03177_000_023How to maintain family relationships while dad’s away on assignment
We stand by the glass windows at the end of the concourse, our somber reflections staring back at us from the early evening gloom. Three children press their noses against the cool glass as they watch the lights of the taxiing plane. I stand with them, balancing our youngest on my hip. We watch as the winking lights disappear in the clouds.
“Well kids, we’d best be on our way.”
Coats are buttoned, a dolly is retrieved from the floor, and we walk hand in hand back down the concourse.
Such scenes are becoming more common as financial hardships, military service, and business commitments require husbands and fathers to leave their wives and families temporarily. Whether for a few days or for several months, these separations are often times of trial for the family. This is a time to cope with increased responsibilities and often feelings of loneliness. Minor difficulties may become major crises. Emotional stress may shorten tempers and make everyone miserable. Yet with careful planning and concerted effort, the emotional and spiritual bonds so important to family life can be maintained and strengthened.
Preparing for the time a family will spend apart can make the difference between difficulty and disaster. When my husband, Frank, receives a new assignment which will take him away from our home for months, we let the children know as soon as possible and prominently note his departure date on the calendar. This visible reminder gives us time to express our concerns and make needed emotional adjustments.
Discussing Daddy’s trip in a family home evening relieves some anxieties. In ours, we emphasize Frank’s love for his family and the idea that we are always a family even though we may be apart for a time. We make sure that our children understand that Daddy will come home on a certain date. If possible, we mark on a calendar when Daddy will be home.
Family home evening can also be used to make other preparations. It is a good time to discuss changes in family routines and responsibilities. A few years ago when I was going to school, we needed to work out a morning routine that got everyone ready and out the door on time without leaving dirty dishes and unmade beds behind. We discussed the problem and had several practice runs before Frank left, with Frank acting as helper and reminder. To increase the security of our home, we taught the children to answer the telephone and the door properly, a good practice even when both parents are home.
Other preparations for Frank’s departures include counseling with our bishop, home teachers, and visiting teachers. Frank has our car serviced and has a power of attorney drawn up so that I can conduct business in his name if necessary. We go over our records, carefully reviewing the financial responsibilities I will have while he is gone. We work out a budget which takes into account his living expenses as well as those of the rest of the family.
Perhaps the most important preparation we make as a family comes the morning we take Frank to the airport. We gather in the living room for family prayer and father’s blessings. Then the children come with us to the airport. Because children think in concrete terms, seeing their daddy board a plane and fly off makes his departure less mysterious and helps them understand that he will return.
The first few days after Frank leaves are the most difficult for our family. I’ve found that planning special activities for those days makes it easier to adjust to his absence. Later on, school assignments demand attention, letters arrive, and life settles down into a routine.
Following the family routine as much as possible is important. Regular mealtimes, bedtimes, family home evenings, and family prayers reassure me and the children and make the transitions easier. I make a special effort to prepare family home evening when Frank is not home and try to find ways to involve him in them. Our activity may be making something to send to him. Frank sometimes sends a special letter or a cassette tape to be included in our lesson. We display his picture prominently and talk about him often. Of course, he is always mentioned in our prayers.
Being alone without a husband’s support takes its toll. If a child cries in the night, there is no one I can nudge out to investigate. And when I do spend the night with a sick child, no one else gets up to fix breakfast and get the others off to school. Other wives have reported similar challenges.
“It is very hard for me to not yell at my children when they create messes,” admitted Deborah Moore, whose husband, Mitch, is a navy pilot. “Mitch has always calmed me. Without him here, I have to calm myself. I have learned to expect accidents. It takes concentrated effort and control, but I try to consider the children as grown-up spirits in little bodies and talk to them.”
Sometimes, things do get out of control. Housework piles up. Bad weather keeps the family indoors. Tension rises. Someone becomes ill. The car breaks down. The mailbox is empty for days at a time. When this happens, help is always available. Once when Frank was away, our home teachers frequently dropped by with a treat for the children. Another time, when I was ill, Relief Society sisters came. During a particularly stormy winter, my mother often took the children for an afternoon to give me a chance to catch my breath and to clean house.
Coping with Loneliness
Loneliness can be a difficult problem when a husband is away. “When Mitch was on a seven-month cruise, I found that the time we missed him the most was around dinnertime,” said Sister Moore. “We would have an early dinner, then take off for the park, for a drive, to the store—anything to get us out of the house until around six. Keeping active helped the time pass quickly.”
Our family has always enjoyed company for dinner. When Frank is out of town, I invite neighbors in for potluck, Chris’s kindergarten teacher for spaghetti, or friends for a barbeque. Not only does this stave off dinnertime loneliness, but it also provides me with extra incentive to keep up with the housework.
Children must understand that it’s all right to feel sad and lonely sometimes. When Frank was gone on a long assignment, four-year-old Emily would often say, “I don’t have my Daddy with me, and it makes me sad.” I’d reply with a hug and, “I miss Daddy, too. We all miss and love him. And I know that he loves us and misses us, too.” We’d talk about why Frank had gone. I’d remind her that we were still a family. Sometimes we sang Primary songs. Once we quietly shed a few tears together. The blue moment soon passed, and we went on with our daily activities.
Earle Spencer spent several years on the road, installing specialized telephone equipment. Though he often worked twelve-to-fourteen-hour days so that he could have three-day weekends at home, he was frequently gone for six weeks at a time. The hardest thing about their family separation for his wife Linda was keeping busy: “I had a tendency to stay inside the house and not talk to anyone or go anywhere,” she said. “I finally figured out that to get out of my depression and to be able to put something worthwhile into our relationship when he did come home, I had to be involved in something. I became involved in our son’s schooling and did a lot of volunteer work.”
The Spencers’ son was born with multiple handicaps and needs specialized medical and educational care. “It was a strain to have to make all the decisions about him alone and then discuss it with Earle after the fact,” said Linda. “But it made me realize that I had some backbone. I could do things by myself.”
Whenever a major decision could be delayed, Linda would gather information and discuss it with Earle. Then together they would make the decision.
A father who must be away misses his family as much as his family misses him. “My life here has settled into a definite routine,” Frank wrote once from a Navy school. “Wake up, dress and shave, breakfast, school, check the mail, get something to eat, write you a letter, read/watch TV, go to bed. Not a whole lot to write about. … I miss you and the children. It’s not the major events that I miss the most, but little things that I usually take for granted.”
Church activity stabilizes our lives. Primary is the same for our children whether Daddy is away or at home. I appreciate the spiritual lift and the interaction with adults each Sunday brings. When Frank arrives in a new area, he asks the local bishop what he can do to help while he is there. These short-term callings give him something to fill some of the lonely hours and make him feel more at home in his substitute ward.
Frank and I try to write each other every night, even if it is only a line or two. Though we do discuss problems in our letters, we try to keep the tone encouraging and positive. Being apart is hard enough; complaints only add to the problem. My letters are liberally seasoned with family anecdotes. We often share thoughts from Gospel Doctrine class or scriptures we’ve read and want to discuss.
Children need their own lines of communication with Daddy while he is gone. If everything they say to him is transmitted through Mommy, they sometimes continue to use her as a medium of communication when he is home. Frank writes to each child about once a week. The children learn of their father’s love and concern and receive his direct counsel and guidance through his letters. Two-year-old Richard loves his father’s picture-postcards, carries them around, even sleeps with them. I help the young children write letters to Daddy, and they send samples of their art and school work.
Care packages provide a lift for both senders and receivers. On Frank’s birthday, we sent the makings for a birthday party with instructions to invite friends in. Frank once delighted the children by sending a bag of tiny plastic airplanes.
What a father does with his family when he is home is as important as what he does when he is away. Good relationships can be maintained and strengthened at any distance. It is more difficult to establish them without close persona contact. Frank will often take one of our children with him when he has errands to run. This individual attention builds a bond between father and child.
As the time for Frank’s return approaches, our spirits begin to rise. We clean the house, plan special meals and activities, and make a welcome-home banner. Each child plans for his own special day with Daddy. I make arrangements to spend a weekend alone with Frank. Finally, the last day is crossed off the calendar and we head eagerly for the airport.
We stand by the windows at the end of the concourse. The children press their noses against the glass as they scan the sky for approaching planes.
“I see it!”
With mounting excitement we watch the plane taxi to the gate. The door opens, and passengers file into the airport. Our daughter jumps up and down in a futile attempt to match the altitude of her spirits.
“Daddy! Daddy! It’s Daddy!” the children cry as they dash across the concourse. Daddy hugs each one in turn and scoops up the littlest one. He hands his briefcase to his son. With his free arm, he embraces me.
Coats are buttoned, a dolly is retrieved from the floor, and we walk hand in hand back down the concourse.