On the WOTH blog, In Real Life with Jamie Jo, readers pose questions to Jamie Jo hoping she will draw on her 26 years of missionary experience and offer profound and life-changing wisdom to aid in living cross-culturally. We think she nailed it on this one.
Q: “How do you deal with absences and returns of your husband if he frequently travels? It seems that as a family we have one routine and system while he is gone, and then we have to adjust when he returns. It is like going from a two-parent family to a one-parent one and back again. What ways have you found to handle those transitions?”
A: For those who have no idea what she is talking about, let me conjure up [ahem] a hypothetical situation. When dh* is away the wife can more fully devote herself to the Lord and the dc*. Her panache is restored without a partner by her side to witness and/or point out her failings. Her new confidence may or may not be warranted, but she enjoys serving only a perfect Master, one who wipes the slate clean day by day. As bad as this sounds, and as much as she hates to admit it, dh’s travels provide a break from any and all marital strife.
She begins to make daily decisions usually left up to dh. She groans under the weight of responsibility, but she grows closer to the Lord through this occasional suffering. Meanwhile, she carries the mantle of spiritual direction for and discipline of the kids, growing in her ability and confidence to run the home on her own. For a while, she likes it, if she would be honest enough to admit it.
At the same time, she does miss the daily adult companionship dh normally provides, but somehow she finds alternate ways to fill that need. She sometimes chooses to be hospitable and to minister to others, but usually she turns to Facebook and online forums to fill the need, then often feels guilty for it afterward. Still other times she becomes a happy recluse, reveling in her newfound solitude in the evenings after dc are in bed.
If not extremely careful, she can become downright narcissistic while dh is gone, seeking every selfish pleasure—like online bargain-hunting, bubble baths, pedicures, journaling, or reading a good novel. She rationalizes by saying she needs to refuel her emotional tank, but deep down she suspects she is going overboard (not that she cares).
On her good days, she spends her evenings in prayer and meditation, a luxury that pays off in the end, unless she becomes resentful of her dh when he returns and spoils her new habit of solitude.
Meanwhile the dc are enjoying more quality and quantity time with Mom, rediscovering the blessing of having only one parent fussing at them, only one parent needing to grant them permission (or should I say, only one parent who will give in to crazy requests?). The dc enjoy the simpler meals and the flexible mom who is suddenly free to read them a story, play a game with them, etc.
Then, in comes dh at the end of his trip, weary and possibly queasy, feeling very needy for dw’s* attention, which the dc are not ready to share. Depending on the length of the trip, during his time away dh misses his dw and dc until the very memory becomes distorted. What he longs for is not the family-as-they-are, but an ideal dream-family-of-his-own-making, a family-without-faults.
By the time he returns, dw has grown tired of the added responsibilities of answering emails, phone calls, and drop-in visitors, in addition to caring for the house and kids. By now the dc are taking advantage of her good nature until she is sick of the whole thing. She longs for dh’s return—not the return of the real flesh-and-blood dh, mind you, but the ideal dream man without faults.
If this were a piece of fiction, we would say dh’s return is the climax of the story, involving a tremendous clash in which expectations are dashed all over the place in an ungodly all-around reality check.
The children, who are no longer quite so dear, miss the subtle hint that they must stop badgering Mom, who is relinquishing her status as the family pushover. Meanwhile, Dad wants them to consult him before going out, meals begin to include yucky things like salad and vegetables again, and everyone is out of sorts as a result of the inevitable discord between the “now-two” parents; chaos reigns until the former norm is restored.
Have I come close to pegging the situation?
I may or may not be speaking from personal experience, [ahem] but I will share a few tips I have learned along the way.
1. First, keep routines the same whether Dad is home or not. No “Yee-haw, let’s be slobs and not clean house until the last day,” and no eating ice cream and calling it dinner!
2. Spend the time dh is away listing all the reasons you appreciate him, empathizing with him for carrying so much of the weight of responsibility for things financial, mechanical, electrical, spiritual, and otherwise.
3. Discuss dh’s plight with the dc and plan for his return by possibly play-acting the role of the ideal dw and dc he misses, at least for the first day or so. Delay the reality check as long as possible, or make sure it happens gradually.
4. Practice honoring Dad while he is gone.
5. Do NOT dump a list of grievances on poor dh the minute he walks in the door, no matter how many appliances broke down while he was gone.
6. Take care of as many disasters as you can before he gets back, especially things like changing the propane gas tank and relighting the water heater so he can get cleaned up before discovering any major problems.
Oh, and most importantly, pray. Pray before, during, and after dh returns.
*Jamie Jo-speak: dh-dear husband; dc-dear children; dw-dear wife