Are you part of a “commuter household”? Do you Skype instead of kiss goodnight? Claire Bowie explains what it’s like to be left holding the baby.
Every Monday night, my husband packs a tiny bag and prepares to go to work for four days in another country. Along with a few shirts and a meagre amount of toiletries, he also rolls up any guilt or creeping despair at the situation, sets his alarm, and gets on with it. I, on the other hand, toss and turn and fret and worry about the emotional impact and practical chaos he leaves behind, and ponder how on earth I’d ever cope with a bag so tiny it would hardly even fit my make-up. I may be alone for four days a week, but I am not alone in my situation. “Commuter households” are commonplace, and following a massive drop-off in investment in Ireland since the downturn, airports are packed with Irish workers heading to their “fly in, fly out” (FIFO) jobs, taking work wherever they can get it. When a family unit reaches the point where they cannot live together or even leave together (because they have decided not to uproot their children), one partner – typically the male – can end up spending more time pushing a suitcase than a swing.
The situation is undoubtedly challenging, but the stark reality is that the financial benefits necessitate these decisions and ultimately outweigh the practical and emotional costs for the whole family. A Relate report conducted in 2014 entitled “The Way We Are Now” found that money worries, a work/life balance and communication problems were the main challenges in a relationship, so it’s not surprising that the strain on a “commuter marriage” is intense. However, Relate also says that “whatever the shape, size and complexity of the modern family, it’s still the quality of the relationships within families that really matter”. This is exactly what Georgie, whose husband works away for two to three weeks at a time, also believes. She says that the “quality family time” they share when he gets back cancels out any lonely time she feels in his absence. There’s no more “checking emails or working in the evenings” like he used to because their family time now comes first. If communication is the key to coping with an enforced separation, then it is vital for both partners to acknowledge the sacrifices the other is making and adjust their expectations. This can alleviate the pressure and ward off any resentment. Only last week, I found my (already threadbare) patience being stretched when my husband complained about how long his steak dinner had taken to arrive at his hotel dining table; while I was at home, embroiled in a tense iPad negotiation, mopping up a spillage, and thinking I might well make do with a bowl of Cheerios for my own dinner. Typically, it is the woman who is left behind, reinforcing traditional gender differences in the home and workplace, while the man is able to focus on the job in hand and compartmentalise his life to achieve what has to be done, but it is also the man – the father – who blows the kisses that never land on his children’s faces at night; so mutual understanding and support of each other’s circumstances is vital.
Leanne, whose husband had to leave when manufacturing dried up, says her way of coping is to “keep your head down and get into a routine”. Her mantra is “keep busy”, accept all the support on offer, and be proud of how independent you inevitably become, as you are the only parent available to take out the bins, make the dinner, dry the tears, and fix all the toys. Keeping the routine as normal as possible will help children accept the situation, and although the bond with your children becomes closer when it’s just you at home, there are many instances where a sense of being overwhelmed, tested or outnumbered can take over, and patience goes out the window. The impact can, perhaps, be more greatly felt in younger children, who do not have the structure or distractions of school life or the ability to rationalise situations. They might feel unsure, jealous or confused about the absent parent’s role when they return home, which could affect their sleeping or behavioural patterns.
As I write this, I’m counting down the hours until my husband comes home again, and it strikes me that I spend a lot of time counting recently. I count down to when he’ll return; count to ten so I won’t overreact to something the children did because I’m tired and grumpy; count the calories in the extra bottle of wine I am drinking; count the sheep when I can’t sleep without him by my side; but mostly count my blessings that he has a job, we are managing to hold it all together, and I can’t wait until my family is reunited.
This article can be seen in the IMAGE August issue which is now available nationwide.