bed.)