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Life When Dad's Away

After my second child was born, I faced a particularly tough year. As the wife of a traveling musician, I was used to being married but living like a single, working mother. I managed with one kid, but two made everything even tougher. When my husband, Danny, signed on to tour with an artist for a nine-month period and possibly beyond, I wasn't sure I could cope.

But musicians' wives aren't the only women in this predicament. There are legions of careers that require extensive travel, from sales jobs to the military. Then there are jobs that just require long hours -- doctors' wives and lawyers' wives aren't strangers to doing dinner and bedtime on their own. How, I wondered, do all these women do it?

I found my own way by adjusting my attitude. It sounds corny, but after I fully bought into the idea of myself as Danny's partner, I felt like a part of his decision and his plan. I approached the day-to-day operation of the household in a way that kept me sane and focused. I would not play martyr. I didn't have time! I got help where I needed it, enjoyed the moments I could, and moved forward -- even happily.

Part of not sitting around feeling sorry for myself was recognizing that Danny would be stressed too. Quiet hotels and restaurant meals seem glamorous to a mother stuck at home doing laundry and dishes, but life on the road gets old fast, and Danny missed our kids terribly. I wanted us both to get through his absence without resentment. Luckily, I found other women in the same boat who had some good advice. Here are three of them, all in situations similar to mine, who can share both their challenges and their survival strategies for keeping it all going.

Kristy, wife of a U.S. Army helicopter pilot and mother of 2-year-old son.

Sometimes single because ... Brian is deployed. Their longest separation lasted almost a year.

Best advice ... Don't just have a plan for the kids -- have a plan for yourself. For instance, Kristy keeps a cleaning chart and does several chores each day so she's never overwhelmed with cleaning the whole house. She also gives herself a break -- it's okay not to do dishes after Cole, my son, is in bed. "Some days it is so nice to put my feet up, drink a glass of wine, and watch brainless TV -- that can work wonders at the end of a trying day."

Keeps a good attitude by ... Waking up knowing that she will do her best to make it a positive, productive day for herself and Cole. "I understand that my outlook has a direct effect on Cole's outlook, so I try to set the best example. Brian's being gone is a normal part of our lives, and I don't want to treat it as something to fear."

Stays connected to husband by ... Using the Internet. Brian and Cole engage each other on the webcam. Cole recognizes the "bing" sound of an instant message -- he knows Dad is there on the other side.

Stays connected with others by ... Getting together with other parents for playdates. "It's nice when Cole doesn't rely on just me for entertainment, and I relish time with other adults." She's lucky in that the military offers both formal and informal support networks.

When she's feeling challenged ... Getting out of the house for a change of scenery is helpful. Even a trip to Starbucks for coffee and Cole's "chocolate mocha" (chocolate milk) is good.

Fights resentment by ... Not allowing herself to go there. She maintains she is the lucky one -- at home with Cole, in their house, in her bed. The rough days equal the good days, but at the end of any day, she is the one who gets to tuck Cole in and read him his bedtime story.

And when things are rough, Brian picks up on it. "He can tell from my voice when I've had too much, and soon there's something waiting for me in the mailbox. The presents are great, but knowing that he picked up on my stress levels is the most important thing to me."

Some tricks of the trade ... Kristy videotaped Brian reading Cole's favorite books to him. There are pictures of Brian in every room. Kristy and Cole write notes and send care packages to Brian, and they love getting letters in return -- they help to distract from the pile of bills alongside the letters.

His side of the story ... When Brian is home, it's hard for him to walk back into a world that is supposed to be his, even though it has existed without him for stretches of time lasting up to a year. "If he helps too much, he messes up our system. If he doesn't help enough, I get angry," says Kristy. "What works best is when he asks how he can be helpful, or he kicks me out of the house. Then he can do his thing, and I'm not hovering to make sure he's doing it 'the right way.' Cole and Brian get time together, and I get precious 'me' time."

Mildred, wife of a businessman and mother of three -- with another one on the way.

Sometimes single because ... Husband, Philippe, manages employees in both Nashville and in Grenoble, France, where he travels at least one week a month.

Best advice ... Find friends in similar situations. "A mutual 'moaning' friend can be a lifesaver. It's not even about moaning all the time, but some days one hour of mutual moaning helps me feel better and get ready to think positively and go forward. Just thinking of someone else's woes helps take your mind off your own."

Stays connected to husband by ... Talking on the phone twice daily, usually when Philippe can speak with the kids as well. The time difference is severe and makes this difficult, so they fill in with e-mail.

Stays connected with others by ... Trying to have someone for dinner every week and volunteering at school.

When she's feeling challenged ... Chocolate and friends, she swears, are her two biggest crutches.

And the perks are ... Mildred's family gets to travel overseas and live in company-paid housing. Philippe racks up frequent-flyer miles so the entire family can take longer holidays to places like the Grand Canyon. Last but not least, the kids are bilingual and have a grasp of geography most kids can't even imagine.

Tricks of the trade ... Mildred uses time alone at night to plan family outings, which helps her to focus on good times. She turns her back on chores that make her crazy, such as healthcare paperwork (with insurance in Europe, it's complicated) or paying bills. When Philippe gets home, he spends time with the kids so she can tackle paperwork.

His side of the story ... Philippe loves to cook and entertain, so when he is home he spends lots of time in the kitchen. Sometimes he fixes lasagna and zucchini gratin before he leaves on a trip, so there are some meals Mildred doesn't have to prepare. When he's home, he has quality time with the kids at the swimming pool, riding bikes, or running in the park. In the evening he helps with the children's baths and cleaning up, but the bedtime schedule is temporarily disrupted when he's home. It takes some time to relearn the routine and keep to the schedule, but their 6-year-old, who particularly misses his dad, looks forward to these special moments.

Molly, wife of a college basketball coach, mother to a 2-year-old with another child on the way.

Sometimes single because ... Husband Micah travels both for games and for recruiting players.

Best advice ... Maintain your independence. "Have your own interests and friends. Learn to do 'man jobs' like mowing the lawn and cleaning the gutters, or find someone who you can pay to do them for you."

Stays connected to husband by ... Using the cell phone. Molly and her husband talk and text several times a day. Micah always calls immediately after a game to deliver the score to Molly, who is also a huge basketball fan.

Stays connected to others by ... Molly has a big support network of family and friends, but most are in her hometown of Indianapolis, 2 1/2 hours away. "I knew I needed friends in my new town, so I joined the Junior League -- a great way to meet women." From that, a book club and playdates emerged.

When she's feeling challenged ... Molly swears by putting Braeden in his stroller and taking a walk for an instant mood boost.

And the perks are ... Basketball! Molly loves going to games, hosting players and recruits, and getting to know the staff and players. Plus, Micah will always be associated with a college, and for a family that values education, diversity, and culture, a college environment is ideal for raising kids.

Does she wish things were different? There was a time early on when she questioned whether she had what it takes to be a coach's wife who faces frequent travel and frequent moves. "But when Micah said he would give up coaching and get a job in Indianapolis to keep me happy, I snapped out of it. His commitment to me was there, so I was able to do the same for him. I knew I could support his passion."

Tricks of the trade ... Communication is key -- talking often and about everything. If she starts to feel lonely, angry, or overworked, she tries to explain her emotions to Micah rather than keep them bottled up inside. She also likes to send him a quick smile by e-mailing pictures of Braeden.

His side of the story ... There is some down time for Micah when he doesn't have any commitments. And since any time father and son can spend together is good, Micah makes the most of all opportunities. "After a road trip, I like doing the everyday things I miss out on with Braeden, like reading him books, watching cartoons together, going for bike rides, or playing ball," he says. Molly uses those periods to get work done or spend time with friends on her own.

When Dad returns, everything is better, right? The truth is, Mom probably found a rhythm that works for her, and having Dad back can disrupt that. To avoid feelings of frustration:

  • Talk it out ahead of time. Debrief him on the household routine you've created.
  • Spell out for him what you can't wait to have help with (cleaning up dinner) and also what you don't want messed up (your firm 7:30 bedtime).
  • Don't have sky-high expectations. Life will be a little awkward for a short time, and that's okay.

6 Tips for Taking Care of You

Thom Rutledge, author of Embracing Fear -- and Finding the Courage to Live Your Life (HarperSanFrancisco) offers this advice:

  1. Look for opportunities to do something for yourself, even really small ones. You don't expect your car to run without gasoline; the same applies to you.
  2. Have realistic expectations. Perfectionism is a killer. It won't all get done anyway, so don't exhaust yourself.
  3. Be creative about getting help. It is not weakness but wisdom to admit that you need help. If you can afford it, hire help. If not, trade childcare, meal preparation, or other favors with other families.
  4. Remember who you are. It's easy to forget that you are a person, separate from your role as wife and mother. Don't forget you have aspirations for yourself, even though they may have to be temporarily postponed.
  5. Hold tight to self-respect. You may feel like a servant sometimes, but remember that holding a family together and raising happy children is the most important job in the world -- it really is.
  6. Respect your spouse's time and energy, but ask for help if you need it. You keep working when you're tired, right? So should he.

For what it's worth, I felt empowered beyond compare after the year on my own. It's a challenging way to live, no doubt, but recognizing how it can make you stronger makes it all easier.

Beth Torroll is a mother of two in Nashville.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, June 2007.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.