When I first became a working mom, leaving my children behind when I had to travel for work wasn’t easy. I know it was tough on them, too. Not being there when they came home from school, ready to talk about their day, and not being there to tuck them into bed was far from ideal, but I knew there had to be a way we could make things work. I realized the most important thing for me to do was to make them understand why I travel and, for that matter, why I work.
So, about three years ago, my family and I decided to retool how we approach business trips. Since then, I’ve found a variety of ways to maintain the strong connection I share with my children without disrupting their norm, even if we can’t be together physically. I set expectations, I leave personalized notes, and I even bring my kids with me on certain trips.
These things have made all the difference in the world. Like so many other working mothers, I’ve found that creating a nurturing, stable and supportive environment is paramount for my kids, whether I’m at home or a plane ride away.
I’m a 9-to-5 career woman working as a vice president at Upromise by Sallie Mae, a college savings program. But more importantly, I’m a mom to three amazing girls, ages eight, six, and three. We live in Boston, but Sallie Mae is headquartered in Delaware, so I travel there somewhat often, typically for a few days at a time. Before we changed our routine, whenever I would get back from a trip, I’d sit down with the girls and tell them all about it. They’d ask questions and I’d do my best to answer them, but it was challenging for them to fully understand when they couldn’t conceptualize where I was, who I was with, or what I was doing.
I discussed it with my family and we decided that I would start bringing the kids on a business trip once a year. So, for the last few years, that’s what we’ve done. And it’s worked. Now, once a year, usually in the summer, my three girls come to Delaware with my mom and me to see my work life in action. During the day, Grandma will take them around town, and then we’ll meet up in the office for chunks of time so they can see how I work and meet some of my colleagues.
This has worked so well, I think, because they’re able to visualize where their mom is going when she has to leave home. They can put faces to the people I talk about, and truly feel immersed in my work life. Knowing who my boss is and who I work with on a daily basis engages them that much more. Even little things, like knowing there’s a Chili’s down the street, provide an accessible touch point for them, making it easier for us to talk about where I was and why I had to go in the first place.
Even if I’m not able to take my kids on a trip with me, I always take extra measures to make sure they feel supported at home. A very simple and effective technique we’ve developed is scheduling family time on the calendar. Whenever possible, I try to book my travel at least three weeks out. This way, we can sit down as a family once or twice a month and look at the calendar so there are no surprises. By the time my trip rolls around, my kids are as ready as they can be for me to go. The trauma of not having me around for a few days is reduced by knowing when I’ll be gone and where I’ll be.
I also make sure to let the kids’ teachers know when I’ll be gone. It’s never been a problem for our family, luckily, but it’s a good precaution to take. Especially at younger ages, it’s not uncommon for children to act out either at home or at school when they feel like they aren’t getting the attention they need from their parents. With a busy travel schedule, it gives teachers the heads-up and gives them insight into what the problem may be. In our family, we look at it as no-cost insurance.
When I’m not able to bring my children with me, I still want to be physically present in some small way. If I’m going on a trip for more than one night, I’ll hand-write notes for each of my daughters for every night I’ll be gone. Then, each night, they’ll shuffle up their notes and pick one to read; they actively look forward to these notes now. It’s a great way to bond when I can’t be there with them.
Finding the time and energy to write the notes is tough, but I can’t stress how valuable it’s been. The notes don’t have to be long, drawn out love letters. Cute sayings and anecdotes do the job just as well, if not even better. I’ve found giving one reason I love them to be especially powerful. For example, my six year-old sometimes gets caught up in middle child syndrome. One of my all-time favorite notes to her was simple: “Remember–the best part of the sandwich is the middle.”
Business travel is the new normal, especially for women. This is a fact that more and more families are starting to face, and that’s something I want my daughters to understand. My husband and I make a conscious effort to expose our kids to families like ours so they don’t feel like the only children out there with a parent who isn’t able to be home all the time. Like so many mothers, work trips have become a regular part of my monthly routine and therefore something my kids have become accustomed to in their own schedules.
Traveling frequently for your career doesn’t have to affect your children negatively. With preparation and a lot of communication, it can become a seamless part of the family’s routine. As a mother of three daughters, this is especially important to me, because I want them to know they can be whatever they want–mom, boss, friend–and still have it all.