How I Navigate Long-Distance Parenting

My three children live halfway across the country with their mom, but I found a few ways to make the situation a little more bearable.

family members reaching across map of the US to hold hands
Photo: Illustration by Emma Darvick

My kids live 1,146 miles away from me. I know the exact distance because that's what my phone tells me when they're home, and I'm home, and I pull up my Find Friends app. I do it often. Every time I see that number, it's a punch-in-the-gut reminder of what it's like to be a long-distance parent, but it's also a comfort, a tech-enabled way to brush my fingertips against them, to know exactly where they are.

I've lived half a continent away from my children for more than three years, and it's not one bit easier now than it was the day they moved away. Yet every day I'm grateful that we're dealing with our separation in 2019 and not 20 years earlier. We've learned to use technology to span the immense physical distance that separates us most of the time, and I don't know how we'd get by without it.

After my divorce, I was hardly an every other weekend dad despite the terms of our typical divorce agreement. All of the kids, two of whom were in elementary school at the time (they're now 12, 14, and 17), often spent days at my apartment outside of the official schedule, and it was rare a day passed when I wasn't ferrying at least one of them to a music lesson or after-school activity. I didn't live with them—I'd given up being there for tuck-ins at bedtime like every non-custodial parent does—but I was with them for at least some part of nearly every day.

Then, one day, my ex told me that she'd been offered a job in another state. It was a great opportunity for her, and, more importantly, it seemed like a dream move for the kids. They'd be living in an idyllic community with strong schools, and I couldn't deny that they'd be better off there. The horrifying catch was that my financial situation wouldn't allow me to follow them. I had little choice but to put on a brave face as their stuff was loaded into a moving van.

I didn't stay passive, though. I moved close to a large airport so that I could easily and cheaply get to their part of the world. I arranged my work obligations so that I could spend time with them several times a year, and I brought them to me each summer during their school vacation. It was an anemic replacement for the time I'd had with them before, but it was better than nothing.

Still, I braced myself for a change in our relationship. I expected that each time they met me at the train station at the start of my visits, the hugs would get gradually less enthusiastic, the smiles of familiarity and anticipation less broad, until it would be as if they were greeting a stranger. It seemed inevitable, and the anticipation of it broke my heart.

But that hasn't happened. Each time I see them, no matter how long it's been, it's as if we haven't been apart at all. I'll admit that I'm surprised, to some degree, by how well it's worked, but I think we deserve some credit for learning to use the tools we have to make the best of our situation.

Parenting from a Distance

The first challenge of long-distance co-parenting for the non-custodial parent is the constant struggle to stay in the loop, especially if your children are young. You're both out of sight and out of mind, and you can't expect to automatically get a play-by-play of every doctor visit and school conference. You're likely going to have to work for information and to have your input considered.

Even here, technology is your friend. Not only can you use it to keep the lines of communication open with your child's other parent, but you can use it to maintain a connection to the child's daily life. Make sure you're included in every email list and social-media group—school, club, sports team, etc.—and you'll know more about your children's daily schedule than they do themselves.

I can use the Find Friends app to know exactly where my kids are at any moment, and thanks to their generation's comfort with technology, they don't even see it as intrusive. I can watch live streams of many of their concerts and school events; if I send them a "Good job!" text as soon as they're off stage, it might come close to seeming as if I was there.

That being said, the minutiae of the day-to-day has been less important to me than maintaining a meaningful connection to my kids themselves while we're apart. I've used tech tools to do it, but the key has been how I've used the tools to bolster my parenting priorities.

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Just Be Present

My youngest loves jigsaw puzzles, and last year for his birthday, I gave him a huge puzzle that I expected would keep him busy for quite a while. What I didn't expect was that he'd give me a video call the next day so that he could talk to me while he worked on it. He propped his camera on the dining room table and pointed it toward where he was sifting through puzzle pieces. As he concentrated on finding the right piece, I asked him about his day at school and what he'd had for dinner the night before. He wasn't all that interested in talking, so we mostly sat in silence broken by an occasional exclamation over the discovery of an elusive piece.

He called me again the next day for his after-school puzzle session and every day after that until the puzzle was finished. Then he called me when he started the next puzzle and the one after that. It's now expected that we'll do all his puzzles together.

Sometimes we have a lot to talk about during the calls; often we don't. When I schedule a call just to talk, it can be awkward because an elementary-age boy simply doesn't always have much to say to his dad. He'd rather just sit next to me, even if virtually, and know I'm next to him while he works on a puzzle. And that's fine with me.

Let Them Know You're Available

One day a couple of years ago, I got a call from my then-15-year-old. He'd missed his ride after school, and he was forced to walk the two miles or so home. It wasn't a big deal, but he was bored, so he called to talk as he walked. In the name of keeping himself busy, he was willing to submit to a lengthy chat about school and his friends.

That call started his habit of calling me whenever he was faced with a few minutes of boredom when he was walking to the town square to meet friends or waiting for his brother to finish a music lesson. He was confident that he didn't need a reason to call me, and we kept in close touch through an especially tumultuous part of his adolescence.

I've made it clear to my boys that they can call me at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. They believe me, and they take advantage of the offer.

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An Imperfect Solution

Of course, there are still challenges. My youngest doesn't have a phone yet, so he doesn't have the freedom to reach out to me as easily as my older children can. My 17-year-old, on the other hand, is quickly heading into his own adult life, so I have to try harder to claim his attention these days. Our situation is evolving, and I'm under no illusion that what's worked for us in the past will continue to work in the future.

I know, too, that many parents my age aren't able to embrace the idea that being virtually present is at all comparable to being physically present. Certainly, it's a compromise; given a choice, I'd rather be with them than be on a video call with them. I never forget about the 1,146 miles between my home and theirs, and the distance is an ever-present ache.

But if two months goes by between the times we're able to be together physically, at least two months don't go by between the times we're able to see each other. Absent the availability of modern communication technology—or, worse, absent the willingness to use it—my relationship with my kids would already be very different.

As it is, I know that when I step off the train and my 12-year-old meets me on the platform, he hasn't forgotten over the past two months what we mean to each other. Three years ago, I didn't think that would be the case, and I've never been more grateful to be wrong.

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